Stay verdict on Chennai-Salem highway forthwith, NHAI urges SC

Says it will act as a deterrent for other infrastructure projects

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has told the Supreme Court that the Madras High Court’s April 8 order quashing land acquisition notifications for the proposed Chennai-Salem eight-lane greenfield expressway would act as a deterrent for other infrastructure projects planned across the country under the Bharatmala Pariyojana-Phase I, involving an outlay of ₹5.35 lakh crore.

‘Adverse impact’

Stressing on the need to stay the High Court’s verdict forthwith, NHAI told the apex court: “If the impugned (under challenge) judgment is not stayed, it will result in a multiplicity of litigation in all such mega projects by mischievous litigants and would thus cause an adverse impact on the economic and overall development of all such projects on a pan-India basis.”

Contending that the High Court had given an “erroneous” finding that environmental clearance must be obtained even before acquisition of lands and not just before construction of the highway, NHAI claimed that such a finding would indefinitely delay all ongoing as well as future infrastructure projects in the country and consequently cripple economic activities.

The NHAI had preferred a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the judgment passed by the High Court on a batch of cases that were led by writ petitions filed by P.V. Krishnamoorthy, a landowner, and advocate Suresh Kumar of Naam Tamilar Katchi. The SLP has been listed for hearing on Monday.

Explaining the sequence of events, the NHAI said that the objective of Bharatmala Pariyojana was to improve efficiency of freight and passenger movement across the country by bridging critical infrastructure gaps through development of economic corridors, feeder routes, border and international connectivity roads and greenfield expressways.

The first phase of the project involved construction of 24,800 km of roads as part of the Bharatmala network, in addition to 10,000 km of residual works under the National Highway Development Project. In so far as Tamil Nadu was concerned, the NHAI had engaged a private consultant in 2017 to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) for 375 km of proposed road-laying work.

The 375-km stretch included conversion of the 205-km-long four-lane highway between Tindivanam and Tiruchi and the 64-km-long distance from Thuvarankurichi to Madurai into a six-lane highway. However, those proposals were dropped during an optimisation meeting held by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways on January 19, 2018.

It was decided that the Chennai-Salem greenfield expressway would be taken up instead because expansion of brownfield highways posed multiple challenges in terms of higher land acquistion cost, need for rehabilitation and resettlement of population inhabiting the land parcels abutting the existing corridors, and the need for cutting trees and shifting pipelines as well as electricity posts.

On the other hand, greenfield projects had the advantage of creating straighter, shorter and faster connectivity at a much lower cost, the NHAI said and added that the proposed Chennai-Salem expressway would considerably reduce the traffic on the Chennai-Krishnagiri section of the Golden Quadrilateral as well as the Chennai-Ulundurpet section of the Chennai-Madurai economic corridor.

The NHAI also accused the High Court of having failed to take note of the fact that the agency had already conducted a study through IIT-Dhanbad on the impact that the expressway would have on local biodiversity and wildlife corridors. Further, a social economic assessment, with emphasis on the impact of land acquisition on local people, was under way.

In addition, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History was also conducting a study on the impact of the proposed project on the mountainous ecosystem. Despite all this, the High Court had got swayed by emotional arguments made by the litigants before it “than making an impartial and legal assessment of issues involved in economic development of the country,” the NHAI said.

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