Prima facie inclined to strike down Centre's notification on EIA for projects, SC

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New Delhi, Feb 18 (PTI) The Supreme Court Thursday orally observed that prima facie it was inclined to strike down Centre's notification exempting authorities from undertaking the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) if a road project has length less than 100 kilometer.

The top court, hearing a plea against felling of over 350 trees for construction of railway over bridges (ROB) and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, said it would consider setting up of an experts' panel on fixing criteria on felling of trees for such projects on the basis of their overall value.

“We will lay down guidelines on this. Firstly, we want to say the cost of the project will include the cost of the value of the true and secondly, the trees of certain types and certain age will never be cut down. We want to determine the age of maturity of trees,” a bench headed of Chief Justice S A Bobde said.

The bench, also comprising justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, sought names of experts from lawyers including Solicitor General Tushar Mehta for the committee to be set up to lay down criteria on felling of trees for such projects.

A committee of four experts, appointed earlier by the apex court, had valued at Rs 220 crore the 300 heritage trees which were to be chopped for the construction of five railways over bridges in West Bengal in terms of oxygen and other products they offer.

The bench, in the hearing conducted through video conferencing, expressed concern over the damage to the environment due to various road and other projects and suggested alternatives like waterways and Railways can be considered.

If a road project is inevitable, the value of each tree should be built into the cost of the project, it said.

The bench said in projects for widening of existing roads, a lot of trees would be cut and a lot of damage would be caused to the environment and “prima facie we inclined to strike down the notification”.

The panel had earlier said that as per a circular issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), if a road project has length less than 100 km, there is no need to get EIA from any government agency. The bench said it wanted the government to explore alternatives before cutting down trees for roads.

Senior advocate A M Singhvi, appearing for West Bengal, opposed the arguments of valuation of trees and huge loss to the environment as highly speculative. The project in West Bengal involved construction of five railway bridges over a stretch of six kilometers and the number of trees to be felled is 306.

“However, the Committee has reckoned the number of trees as 4000 by considering the project as 59 kilometers long,” he added 'The committee gives a bizarre figure. Taking the entire 59 km into consideration, they speculate that it will become congested over many years, which will hypothetically lead to widening and will hypothetically lead to cutting of 4000 trees … You cannot run your imagination wild. In the long run, we all are dead', Singhvi said.

The bench has now fixed the plea for hearing on February 24.

Earlier, the top court had observed that it would consider laying down a protocol to be followed for projects like road widening which require cutting of trees so that there is minimum damage to the environment.

A committee had informed the bench that before implementing a project of national importance environmental impact assessment is desired and this has not been done in the project under consideration.

The apex court had earlier formed a committee of environment experts to suggest an alternative to felling of over 350 trees for construction of railway over bridges (ROB) and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.

The five-member committee is headed by Dr Soham Pandya of the Centre of Science For Village, Wardha.

The Calcutta High Court on August 31, 2018, had paved the way for widening of the national highway and allowed felling of over 350 trees for widening of Jessore Road, which connects the city to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border, on the condition that five trees will be planted for each tree cut.

The NH-112 or Jessore Road is an important link between India and Bangladesh and the state government had undertaken a project to widen it. Hundreds of old trees line both sides of the road, some of which were decided to be felled for the purpose of widening of the road.

A PIL was moved before the high court challenging the state''s plan to fell the trees. After arguments for several months, the high court allowed felling of 356 trees at five places from Barasat to Petrapole border along the Jessore Road. PTI SJK RKS RKS