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Tree felling for Dehradun-Delhi NH72A: NGT says no application of mind in granting forest clearance

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The National Green Tribunal Principal Bench has appointed an independent 12-member Expert Committee to be headed by the Chief Secretary, Uttarakhand with nominees of the Wildlife Institute of India, CPCB, Uttarakhand State PCB, Chief Wild Life Wardens, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, SEIAA Uttarakhand, FRI, Dehradun, Divisional Commissioners, Saharanpur and Dehradun and Conservators of Forest, Dehradun and Saharanpur as members in the matter of cutting trees for widening an elevated corridor construction for a part of the NH72A between Dehradun and Delhi.

The Committee may meet within two weeks to take stock of the situation and plan further course of action. The Committee may thereafter meet at least once a month or at such earlier intervals as found necessary. Except physical inspection, the Committee is free to hold virtual/hybrid meetings. Any stakeholder will be free to represent to the Committee to consider remedial measures and if any grievance survives, to take remedies in accordance with law.

The Chief Wild Life Wardens, Uttarakhand and UP will be the nodal agency in the respective States.

The NGT said,

“We further direct that additional compensatory afforestation may be undertaken by NHAI through concerned Forest Departments on 10 ha of land each in Uttarakhand and UP, adjoining the stretch in question, preferably in more degraded area.”

The Tribunal directed NHAI to deposit Rs 1 crore over and above the Environmental Management Plan with Forest research institute, Dehradun in a separate account for research of Sal regeneration, in collaboration with Forest Departments of Uttarakhand and UP and any other institution.

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The grievance of the original application filed by Citizens for Green Doon is overlapping issue of validity of diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose and cutting of trees for widening and elevated corridor construction for a part of NH72A between Dehradun and Delhi (Ganeshpur to Dat Kali Temple) KM 16.00 to KM 33.00 (New Change KM 0.000 to 16.160).

The appeal has been filed in this Tribunal challenging the order passed by the Divisional Forest Officer, Saharanpur, in pursuance of stage I clearance by the MoEF&CC permitting use of 47.7054 hectare forest land (5.1893 ha Protected Forest and 42.5161 hectare Reserve Forest) for non-forest purposes under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FC Act) and cutting of 8588 obstructing trees (5354 trees and 3234 plants), for widening and elevated corridor construction of NH 72A (Ganeshpur to DatKali Temple) KM 16.00 to KM 33.00 (New Change KM 0.000 to 16.160).

“We find it difficult to hold that there is no application of mind in appraisal by the MoEF&CC in granting forest clearance. Once the project is held to be duly appraised, stages II/tree felling clearance are consequential,” the Tribunal opined.

The Tribunal disposed the application by stating adequate provision may be made for mitigation measures for protection of wildlife in case funds allocated for the purpose are found inadequate by the Committee and Steps to be monitored will also include cordoning of elevated roads and other ecological sensitive stretches with proper barriers to absorb light and noise, fitting of cameras at strategic locations to monitor protection of wildlife movement and their habitats, mechanism for rescuing animals in case of any accidents, awareness for care and protection of wildlife.

Citizens for Green Doon had filed an appeal challenging the forest clearance of diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose and cutting of trees for widening and elevated corridor construction passed by the Divisional Forest Officer, Saharanpur, in pursuance of stage I clearance by the MoEF&CC.

Substance of grounds of challenge to the Forest Clearance is that it has been granted on misleading information in Form A on the issue of details of the wildlife in and around the forest land proposed to be diverted.

There is no ecological impact study while granting the approval as required under the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2003.

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The approval is against the National Forest Policy which requires that tree cover should not be treated merely as a resource but as a national asset to be safeguarded for the sustained benefit to the community.

The cost benefit analysis is erroneous by over-valuing the benefit and under-valuing the cost.

Compensatory Afforestation Scheme proposed in the present case involves planting of trees in areas which are not degraded.

There is no Environment Impact Assessment of the project which is required when the project covers 210 km while exemption is upto 100 km.

There is no Biodiversity Impact Assessment.

Mitigation proposals do not consider the guidelines on the subject of height of the underpass. In the present case, height is 6 metres as against minimum 7 metres required.

The Tribunal issued notice to the opposite parties to enable filing of response by them. The stand of the MoEF&CC is that the proposal for diversion of forest land in question for widening of road and construction of elevated road was received by the Regional Office of MoEF&CC at Lucknow

The same was placed for consideration before the Regional Empowered Committee (REC) after considering:

Area Statement/Land Schedule, cost benefit analysis and muck disposal

NBWL (National Board for Wildlife) clearance

The stand of the DFO, Saharanpur is that the forest and wildlife clearances by the competent authorities have been accorded to the project after due scrutiny. The mitigation measures as suggested by the study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and proposed by CWLW, Uttar Pradesh and as mandated under wildlife clearance accorded by NBWL are being complied with by the user agency.

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Reply of the NHAI is that all the requisite approvals have been issued by the statutory authorities after conducting detailed project specific survey manually as well as using camera and also data base available with them. The Proposal was processed after scrutinization and recommendation at various levels of State Govt. and Central Govt. and approval was granted on the recommendation of the quasi-judicial bodies Regional Empowered Committee (REC), State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) and Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

Working permission was obtained as per the due procedure and thereafter uploaded on the Saharanpur District Website on 25.11.2021. Moreover, as per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the State Government has also issued the final order dated 27.11.2021 under Section 2 for permitting the use of land for the proposed project along with the conditions and safeguards imposed by the Central Government while according the Stage-I and Stage-II clearance.

Analysis and Finding

NHAI as well as MoEF&CC have explained that the project involves improvement and development of existing Intermediate / 2 Lane road into a 4-lane road within restricted Right of Way (RoW) of 25 metres which is bare minimum requirement for project development. Project also involves 12-km long elevated corridor, 340m tunnel along with its approaches, 2 Elephant Under passes (2x200m) along with 6 underpasses for other animals for bare minimum tree felling, safeguard of animals and also conservation of their habitats. Out of 20 km section from Ganeshpur to Dehradun, 18.5 km is forest area and out of this forest area, 15 km falls in UP and 3.5 km falls in Uttarakhand. In view of the existing road 20 KM (Ganeshpur to Dehradun) falling in ESZ of Rajaji National Park and at a few stretches close with the boundary of Rajaji National Park.

NHAI got conducted study for Wildlife mitigation from WII, Dehradun. Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife granted Wildlife clearance for project road (including both sections i.e. Road section located in Uttarakhand & Uttar Pradesh).

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The proposal will reduce length, avoid huge hill cutting and generate less muck & disposal. It involves comparatively smaller number of trees-removal with minimum forest land diversion and enables safe passage of wild animals.

The present stretch carries traffic more than 20,000 equivalent passenger car units (PCUs) per day which is much beyond the 2 lane capacity of 10500 PCU, necessitating urgent upgradation of highway capacity. As a result, the travel time between the two cities on the existing Highway (NH-72A) currently is 6-7 hours in the Non Peak Hours and more than 8 hours during the Peak Hours.

After the course of arguments, the Tribunal order stated:

“We find it difficult to hold that there is no application of mind in appraisal by the MoEF&CC in granting FC. Once the project is held to be duly appraised, stage II/tree felling clearance are consequential. We may, however, observe that for the sake of transparency, stage II clearance/tree cutting permission must be prompt after stage I and it must be uploaded on the website forthwith. Even while upholding FC clearance, we find it necessary that mitigation measures are effectively implemented and monitored on the ground by the NHAI and the same are overseen by an independent mechanism.”

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