New Delhi, Jan. 9: The highways ministry today moved the Supreme Court against "arbitrary" environment norms, its plea reportedly backed by the PMO and signalling a full-scale war between the forests ministry and those handling infrastructure projects.
The restrictive guidelines have stalled at least 20 highway projects worth hundreds of crores, said officials in the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), which filed the petition.
The authority is under the ministry of road transport and highways, headed by senior Congress leader C.P. Joshi. His party colleague Jayanthi Natarajan heads the environment ministry.
The NHAI has sought two key changes. One is that the forest and environment clearances for road projects should be delinked. Second, the Forest Rights Act, which limits construction in jungle patches, should not apply to land on either side of a highway.
The apex court plea follows a series of meetings on the issue, including one on October 30 presided over by Manmohan Singh's principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee.
At the meeting, environment ministry officials were urged to ease clearance rules. "But they declined, arguing that since they play the role of a protector , they cannot ease the rules. So, a decision was taken with the PMO's nod that the NHAI should approach the Supreme Court," said an official of the highways ministry.
In an apparent pre-emptive move, the environment ministry did issue instructions yesterday saying the NHAI could start work on roads with a forest on the way, provided it suggested an alternate route bypassing the jungle patch. But the circular hadn't reached the highways ministry or the NHAI till late this evening.
The problems trace their roots to April 2011 when the Supreme Court passed a judgment favouring cement company Lafarge.
The French giant had got conditional approval from the environment ministry to mine limestone, a key input, in Meghalaya's East Khasi Hills. A part of the lime quarry was declared forest land but this stretch was in the core of the mining area.
The Supreme Court ruled that since the environment ministry had given clearance for the other areas, it could not make an exception and withhold sanction for this small patch.
The court also said the forest and environment nods should be linked. The environment ministry followed the judgment and combined both clearances.
The road ministry has, however, sought a separation of the two clearances, pointing to a distinction unique to its projects. "In Lafarge's case, the forest was on contiguous piece of land. But we have linear projects. If we are laying a 100km road and a forest falls in the last 20km, we should be allowed to construct at least up to the boundary of the forest so people in the remaining 80km can use the road," said an official.