NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought response from the Centre on a plea challenging the notification exempting authorities from undertaking the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) if a road project has length less than 100 kilometer.
Meanwhile, the apex court directed the Centre, West Bengal government and an NGO to exchange names among themselves which were suggested for being appointed in an expert panel on fixing criteria on felling of trees for projects on the basis of their overall value.
The direction was passed by a bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde which was hearing a plea by NGO 'Association For Protection Of Democratic Rights' against felling of over 350 trees for construction of railway over bridges (ROB) and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.
During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, told the bench that a separate plea has been filed against the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF's) notification exempting authorities from undertaking EIA for road projects up to the length of 100 kilometer.
"We issue notice on this," the bench, also comprising justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said and asked the Centre to respond to it by March 18.
On February 18, the apex court had orally observed that prima facie it was inclined to strike down Centre's notification exempting authorities from undertaking EIA if a road project has length less than 100 kilometer.
It had said it would consider setting up of an experts' panel on fixing criteria on felling of trees for such projects on the basis of their overall value. The bench had sought names of experts from lawyers including Solicitor General Tushar Mehta for the committee to be set up to lay down criteria on felling of trees for such projects.
A committee of four experts, appointed earlier by the apex court, had valued at Rs 220 crore the 300 heritage trees which were to be chopped for the construction of five railways over bridges in West Bengal in terms of oxygen and other products they offer.
Earlier, the top court had observed that it would consider laying down a protocol to be followed for projects like road widening which require cutting of trees so that there is minimum damage to the environment.
A committee had informed the bench that before implementing a project of national importance environmental impact assessment is desired and this has not been done in the project under consideration.
The apex court had earlier formed a committee of environment experts to suggest an alternative to felling of over 350 trees for construction of ROB and widening of National Highway-112 from Barasat to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal.
The five-member committee is headed by Dr Soham Pandya of the Centre of Science For Village, Wardha.
The Calcutta High Court on August 31, 2018, had paved the way for widening of the national highway and allowed felling of over 350 trees for widening of Jessore Road, which connects the city to Petrapole on the Indo-Bangladesh border, on the condition that five trees will be planted for each tree cut.
The NH-112 or Jessore Road is an important link between India and Bangladesh and the state government had undertaken a project to widen it. Hundreds of old trees line both sides of the road, some of which were decided to be felled for the purpose of widening of the road.
A PIL was moved before the high court challenging the state's plan to fell trees. After arguments for several months, the high court had allowed felling of 356 trees at five places from Barasat to Petrapole border along the Jessore Road.