The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a notice to the Centre on a plea challenging a government notification, which states that road expansion projects that are less than 100 km in length would not require any environmental appraisal, Live Law reported. The plea was filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan, who contended that environment clearance rules had “become a farce”.
A bench of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian sought the central government’s response over the matter by next week. The court was hearing a case against the felling of trees for a construction project in West Bengal.
The bench also asked the Narendra Modi government to respond to Bhushan’s submission that authorities had not appointed an independent Environmental Regulator, despite the repeated directions of the Supreme Court to do so in 2014 and 2011.
During the hearing, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the Union government, noted that the court had asked for suggestions for setting up a committee that would do the economic valuation of heritage trees on basis of species, ecological contribution and age.
She said the Centre had submitted its suggestions for the same through a note. But Bhushan informed the Supreme Court that they have not received a copy of any such note.
“How can you do this Ms Bhati?” the bench then asked the additional solicitor general. “Why can’t you give them a copy.”
Chief Justice Bobde further observed that the Centre’s note did not include the name of Ranjit Singh, who drafted the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. This was despite the fact that the Supreme Court specifically mentioned his name in the last hearing, observing that he should chair the meetings of the panel, the judge said.
Bhati submitted that each state had its own Act, and it would be pertinent to hear each of them too. But the bench told her that the court will not hear the state governments at this stage. Here, the court wants the committee to tell the protocol and the states don’t have to be heard for that, the bench said.
“Somebody has to asses what is a heritage tree and tell us, what are the roots to explore before you want to build a road, and once you decide to build a road, then which trees can and cannot be cut down,” it added. “If the trees are to be cut down how should they be valued.”
On February 18, the top court had indicated that it will lay down guidelines for the felling of trees for the purposes of highway projects. The court had observed that it would like the government to explore alternatives before cutting down trees for roads.
It had further said that it might constitute an expert committee for this, and also to value felled trees for the purposes of afforestation compensation. The chief justice had orally observed that the value of the trees must be computed on the basis of its contribution to the environment and not just the timber value.
The bench, at that time, was considering the petitions led by Association for Protection of Democratic Rights and one Arpita Saha challenging the felling of trees for the “Setu Bharatam” project. A court-appointed committee has valued the costs of trees that would be cut for the project at Rs 2.2 billion. The West Bengal government had taken objection to estimate, terming it “hypothetical” and “highly speculative”.