In a break from recent instances of environmental activism by the judiciary, the Supreme Court has refused to restrain the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) from widening a road that links the Pench and Kanha tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh.
The 10-km stretch on NH7, which the NHAI plans to expand, is home to India’s dwindling tiger population. Aptly identified as tiger corridor, it was the setting for Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book.
“Not only trees and tigers but human lives are also important… The finding is that the road is in pathetic condition. Life and liberty of a human being is also precious," a bench headed by Chief Justice of India HL Dattu said, upholding a Bombay high court order that permitted the NHAI to widen the road without a forest clearance by the Centre.
In upholding the HC order, the apex court has gone against the recommendations of a committee appointed by it. In a report in 2009, the SC-appointed centrally empowered committee had said that construction on the road would cause “irreparable damage to a critical wildlife habitat”. It had noted that the expansion could lead to heavy vehicular traffic on the stretch endangering the wildlife.
The Bombay HC, in February this year, junked the report and allowed the road to be widened after noting a spate of fatal accidents on the stretch. It also allowed for construction of minor bridges on the road for movement of wildlife. Shrushti Paryavaran Mandal, an NGO, had appealed against the order in the Supreme Court.
The top court order comes close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's remarks that the judiciary must take tough calls as per the law that may be met with opposition from "five-star activists". “We will have to think whether these days five-star activist(s) are driving the whole judiciary? Whether an effort is on to drive the judiciary through scaremongering,” he had said at a conference of chief justices and chief ministers on April 5.
According to the NGO, widening the road would affect more than 49 hectares of forest land and would lead to felling of a large number of trees. Its counsel Sanjay Parekh told the Supreme Court that his client was not against development but wanted procedures and safeguards to be followed before the NHAI is allowed to tinker with forest land.
The SC bench reminded him that the Bombay high court had ordered the NHAI to pay Rs 4.97 crore for compulsory afforestation. "The road has been in existence for 100 years. It's being widened and the NHAI has been asked to pay. We see no reason to interfere with the HC order," the court said dismissing the NGO’s appeal.
It, however, allowed the petitioner to move the National Green Tribunal (NGT).