Construction of the stalled six-lane, 291-km expressway between Panipat and Jalandhar can now resume with the Supreme Court giving relief to its developer, the Hyderabad-based Soma group, by allowing the toll plaza to be shifted.
The apex court set aside an earlier verdict of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that had allowed the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to take over the project after the Soma-led consortium expressed difficulties in completing the remaining 41-km stretch due to a financially-impeding technical reason.
The court also directed the Soma-led consortium to complete the project by March 31 next year, failing which the highways authority will be at liberty to impose the penalties as provided for in the concession agreement.
Senior counsel for developers Abhishek Manu Singhvi contended that the existing toll plazas were allowing vehicles to bypass collection of levies, resulting in less-than-permissible realisation.
It was, therefore, necessary to shift the toll plazas to plug loopholes, he said.
The developers also said it was due to this reason that the construction of the remaining 41 km was pending - a point that the apex court acknowledged in its 84-page verdict.
Accordingly, a bench of Justice Gyan Sudha Misra and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose allowed the toll plaza to be shifted.
"At this juncture, it is difficult to overlook that the appellant admittedly has completed 71 percent of the 291-km stretch and now barely 29 percent is yet to be constructed, which is enmeshed in litigation over the question as to whether the toll plaza should be permitted to be shifted or not," the judges said.
"Therefore, and in order to facilitate and expedite completion of the highway project, we direct the respondent NHAI to permit shifting of toll Plaza from 146 km to anywhere between 110 km and 117 km expeditiously," they added.
"In fact, we could have directed the appellant to shift the toll plaza even beyond 117 km, but we have been informed that beyond 117 km the area is thickly populated and would not be practically possible to set up the toll plaza beyond 117 km."
The judges also said that they will not permit the contesting parties, unless bona fide, to raise any dispute that will retard the completion of the project as it will neither be in the interests of the project, nor for the public at large.
The fine of Rs.60 crore imposed on the company and Rs.7 crore on its director have also been set aside.
The $780-million Soma Group, which has European infrastructure major Isolux Corsan Group as a partner in the Panipat-Jalandhar expressway project, has interests in infrastructure, transportation, hydel power and water resource management.
The group says it is executing 32 projects in 15 states.