Panel backs NHAI: ‘MoEF can’t insist on Forest Act’

Things may have come to a boil between the National Highways Authority of India and the Ministry of Environment and Forests over green clearances to road projects last week with the former going to court in protest, but they have been simmering for long enough. The NHAI has for long been demanding exemption from the Forest Rights Act for its road projects and now derives strength from the recent recommendations made by a Committee of Secretaries on the issue.

Chaired by the Law Secretary, this committee — specifically examining the NHAI's demand vis-a-vis the ministry's contentions — gave an opinion in favour of the NHAI. The committee has opined that the FRA may not be insisted upon as far as road projects are concerned. Sources said the MoEF wrote to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for its views on the committee's opinion. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, in turn, passed the buck to the MoEF arguing that since the guidelines to FRA were issues by the latter, any changes will have to be effected by the same ministry.

The FRA to which the MoEF issued guidelines in 2009 require public hearings and consent of related gram sabhas before forest clearance for a project can be given. The process, a time consuming one, is said to delay projects. Under pressure over delays, the MoEF is of a view that forest clearance should not be delinked from environmental clearance.

The MoEF argues that it has already been sympathetic to the NHAI's demands by relaxing its guidelines for linear projects, facilitating phased processing of these proposals, provided feasible alternate alignments are submitted for stretches in forest areas.

The Forest Ministry contends that its notifications, dated March 2012 and September 2011, on re-diversion of forest land for non forest purposes facilitated linear projects.

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