NHAI, MoEF slug it out over highway clearances

The tussle between the environment ministry and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) over who caused the alleged delays in approvals in highway projects came to a head on Tuesday with the NHAI threatening to take the ministry to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, accusing it of failure to comply with an earlier court directive to de-link forest and environmental clearances.

NHAI's move, which has few precedents as it

involves two arms of the government battling it out in the apex court, comes a day after GMR Infrastructure walked out of the Kishangarh-Ahmedabad expressway project, alleging delays in requisite approvals.

Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan lashed out at the NHAI and said it submitted incomplete application on behalf of GMR for getting a green nod for the 555-km expressway project. The Financial Express had earlier reported that the GVK Group too had threatened to withdraw from the 330-km long Shivpuri-Dewas highway in Madhya Pradesh, citing delays in environmental clearances. While GMR says the Gujarat government did not furnish complete information for the expansion of the expressway to the environment ministry, Natarajan said that roads minister CP Joshi had written to her only on January 1 to expedite the approval process.

"Even as I speak, the information is incomplete. I need at least 10 days to put the information on the website for stakeholders to raise objections," she said.

On the issue of de-linking of forest and environment clearances, she maintained that this cannot be done. The minister added that she was not aware of any (inter-ministerial) meeting where a decision was taken to de-link the two approvals. "Environment and forest clearances go hand in hand," she asserted.

NHAI sources, however, said that they had secured a favourable opinion from both the law ministry and the Cabinet secretariat on the issue.

While the NHAI is set to approach the court, sources said the Cabinet secretariat might intervene to end the dispute. The ministry of road transport and highways, the administrative ministry for NHAI, would also be roped in for an amicable resolution.

Meanwhile, according to the road ministry and NHAI, out of 39 major projects each worth over Rs 1,000 crore 20 are stuck due to delays in forest and environment clearances.

For road projects, the environment ministry gives environmental clearances only after forest clearances are obtained. This, according to NHAI, is the root cause of delays of all highway projects. Even if the ministry returns the incomplete application to the state government, a project doesn't lapse. Once the complete application is received with the required maps, surveys and lat-long grids, the ministry studies it for 10 days.

Allowing the French cement major Lafarge to mine limestone in the forests of Meghalaya's East Khasi hills, the court had in a July 2011 judgment asked the government to set up a national environment regulator and said that until this was done, an interim arrangement would be put in place by the ministry in consultation with states. The idea was to lay down the comprehensive guidelines for forest clearances.

However, the environment ministry hasn't fully complied with the court order as yet, NHAI alleged, adding that the ministry was reminded of the issue several times in recent months.

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