In a major election-eve setback to the Edappadi K Palanisami and Modi Governments in the State and at the Centre, the Madras High Court on Monday quashed a government order providing for takeover of farmlands for a Rs 10,000-crore eight-lane 277 km super highway between Chennai and Salem to give faster connectivity to Bengaluru .
A division bench of Justices T S Sivagnam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan ruled that the project should not be taken up without environmental clearance from the Centre and lands should not be acquired without the consent of the farmers. After six-month hearing on a batch of writ petitions, the court quashed the GO mainly on the ground that the highway would pass through not only through agricultural lands but also reserve forests and it would adversely impact environment, including water bodies.
The bench also directed the State Government to restore the lands to its rightful owners by re-registering them in their names, within eight weeks. The bench directed a fresh environmental clearance should be obtained. It rejected as unsatisfactory a project report submitted by a consultant.
The judgment was delivered on a batch of cases filed by advocates, farmers and politicians. Prominent among the petitioners was Member of Parliament Anbumani Ramadoss of Pattali Makkal Katchi which has now aligned with the BJP-AIADMK for the Lok Sabha polls.
During the course of the hearing from June to December, the bench passed several interim orders restraining the government from forcibly taking over land and using police force against agitating farmers.
The bench rejected all the contentions in favour of the project advanced by the Centre. The Centre had said the expressway would actually help in preventing release of around 17 crore kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to the effect achieved through a 38,000 ha forest area with 75 lakh trees.
In a counter-affidavit filed in response to public interest litigation petitions filed by advocate A.P. Suryaprakasam and two others, the Centre said the reduction of carbon dioxide could be achieved by reducing diesel consumption by 10 crore litres per annum. It said diesel consumption would come down considerably because the travelling distance between Chennai and Salem by 57 km to 75 km. The two existing highways between Chennai and Salem are 334 km and 353 km long and the proposed expressway would reduce the distance to just 277 km.
Amit Kumar Ghosh, Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways,in his counter-affidavit said the expressway was part of the Centre’s major road programme known as Bharatmala Pariyojana-I entailing construction of about 35,000 km of national highways across the country at an estimated cost of Rs 5,35,000 crore before 2022. The programme was aimed at decongesting six national corridors.
Rejecting the contention of opponents that a third highway was not needed as the purpose could be achieved by widening the two present highways, the official said widening existing national highways would be more damaging to the environment than greenfield alignment, because it would require felling of trees apart from demolishing structures that might have come up on both sides of the highways due to urbanisation. Ghosh said broadening existing highways would be more expensive than building a new highway.
The Centre also said the land acquisition need not wait for environmental clearance as it would not per se have any adverse impact. The two works were being carried simultaneously to reduce time, it contended .
Conceding that 9.95 km of reserved forest area had to be acquired for the expressway, the Central official told the court that care would be taken to minimise the impact while finalising the alignment and care would also be taken to preserve water bodies en route by desilting and deepening them.