NHAI waiting for the elusive ‘green nod’ – appeals to the apex court

The fact that the Indian ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has failed to issue green clearances in time has caused a lot of project delays for the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). NHAI has now approached the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, seeking relief. A considerable barrier to highway development projects, the norms issued by the environment ministry has hampered economic growth to an extent. "We will approach the Supreme Court seeking clarification in regard to forest clearance as a number of our projects including major ones are stuck for forest clearances," a top NHAI official said.
 
An autonomous agency of the Indian government, NHAI has appealed for the forest clearances and the environmental approvals to be linked. While the environmental clearances have been obtained, the MoEF is still to issue forest clearances. As per ‘The Forest Act of 1980’ the prior approval of the Central Government is required for the usage of forest lands for non-forestry purposes. Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 issued by the MoEF makes environmental clearance mandatory for the development activities listed in its schedule.  First it needs the forest clearance, which is for specific stretches along a road project; secondly, an environmental clearance for the entire road project. Since May 2011, the MoEF gives environmental approvals only after forest clearances have been obtained. This inability to procure the latter has led to the termination of many road projects and a loss of crores of rupees. Obtaining a no objection certificate (NOC) under the Forest Rights Act from gram panchayats for the concerned villages is also on the agenda for NHAI.
 
A highway ministry official said, "All these issues have already been discussed at length in meetings headed by the Cabinet secretary and the law secretary. There is no option but to approach the Supreme Court to get relief ". Nearly 350 projects are in a rut waiting for the approval. Earlier, an interim arrangement for forest clearances had been made until a national environmental regulator was set up for the Lafarge project in Meghalaya.
 
This petition by the NHAI came about after the growing infrastructure enterprise—GMR—announced that they would no longer be associated with the grand Rs 7,500 crore Kishangarh-Udaipur-Ahmedabad project; and 21 other projects—worth over Rs 1,000 crore each because of the delays in forest clearances even after getting the environment approvals. According to the Union Minister Sarve Sathyanarayana, a meeting of senior officials will be convened to study the reasons for construction giant GMR's exit from a 75 billion National Highways project. Not getting the eco nod has damaged many an important development project of late. According to sources, another infrastructure company—GVK—too has threatened to terminate the agreement for the 330-km long Shivpuri-Dewas highway undertaking in Madhya Pradesh, citing the same reason. As a result, the public-private-partnership (PPP) route to road building has received a big blow.
 
For the proper implementation of its projects, NHAI wants to separate environmental clearances from the forest clearance procedure with respect to the widening of national highways. The NHAI officials insist that the MoEF has not heeded any of their numerous appeals on this issue. To get the projects going, it has approached the apex court seeking clarification and a modification of their guidelines.