Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
In its recent order the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has once again lambasted the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the company which is executing the road widening work on NH-44 around Ramban area. NGT pulled up NHAI and the executing agency for dumping large quantities of muck into the Chenab river as the work on the 4- laning of Udhampur – Banihal national highway (NH-44) is in progress for the last several years. NGT even directed the J&J Pollution Control Board (PCB) to take stringent measures in this regard as in past the PCB has shown a lukewarm attitude towards NHAI and the executing agency. NGT bench comprising chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel in his order said that J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB) may proceed with the recovery of compensation for the damage and initiate prosecution against the violators of environmental norms following the due process of law. The case has now been listed on March 31st 2021.
Background of case
NGT’s recent order comes on two inspection reports dated July 31st and September 17th 2020 filed by the J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB). The report stated that the dumping in almost all sites was found done in an unscientific manner and without proper compaction and terracing. On the consideration of the inspection reports, the monitoring committee, headed by a former Judge of the High Court, observed that there was a failure in preparing and maintaining designated dumping sites. The dumping sites were overflowing and not properly maintained. The NHAI failed to exercise supervisory control,” the committee noticed. The report filed by PCB recommended that the project director of the NHAI, Ramban, project managers of Gammon Engineers and Contractors Private Limited, Hindustan Construction Company Limited and Choudhary Power Projects Private Limited be prosecuted under the Environment (Protection) Act for the non-compliance of conditions of environmental clearance and directly dumping muck in the Chenab. During the case hearing, the counsel for the NHAI did not dispute the report of the monitoring committee, but submitted that on its part, the NHAI had instructed the contractors for taking remedial action which they failed.
The lawyers representing the construction companies argued before the NGT that the area was prone to landslides and there was default on part of the government in not giving additional space. To this, the NGT Chairperson Justice Goel pulled up the NHAI and said :
“It cannot rest content by simply saying that it has asked the contractors to take remedial action. The responsibility of the NHAI to maintain environmental norms remains”
Pertinently around 2019, NGT had directed Gammon India Limited and Hindustan Construction Corporation Limited (HCC) to pay interim compensation for damage to the extent of Rs 1 crore each. The same was affirmed by the Supreme Court. The Green Tribunal had also directed Gammon India Limited and Hindustan Construction Corporation Limited to furnish performance guarantee of Rs 2 crore each and NHAI to furnish performance guarantee of Rs 1 crore for remedying the situation.
Destruction of Devika
Around January 2019 the Chairman State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) was asked to intervene into the alleged river land grab by one of the construction companies involved in 4 laning of NH-44 around Udhampur. I had been following this case after seeking information under RTI from DC office Udhampur and following the case at State Information Commission (SIC) until it was shut down post article 370 abrogation. One of the construction companies that was penalized by NGT for dumping muck into Chenab river had allegedly encroached a huge forest land that includes the river bed of Devika river. Commissioner Secretary Forests & Environment had in past communicated with the Chairman State Pollution Control Board (SPBC) to send a team of officers to the site and give a factual report. The then State Information Commission (SIC) had sought a complete report from Deputy Commissioner (DC) Udhampur within a month’s time on the alleged land grab near Devika river at village Moudh. SIC in addition to other issues had sought a detailed report from the DC office about the encroachment of 45 kanals of land by a private construction company for setting up a mega stone crushing unit in the area. SIC had asked Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Udhampur how 45 kanals of land were occupied by the company while only 10 marlas of land were allotted to the company by the Government ? As per the interim order issued by State Information Commission (SIC) Jammu vide file No: SIC/J/C/27/2018 Dated: 19.12.2018, the commission had posed following questions before the DC office Udhampur through is Additional DC (ADC) who is also the designated Public Information Officer (PIO) under J&K RTI Act 2009:
a) How the Gammon India Ltd. has occupied 45 kanals and 16 marlas of land for establishing Mobile Stone Crusher Plant when only 10 marlas of private land has been taken on rent basis by the agency ?
b) What is the nature of the land occupied by the agency i.e. whether it is private land or state land ?
c) Has the District Administration permitted the agency to occupy the said land and if not, what action has been taken or is proposed to be taken by the District Administration for vacating the unauthorized encroachment on the said land?
d) How much of the river bed has been filled up by the agency for use of setting up of the machinery, equipment etc ?
e) Has the agency sought permission from Water Resource Authorities or Industries and Commerce Department for filling up the river bed ?
f) Is the filling up of the river bed permissible under the provisions of the J&K Water Resources (Regulation and Management) Act, 2010 and if not what action has been taken or is being taken against the agency for contravention of the provisions of J&K Water Resources (Regulation and Management) Act, 2010 or any other law governing the field? The Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Udhampur who is also the designated Public Information Officer (PIO) in the office of Deputy Commissioner was summoned by the State Information Commission (SIC) in Jammu a few years back . The officer attended the hearing before SIC as this author had filed a complaint against him for violating the RTI law as he didn’t provide correct information vis a vis land grab on banks of Devika a tributary of Tawiriver by a private construction company.
The report submitted by J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB) before the National Green Tribunal mentions that some of the landslides that brought construction activity to a halt could have occurred because of the construction activity itself. Pertinently an environmental audit of the National Highway-44 conducted by a team of experts in July 2019 aftermath of an order by NGT order says that that hillside slopes on Jammu – Srinagar area especially around Ramban Banihal area have “become unstable due to cutting during widening” and that the dumping of muck consisting of stones and boulders are threatening the survival of vegetation and biodiversity in the concerned sites. From this inference one can clearly make-out how dangerous the situation is as Chenab continues to be on the threshold of destruction along with Devika…
(The author is Founder & Chairman of JK RTI Movement.)
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat