Tunnel projects near Mumbai’s SGNP made U-turn on green nod?

The projects were subsequently delisted or rejected by MoEFCC on identical grounds: that the roads are not state or national highways, and hence do not require ECs
Both the projects have been exempted from carrying out a precautionary environmental impact assessment (EIA) study. (HT File)
Both the projects have been exempted from carrying out a precautionary environmental impact assessment (EIA) study. (HT File)
Published on Aug 23, 2021 12:21 AM IST
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ByPrayag Arora-Desai

Two key infrastructure projects – the twin-tunnel link roads between Goregaon-Mulund and Thane-Borivli – which will pass under the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), are expected to begin construction within the next year. Both the projects have been exempted from carrying out a precautionary environmental impact assessment (EIA) study.

Publicly available documents, however, show that this was not the case initially. Both the projects had separately applied to the Union environment ministry in 2017, seeking environment clearance (EC) for ‘Category-A’ projects. Unlike Category-B projects, these require mandatory public hearings, an EIA report and scrutiny by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) expert appraisal committee (EAC).

The projects, which are being executed by two different authorities, were subsequently delisted or rejected by MoEFCC on identical grounds: that the roads are not state or national highways, and hence do not require ECs.

This move is within the ambit of the law, as road building as an activity is not covered under EIA Notification, 2006. But given the unique nature of these projects – the first ones wherein tunnels are being proposed under a protected area anywhere in the country – experts and environmentalists have been insisting on applicability of environmental clearances, in addition to clearance by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

Goregaon-Mulund Link Road (GMLR)

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had first applied to MoEFCC, seeking EC for GMLR project on June 29, 2017. The twin tunnels will pass through SGNP for a length of 4.7km and will occupy about 21 hectares of subterranean area under the national park. They are expected to reduce travel time between the eastern and western suburbs by an hour.

In September2017, BMC had complied with certain conditions laid down by EAC and submitted additional details as part of this regulatory process. The Terms of Reference (ToR) were obtained in January 2018. It was only in April 2018 that the matter was delisted by the Union environment ministry, essentially exempting it from EC and thus an EIA as well.

Documents show that this was done at BMC’s behest. In the minutes of their 187th meeting – held on April 12, 2018 – EAC noted, “As the proponent did not provide correct information at the time of submission of online application, the ministry considered the proposal and issued ToR. However, now the proponent has informed that the said project does not require prior EC because it is only a development plan road of BMC and does not even form part of any expressway or state/national highway.”

The exemption has also allowed BMC to skip certain essential conditions and studies which had otherwise been imposed by MoEFCC. These include a public hearing, a cumulative impact assessment of all the projects being planned within, around and through SGNP and a separate study on the project’s impact on Tulsi and Vihar lakes, which are about a kilometre away from the tunnels’ proposed alignment.

“By allowing this project to be positioned as a development road, the ministry has in turn allowed BMC to bypass essential safeguards. The tunnels are still within the boundary of a protected area, and so should mandatorily be treated as a Category-A project. This is not just a development road, but a fairly sophisticated infrastructure project that will pollute and disturb one of the city’s last remaining silent zones. It is a situation unique to Mumbai because no other city is planning to disturb the protected areas for the sake of private car owners,” said Stalin D, director of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Vanashakti.

An official with BMC’s bridges department, seeking anonymity of name, pointed out that the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has been appointed to conduct a three-year study of the project’s impact at the instruction of NBWL, and that possible impact on the aquifers of Tulsi and Vihar lakes have been duly considered.

“The only alternative to tunnels is an above ground road, and that would be more damaging to SGNP. Any disturbance is temporary, and does not warrant an EIA in case of GMLR,” the official said.

Borivli-Thane Link Road

A similar sequence of events can be observed in the case of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (MMRDA) Borivli-Thane twin-tunnels’ project, which is around 8kms in length and runs parallel to GMLR, toward the northern end of SGNP.

The project had sought EC from MoEFCC in November 2017, when it was being executed by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). At the time, MoEFCC pointed out: “As per the information furnished by you the present proposal is not national highway / expressway or state highway. Hence, the present proposal is not admissible under EIA Notification, 2006.”

In response, MRDSC insisted that the project should be considered under the same.

“The applicability of environmental clearance is justified as the project alignment is passing through SGNP and traverses 153m away from Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary and 900m away from the boundary of Karnala bird sanctuary and also falls within the protected radius of Matheran eco-sensitive zone.”

In this case, it was the Union ministry which declined to accept this justification, and ToR for the project was never eventually granted. In September 2018, MSRDC swapped the project with MMRDA and instead took over the construction of the Virar-Alibag multi-modal corridor (which will also pass through SGNP).

An MSRDC executive engineer, seeking anonymity of name, said, “We applied for EC because the project is situated in an ecologically fragile zone and there is bound to be some disturbance to wildlife because of the tunnelling and vibrations. This was not accepted by the ministry, and so the project fell outside the scope of EC.”

A forest department official, who has previously served in a senior position at SGNP, not wishing to be identified, said, “Like the way BNHS is doing a survey around GMLR, the Wildlife Institute of India is being considered for a similar study along the Borivli-Thane tunnel.

Cumulative impact study required

Environmentalists and citizens have argued that instead of piecemeal clearances, authorities need to assess the cumulative impact of both the link roads on the larger ecology of SGNP, as had been recommended by MoEFCC in case of GMLR.

They pointed out that the Virar-Alibag multi-modal corridor and the Delhi-Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) dedicated freight corridor will also pass through the national park, and while ECs for those have been granted separately, there has been no attempt from the state government to find out what the combined effects of these developments will be.

“It is not enough to just look at each project and appraise it in isolation. What is their combined zone of influence? What risks do they pose in relation to one another? An independent body needs to assess all this before construction work is allowed. It is bizarre that both the link road projects applied for EC, but neither process led to an EIA. It calls into question the role of the Union ministry, which has allowed this to happen,” said Stalin D.

Despite repeated attempts, G Mallikarjuna, chief conservator of forests, SGNP, did not respond to calls and messages, seeking comment for this story.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021