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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Act against NHAI for excavation work inside bird sanctuary: Mumbai HC

Based on previous HC directives, Vijay Hinge, then divisional forest officer (wildlife) Pune, Maharashtra forest department, had confirmed through an affidavit before the HC on October 30, 2014, that quarrying work was in fact carried out by NHAI and its concessionaire inside GIB Sanctuary.

mumbai Updated: Sep 14, 2019 01:16 IST
The order was passed by a bench headed by Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Bharati Dangre on September 5, published on Wednesday, based on a 2014 public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Solapur resident Balkrishna Kharade.
The order was passed by a bench headed by Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Bharati Dangre on September 5, published on Wednesday, based on a 2014 public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Solapur resident Balkrishna Kharade.(HT image)
         

The Bombay high court (HC) has directed the Maharashtra government to issue notices to the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) for excavating minor minerals inside the Great Indian Bustard (GIB) Sanctuary in Solapur for the expansion of a national highway.

The order was passed by a bench headed by Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Bharati Dangre on September 5, published on Wednesday, based on a 2014 public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Solapur resident Balkrishna Kharade.

Kharade had alleged that illegal excavation of ‘murum’, a minor mineral used to build roads, was done in Mohol taluka to expand NH 9 within GIB. While expansion work was completed, mining is not permitted under environmental laws anywhere within a notified sanctuary.

Based on previous HC directives, Vijay Hinge, then divisional forest officer (wildlife) Pune, Maharashtra forest department, had confirmed through an affidavit before the HC on October 30, 2014, that quarrying work was in fact carried out by NHAI and its concessionaire inside GIB Sanctuary.

“Should the findings of the report be affirmed, penal action will be taken against those who have violated the law,” read the HC order from September 5. “Recompense on account of environmental damage shall also be resorted to as per law.”

Hinge, current deputy conservator of forest (Chandrapur) told HT that he stood by his submissions. “A large portion of the sanctuary was eroded through mining affecting the ecology of the zone,” he said.

The HC bench made it clear that they had not expressed their opinion about the findings of the report but directed the Maharashtra government and competent authorities under the four laws - Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Environmental Protection Act, 1986, Forest Conservation Act, 1980, and Indian Forest Act, 1927 – to verify the earlier report and file notices against NHAI and other respondents in the matter.

“The competent authorities shall issue the necessary show cause notice and proceed to pass orders within six months from today (September 5),” the bench said.

Spread across 1,222.61 sq. kms, the GIB sanctuary in Nannaj, Solapur, was notified in 2011 by the Supreme Court (SC) to protect the habitat of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) among other wildlife including leopards, wolves, and blackbucks. - GIB bird status in Maharashtra is critical with only one bird spotted in May by forest officials.

The Maharashtra government said they had taken cognisance of the order. “Notices will be issued at the earliest. We are yet to go through the details of the order. The report will be verified,” said Virendra Tiwari, additional principal chief conservator of forest (Mantralaya).

Kharade said there was a delay of five years to issue notices in spite of the forest department’s report as the matter had shifted from one bench to another. “NHAI and its contractors have paid Rs. 5 crore in royalties for the mining work in areas including GIB sanctuary, amounting to extraction of 1,750 tonnes of murum through quarrying,” he said.

Hashwardhan Salgaonkar, counsel for the petitioner said, “Senior state government bureaucrats allowed this environmental crime to take place. With this latest order we will have to see follow-up action by the revenue and forest department to ensure the sanctuary area is restored, and those responsible for this are held accountable.”

NHAI refuted all allegations. “We went ahead with quarrying only after receiving permission from the SC. The Maharashtra government was aware about the work. Also, there has been no ecological damage in the area due to this work. While I was not present in person in 2014, officers before me have relayed this information,” said SS Kadam, deputy general manager (project implementation unit – Solapur), NHAI.

THE GREAT INDIAN BUSTARD

This is a critically endangered bird species as per the red list of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that has an extremely small population and has undergone a rapid decline owing to a multitude of threats including habitat loss and degradation, hunting and direct disturbance.

The bird is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. In Maharashtra, the main breeding areas are Warora, Chandrapur, and Nanaj Bustard Sanctuary or Great Indian Bustard (GIB) Sanctuary in Solapur. The last GIB bird was spotted in May in Solapur. There have been no other spotting since.

GIB SANCTUARY

Originally established in 1979, the sanctuary was spread across 7818.47 sq. km area

It had seven taukas, Mohol, Mhada, North Solapur, Karmala, Nevasa, Karjat and Shrigonda.

The Maharashtra government had proposed the reduction of the sanctuary area in 1998 as a lot of private forests and barren land was protected unnecessarily

In 2006, the SC had issued an order to the state government to form an expert committee to study the area and identify suitable land for the protection of the Great Indian Bustard, leopards, wolves, blackbucks etc.

The matter remained pending since 2006 and was finally heard in July 2011 when the SC had de-notified 6,595.86 sq. km.

The final notified area was spread across 1,222.61 sq. km, including 163.54 sq. km reserved forest, 21.53 sq. km other forests, 8.82 sq. km Gairan lands, and 1,028.72 sq. km private lands (including waste, barren, grasslands), and few other reserved forest areas.

(Source: Petition by Balkrishna Kharade and September 5 order by the Bombay HC order)

BOMBAY HC DIRECTS STATE TO ISSUE NOTICES FOR:

The expansion work for National Highway (NH) 9, completed in 2014, by National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and its concessionaire had allegedly excavated murum from within the sanctuary areas that eroded parts of the protected forest, home to the endangered Great Indian Bustard bird species.

Quarrying within a sanctuary is prohibited under wildlife and environmental laws.

Acting on a petition by a Solapur resident in 2014, the forest department to prepared a report confirming the alleged violation.