PMO steps in, green light hope for roads

New Delhi, Jan. 15: The Prime Minister's Office is playing referee in the tussle between the environment ministry and the National Highway Authority of India over clearance for road projects.

In a meeting of stakeholders held in the PMO today, the environment ministry agreed to relax norms for project clearance and issue fresh guidelines that would simultaneously address green concerns and not stall road development.

The NHAI has also given an understanding that if clearance norms are relaxed, it will withdraw its January 9 application in the Supreme Court seeking clarification about environment ministry guidelines on road projects.

Two developers have recently backed out of major road projects, quoting delay in getting environment clearance.

The first was GMR Infrastructure, which backed out of a 550-km highway project across the Rajasthan-Gujarat border connecting Kishangarh, Udaipur and Ahmedabad.

The second was Hyderabad-based infrastructure firm GVK, which pulled out of a 330-km project to expand a two-lane highway connecting Shivpuri and Dewas in Madhya Pradesh.

The tussle between the road and environment ministries began in April 2011 after a Supreme Court ruling in a case dealing with cement company Lafarge.

The court had then ruled that environment and forest clearances should be clubbed for infrastructure projects. Based on this, the environment ministry issued uniform guidelines regardless of whether a project was on a contiguous piece of land (such as mining) or a linear project like a road.

But the road ministry insisted that for want of forest clearance for a small stretch of road, work on the entire road should not be held up.

Recently, the environment ministry issued a circular saying that in case a forested region fell along the route of a proposed highway, the NHAI should specify an alternate route bypassing it.

It also specified that the alternative route would be considered only if forest clearance did not come through.

The NHAI is, however, not satisfied with simply this concession.

"If we bypass a forest area, the highway will become extremely long and will no longer be financially viable. Although this is a relief of sorts, without delinking forest and environment clearance, we cannot work," an NHAI official said.

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