On December 9, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, received a boost with an order from the Bombay High Court. The then Chief Justice, Dipankar Datta, and Justice Abhay Ahuja said that 21,997 mangrove trees could be cut to facilitate construction of the rail line for the train by the National High Speed Rail Corporation, a government entity under the Ministry of Railways with the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra as partners. Initially, the rail company wanted to cut down 53,000 trees.
The rail corporation was jubilant that its plea to cut the mangroves was allowed. Once the railway line is ready, the travel time for the 508.17 km distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad will drop from six and a half hours to two and a half hours. The train will run at 350 km per hour. (The fastest train in the country at present runs at 180 kmph.)
The Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) had refused permission for the project on mangrove land within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) 1. In 2020, the National High Speed Railway Corporation filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking to quash this order. The State of Maharashtra, the MCZMA, the Mangrove Cell of the State Forest Department, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) were made respondents in the case.
The BEAG’s stand
The case has been going on for some years, but at various stages all the respondents except one granted their approvals to the rail corporation on the grounds that it had complied with their requirements. Only the BEAG continued to point out infringements with regard to the mangroves it said were being cut without authorisation.
The BEAG, represented by senior counsel Darius Khambata, had opposed the rail company’s petition, arguing that second stage green clearance had to be in place first, that is, preparation of a draft environment impact assessment report. The BEAG also argued that since the Supreme Court had stayed permission to cut mangroves in another case, the rail company’s plea should be deferred until the court ruled in that case.
Defending its plea, the rail corporation said that the Union Environment Ministry had “imposed almost 40 conditions” some of which had to be complied with before seeking stage 2 clearance and others during the implementation stage of the project. It also submitted an affidavit saying that the Additional Chief Conservator of Forests in Maharashtra scrutinised the compliance requirements in May 2021 and then recommended stage 2 clearance. Bolstering its argument, the rail company said that in August 2022 the Union Ministry granted the final stage 2 approval for the project in the Mumbai Suburban, Thane, and Palghar districts subject to 36 more conditions.
While presenting its arguments in court on November 28, the BEAG said it believed that three conditions remained to be fulfilled, including the shifting of the Thane and Virar stations, but the rail company said the Thane station building had been completely shifted out of the mangrove area and the Virar station building was not situated in the reserved forest area. Khambata submitted that “the petitioner is seeking to read ‘station’ as applying only to the main station building and has ignored the station viaduct and viaduct bridge, which also form part of the station”, but the court did not accept the argument.
Most importantly, the BEAG pointed out that there was no comprehensive mangrove conservation and management plan. This should have proved to be a stumbling point for the rail company since this is an essential requirement to get CRZ clearance. But the court was told that in 2019 the rail company asked the Mangrove Cell for just such a plan, which it was awaiting, and meanwhile, on September 26, 2019, it paid Rs.1.2 crore to the Mangrove and Marine Biodiversity Conservation Foundation of Maharashtra for another mitigation plan.
Responding to this, the order said: “We further note from the affidavits filed on behalf of the petitioner and the State that a comprehensive mangrove conservation management plan has already been put in place and that the petitioner has not only undertaken to plant 2,67,335 mangrove saplings but also deposited an amount of Rs.9.95 crores on 15th July 2022 as noted above.”
Undaunted, the BEAG brought up the pending matter of the Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary, which is in the path of the to-be-constructed line and requires a revised mitigation plan. This was met with the response that such a plan was submitted for review in August to the MoEFCC.
Public trust doctrine
The court noted that the petitioner had agreed “to plant five times more the number of mangroves or as may be directed. He [Prahlad Paranjape, the rail corporation’s advocate] submits that the petitioner is also ready to undertake any other environment conservation measures as would be required to be undertaken by it.” Paranjape also “urged this Court to apply the public trust doctrine submitting that the project is not only in public interest but also for public good”, which it did. The order read: “… in our view, considering the advantages set out above, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project is in public interest and necessary for public good and a project of bona fide public utility.”
“The gist of the argument is that not cutting 31,003 trees makes it acceptable to cut 21,997. ”
Paranjape said that after complying with all demands “the affected mangrove area for the project has been reduced from over 13 hectares to around 9, and the trees to be hit have come down to 21,997”. The gist of the argument is that not cutting 31,003 trees makes it acceptable to cut 21,997. The court’s direction to the rail corporation to “undertake compensatory plantation of 1,10,000 mangrove saplings” will also apparently compensate for the destruction of 21,997 full-grown mangrove trees.
The order said compensatory planting of mangroves “would strike a balance between development and protection and conservation of environment”, but no study was undertaken about the likely survival rate of these saplings. As sadly happens in matters relating to the environment, the balance always seems to be tilted by the “larger public good” argument. This is a phrase that seriously needs a relook as, obviously, what is good for the environment is good for the public.
- On December 9, the Bombay High Court said that the National High Speed Rail Corporation could cut 21,997 mangrove trees to facilitate construction of the rail line for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project.
- The rail company had wanted to cut down 53,000 trees.
- The corporation is a government entity under the Ministry of Railways with the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra as partners.
- The project will cut the travel time between Mumbai and Ahmedabad from six and a half hours to two and a half hours, with the train running at 350 km per hour. (The fastest train in India today runs at 180 kmph.)
- The case has been going on for some years. The Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) had refused permission for the project on mangrove land within CRZ 1, which the rail corporation fought to quash.
- The State of Maharashtra, the MCZMA, the Mangrove Cell of the State Forest Department, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and the Bombay Environment Action Group (BEAG) were the other respondents in the case.
- At various stages all the respondents except the BEAG granted their approvals for the project. The BEAG continues to fight against the project and to point out the infringements it says are taking place in the name of the project.