The Madras High Court verdict quashing land acquisition proceedings for the proposed Chennai-Salem greenfield expressway is an indictment of the arbitrary decision-making process behind the project. This is a political setback to its leading proponent, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, given the extent to which he went to aggressively stifle all criticism and protests against it. The court has referred to how “peaceful protests were stifled, unwritten gag orders were promulgated, [and] police force was used to handle the peaceful protesters who were making a request to spare them and their lands”. It was only after the court intervened that “these high-handed actions subsided”. It invalidated the notification for intent to acquire land for the project on the ground that the National Highways Authority of India cannot acquire land without complying with the requirement of preparing an environment impact assessment report. The decision is important for affirming the principle that environmental clearance ought to be obtained before any project is allowed to advance to a stage where measures become irreversible. It underscores that sufficient data on the possible harm to the environment is needed before resources are committed to a project. In this case, not only would land titles be transferred to the state; heavy compensation amounts would also have been paid by the time the environmental impact is known.
The project was pushed by the Centre and the State even though it was set to pass through wetlands, fertile farmlands, reserve forests and waterbodies. Farmers who stood to lose their land and environmentalists had questioned the claim that by reducing the transit time, there would be saving of fuel, thereby cutting the carbon footprint. What has been exposed in the verdict is that the eight-lane corridor was never really cleared as a project under the Centre’s Bharatmala Pariyojana. It did not figure in the list of road projects approved under Bharatmala-I. The NHAI did not explain in its counter-affidavit how the Chennai-Madurai highway, an approved project, was dropped and the Chennai-Salem project included in its place. The court examined the record and found that there was nothing to show that it was approved by either the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs or the Public-Private Partnership Appraisal Committee; the Chennai-Tiruchi-Madurai corridor had much higher vehicular traffic to justify its inclusion in Bharatmala. The court’s conclusion that labelling its replacement by the Salem project as a ‘policy decision’ was not a sufficient explanation is unexceptionable. Having failed to convince the court that the procedures it followed were above board, the least that the Centre can now do is to make a comprehensive study of its impact on the environment and on farming and rural livelihoods before moving ahead.