New Delhi, Feb 14: Decks have been cleared for the controversial Hubli-Ankola railway line, cutting across the eco-sensitive Western Ghats in Karnataka, with the National Green Tribunal giving its nod to Railways to approach the state government.
The order assumes significance as Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) last year had disapproved the 168-km rail link project, conceived in 1998 primarily to transport iron ore from the Bellary-Hospet mines, and said that it would have "huge and irreparable" ecological impact on the forests, wildlife and biodiversity of the Western Ghats.
The controversy in the present case relates to conversion of forest land to a non-forest activity (construction of broad gauge railway line) for which total land of 965 hectares falling in Dharwad, Yellapur and Karwar forest divisions in Karnataka was required.
The green panel said that to apply for conversion of forest land to a non-forest activity was a right available to the project proponent and the state government which has to be dealt with in accordance with law.
"Under the provision of Section 2 of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 the State Government has to issue an order permitting such conversion with prior approval of the Central Government that is MoEF. We do not think that CEC even intended to allow or deny such right to the Project Proponent (Railways) but has expressed its view for non grant of such permission in terms of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
"The principal apprehension was the environmental and ecological damage to the Western Ghats. In the circumstances, we dispose of this application with liberty to the project proponent to move the state government by submitting an appropriate proposal for diversion of land for this project," a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar said.
In 2006, two Karnataka-based NGOs -- Parisara Sanmrakshana Kendra and Wilderness Club -- filed a petition in Supreme Court against the diversion of forest land for this project.
Later, the apex court halted the construction. The apex court on October 5 last year transferred bunch of cases involving forest clearances and the CEC's views on it to the green panel while asking it to decide them expeditiously.
The Environment Ministry, represented by advocate Balendu Shekhar, had argued that challenge to the diversion of forest land for this project was premature at this stage as neither the ministry nor the state government had taken a final view on the issue.
The tribunal further said that if such an application is moved the state government shall deal with it expeditiously and they would seek prior approval of the Environment Ministry in accordance with law.
"They would seek prior approval of MoEF in accordance with law and then depending on the approval granted by MoEF the State Government in its own right would issue an appropriate order under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. The order so passed by the State Government shall operate for period of four weeks and shall immediately be put on the website of in accordance with Rules.
"We make it clear that if there is a challenge to the order granting permission for diversion of forest for non-forest activity in favour of the project proponent, the record of this file shall be tagged to that application," the bench said.