Supreme Court gives the go-ahead for the NHAI to acquire land for the controversial Chennai-Salem “Greenfield” expressway

Published : December 08, 2020 20:36 IST

Farmers from Nallikalpatti village, near Salem, Tamil Nadu, taking out a march to submit a petition against the proposed Chennai-Salem expressway, in Salem on February 28, 2019. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

On December 8, the Supreme Court allowed the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to go ahead with the land acquisition process for the project to built a massive Rs.10,000 crore, 277-kilometre-long 8-lane “Greenfield” expressway from Chennai to Salem in Tamil Nadu. The proposed expressway is part of the Bharatmala Pariyojana highways project.

A bench consisting of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar, B.R. Gavai and Krishna Murari also set aside an order of the Madras High Court of April 8, 2019 that quashed the notification issued under Section 3A(1) of the National Highways Act for the acquisition of land for the project.

The apex court’s verdict was in response to a batch o petitions filed by the Union government and the NHAI. “The impugned judgment and order is modified. The challenge to impugned notifications under Sections 2(2) and 3A of the 1956 Act, respectively, is negative. The Central Government and/or NHAI may proceed further in the matter in accordance with law for acquisition of notified lands for construction of a national highway for the proposed section/stretch,” the court said.

Farmers have been protesting against what they call a “project of annihilation” since the expressway project was announced in February 2018. The project, they claimed, would gobble up thousands of acres of fertile land and destroy the agriculture-based livelihoods of hundreds of small and medium farmers. They claimed that it would destroy chunks of reserve forests abetting the ecologically sensitive Eastern Ghats in six northern districts of Tamil Nadu (“Road and Ruin”, Frontline, September 28, 2018).

Farmers, activists and environmentalists have been opposing the project because they believe that it would destroy hundreds of water bodies, irrigation wells, houses, school buildings, government offices and trees. According to them, the expressway was unnecessary since the State has three National Highways connecting Chennai and Salem. The Centre defended it saying that the Greenfield highway would play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions and reduce diesel consumption. The existing highways were congested because of heavy traffic, leading to multiple fatal accidents, it said.

A report on the project claimed that around 3,000 hectares of land had to be acquired from 854 villages and towns in five districts. There were complaints that both the State and Central governments did not conduct public hearings for the project and were bent on implementing it despite the stiff resistance.

In 2019, a bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan said that the project was “vitiated on several grounds”. Responding to a batch of writ petitions, including those from P.V. Krishnamoorthy and Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader Anbumani Ramadoss, it pointed out that the projection made by the NHAI about the expressway’s benefits was not real. Pointing out that a proper study on the environmental and the social impacts of the expressway was not undertaken before the authorities went in for the land alienation, the High Court bench said that such a major project ought to have had an environment impact study.

The High Court had restrained the NHAI from resorting to forceful alienation of land through the assistance of Tamil Nadu government. The NHAI had filed a plea in the Supreme Court asking it to vacate the Madras High Court’s order. In June 2019, a vacation bench of the apex court comprising Justices Indu Malhotra and M.R. Shah had refused to stay the Madras High Court order quashing the land acquisition process and had issued notices to the various stakeholders.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court bench ruled that fresh notification proceedings have to be issued with respect to the acquisition of lands and that the authorities could issue such notifications without any environmental clearance. “Further fresh proceedings would be initiated to determine the actual acquisition of the land,” it said.

Regarding violations of environmental laws, the bench said: “We have not examined the efficacy of the permissions/clearances granted by the competent authority under the environment or forest laws, as the case may be. If those permissions/clearances are assailed, only then the decisions (previous judgments) may be looked at”.

The bench, however, agreed with the Madras High Court’s judgment directing the revenue authorities to restore the mutation entries (mutation entries are entries in revenue records which indicate the transfer of title of a property) in revenue records effected in favour of the NHAI merely on the basis of the notification issued under the NHAI Act. “By virtue of notification under Section 3A of the 1956 Act, neither the acquiring body nor the NHAI had come in possession of the concerned land nor the land had vested in them, so as to alter the mutation entry in their favour. To that extent, we agree with the High Court that until the acquisition process is completed and possession of land is taken, the question of altering the mutation entry merely on the basis of notification under Section 3A of the 1956 Act cannot be countenanced and, therefore, the earlier entries ought to be restored,” it held.