Karnataka HC slams NHAI for bizarre claim that ‘anti-national’ NGOs opposing road project

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Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka on Monday came down heavily on the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) after it suggested that the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 was passed not just for protecting the environment, but at the instance of ‘foreign powers’. The NHAI also claimed that the opposition to highway projects was also by anti-national NGOs with ‘foreign powers’ behind them.

The exchange between NHAI and the Chief Justice came during a hearing over the widening of National Highway 4A between Karnataka and Goa passing through the Western Ghats. 

In response, a furious Chief Justice Abhay Oka directed the NHAI to constitute an inquiry into the statement of objections filed in court.

“We are shocked to know the approach of agencies and instrumentality of the state. They want the court to believe that the entire exercise of framing the Environment Protection Act is undertaken at the instance of foreign powers,” Abhay Oka said.  He further stated, “I have been a judge of the High Court for 17 and half years. I have never seen such an obnoxious statement presented by a public sector undertaking before the court.”

The case delves into exemptions granted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for the expansion of National Highways without conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The petitioner had submitted in court that the Union government does not have the power under the Environment (Protection) Act to exempt a project from the requirement of an EIA. 

The statement of objections by the NHAI filed in the High Court on Monday suggested that the formulation of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, was due to the instance of ‘foreign powers’ since it followed decisions taken at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. 

“Hence, the Act has been passed by Parliament not only for protection of the environment but also at the instance of foreign powers. And many NGOs are filing such writ petitions at the instance of foreign powers. Foreign entities such as Amnesty International and People’s Union for Civil Liberties have filed writ petitions,” reads the statement of objections filed by RB Pekam, a deputy general manager in the regional office of the NHAI in Bengaluru.

In a series of allegations in the statement of objections, the highways authority attacked non-governmental organisations describing those who receive foreign funding and oppose highway projects as ‘anti-national’.

“There are many organisations in India calling themselves environmental action groups and human rights groups such as Amnesty International etc, which are actively involved in attacking development projects and challenging government policies and notifications and doing anti-national activities,” read the statement. It raised allegations about the sources of funding for these organisations and suggested that they receive funds by “hawala means which go undetected”. 

The NHAI also argued that over 20 lakh people had encroached upon reserve forests in India and stated that “these encroachers are the real cause of denudation of large tracts of forests and not on account of widening of any highway constructed by NHAI.” It further added that most encroachments are “illegally protected under the Forest Rights Act on grounds that the encroachers are tribal people.” 

Following this, the counsel representing NHAI sought to withdraw the statement of objections but Chief Justice Abhay Oka asked a senior official in NHAI to constitute an enquiry into the statement filed in court and review the procedures in place to finalise the objections. He asked the highway authority to submit a report by January 31, before the case came up for further hearing on February 2. 

The petitioner in the case is the United Conservation Movement, represented by environmentalist Joseph Hoover. The petition had cited a few books written by foreign authors, which included research by authors Duniway and Herrick in 2011, which discussed the impact of road networks and the need for a holistic approach and by author Sidle in 2006, which discussed landslides. 

In response to this, the statement of objections filed by NHAI bizarrely stated, “The petitioner has relied on foreign authors and their books as material for targeting the respondents. It is well known that India is rising in the world economically having achieved the status of having the fifth largest economy…certain western powers and India’s enemy neighbours are envious of and want to hit development projects of the Union and state government.”

Speaking to TNM, petitioner Joseph Hoover backed the court’s stance on the issue. “If every environmentalist is branded as receiving money from abroad and is questioned about it, this is absolutely wrong. We are a relatively young NGO. We don’t have Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act funds. For that matter we don’t even have exemption under Section 80G (of the Income Tax Act). They (NHAI) can have a look at our sources of funds,” he said.

He hit back at the suggestions made in court describing the opposition to the development of the highway as ‘anti-national. “We are doing our bit to save our environment. To call us ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-development’ is wrong. We are here for the people of our country and we are here for the development of our country. As per the Constitution, we are trying to save our forests and they cannot brand us ‘anti-national’ for doing this,” he added. He added that the petition was filed to challenge the office memorandum issued by the MoEFCC in 2013 relaxing conditions for highway expansion projects.  

In this case, the Karnataka High Court had earlier issued a stay order in November 2019 on the widening works since NHAI did not have valid environmental approvals. NHAI was then asked by the court to produce documents of clearance related to the Environmental Protection Act, 1986.

NH 4A passes through the Western Ghats and cuts across dense forests including the reserved forest areas in the Kali Tiger Reserve. A massive environmental movement in Goa — Save Mollem — is also resisting the expansion of the highway which starts from Belagavi in Karnataka and ends in Panaji in Goa. 

Activists said that as trees would be cut for the project, it would result in water scarcity in the area. With three successive drought years, most parts of northern Karnataka are reeling under a severe water crisis. Not only this region, but the trees are also responsible for monsoons which feed the Kali, Mahadayi, and Malaprabha rivers, activists said.

The stay order issued by the High Court in 2019 was later upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2020. The High Court case came up after many trees in Khanapur taluk of Belagavi were cut down for this project, leading to an outcry by environmental activists. Almost 1 lakh trees were removed according to estimates made by activists while NHAI authorities argued that the number of trees cut was around 22,000.

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