PMO steps in to end NHAI-MoEF face-off over forest clearance

Stepping in to resolve the row between the National Highways Authority of India and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) over forest clearance to linear projects, the Prime Minister's Office Tuesday worked out a formula to end the embarrassing stand-off between two arms of the central government.

A meeting called by the PMO decided the MoEF will submit a clarification delinking environmental clearance from forest clearance for linear projects following which NHAI will withdraw its court case against the ministry, highly placed sources said.

Projects like roads, railway tracks and power transmission lines, which stretch over long distances, are linear projects.

Last week, NHAI dragged the MoEF to the Supreme Court seeking a modification of the ministry's criteria linking environment and forest clearance. NHAI and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways claim that at least 22 projects have been stalled due to delays by the MoEF in granting forest clearance. The MoEF claims the delay is more due to incomplete documentation by NHAI.

NHAI has demanded that forest clearance be waived for projects involving widening of national highways up to the standard right of way (i.e. 60 m) and that forest clearance not be made a pre-requisite for linear projects.

Accordingly, the MoEF will now submit a clarification to the apex court enabling the same. The ministry, it is learnt, is also expected to place before the court its January 7, 2013 guidelines that "facilitate phased preparation and processing" of linear projects provided the user agency submits a proposal for an alternative alignment through non-forest land in case the route through forest land does not get forest clearance.

Environment clearance was delinked from forest clearance until the apex court's 2011 order in the case involving cement major Lafarge, which asked the Centre to make an interim arrangement for forest clearance until a national environment regulator was set up.

Following the Lafarge order, the MoEF went ahead linking the two clearances even to road widening projects. It now gives environment clearance to road projects only after forest clearance is obtained. NHAI argues that linking the two has delayed 22 projects that have already been awarded.

The delay in environment clearance also led to infrastructure firm GMR last month terminating the concession agreement with NHAI for the 555-km Kishangarh-Udaipur-Ahmedabad project. The company won the contract in July 2011 but the project was not formally issued environment clearance even though it was approved in June 2012. The formal issuance was put on hold due to the delay in issuing the forest clearance.

While NHAI applies for environment clearances, the states through which the road passes have to apply for forest clearance.

The road transport ministry has been at loggerheads with the MoEF over alleged delays in granting of environment and forest clearance and squarely blames it for slow progress in projects worth over Rs 2,000 crore. It had sought the PMO's intervention to expedite linear projects awaiting green clearances. A committee of secretaries had also opined in favour of NHAI.

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