By Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon*
Following in the footsteps of the Delhi high court, which restrained the large-scale tree felling for a “redevelopment project” in the city, on July 2 the National Green Tribunal (NGT) also stepped in to stay the activity till its next hearing on July 19. Due to a sustained tree protection campaign by citizens, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has assured a review and redesign of the project that involves the redevelopment of seven government housing colonies into large-scale construction of commercial and residential infrastructure. When completed, what used to be Nauroji Nagar will house Delhi’s first World Trade Centre.
This is not the first time the issue of the felling of trees for these projects is being discussed in the green tribunal. In September 2017, the NGT dismissed the challenge to the project stating that it could proceed with due permissions and the mandatory safeguards of compensatory plantations at a 1:10 ratio. Now, as if to complete the circle, the case is back in the NGT and this time several agencies and governments who provided approvals to the project are implicated.
National Green Tribunal’s push?
On September 12, 2016, Raghunath Jha, an ex-Union minister wrote a letter to Justice Swatanter Kumar, chairperson of the NGT. This was soon after the Union cabinet approved the project. His letter expressed the following concern:
“These seven colonies are full of greenery, old trees including ayurvedic vanaspati and durlabh plants which are not in fate of human life and will be the cause of major cause of global warming in India.”
He also added:
“NBCC’s argument of cultivation of double of the destructed trees is false and which will take another 40-50 years for the trees to grow and if NGT is agrees to their reply and will be foolish act of understanding.”
In less than a month, the NGT listed this issue as O.A.553 of 2016 on October 10, 2016, and issued notices to the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) and NBCC. The tribunal appointed advocate Sumeer Sodhi to act as the amicus curiae (friend of the court). A month later, notices were also issued to government of NCT-Delhi and the Central Public Works Department.
Till February 2017, only the NBCC (represented by counsels Pinaki Misra and Manoj Kumar Das) had filed its reply. None of the other agencies had done so and the tribunal set another date and issued ultimatums to the three silent Central government agencies.
The environment ministry’s untimely process
From March-July 2017, the case was adjourned or relisted eight times. None of the orders from that period reveal if the pending replies were filed or strong directions were issued pushing for the same.
Meanwhile, the action on the project shifted to the environment ministry. In April 2017, the NBCC wrote to the ministry seeking terms of reference to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and apply for the mandatory environment clearance under the EIA notification, 2006. This was for two of the largest of the seven redevelopment projects – Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar. The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) deferred any discussion on this as the project was “under litigation at the NGT” and “it would not be possible for the committee to consider the issue further unless the matter is resolved.”
On June 12, 2017, the NBCC wrote to MoEFCC again requesting for a ToR, stating that no interim order has been passed by the tribunal. A detailed note on the NGT case was submitted by them with allegations that Raghunath Jha’s letter to the NGT, on which the case was being heard, was ill-informed and premature. The very next day, the NGT heard the matter and adjourned it till July 18, 2017.
But the EAC was convinced by NBCC’s arguments and gave in to their request. A standard ToR for carrying out the EIA for Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar projects was recommended by the EAC on June 29, 2017. They also accepted another special request from the NBCC and allowed them to finalise the EIA report based on baseline data collected between April-June 2017. NBCC’s consultants for Netaji Nagar ABC Techno Labs initiated the collection of baseline data for the EIA even as they were awaiting a decision both from the tribunal and the ministry.
The official letters granting the ToRs were issued in August even as hearings continued in the NGT. In effect, the environment ministry allowed NBCC to carry out steps towards environment approvals knowing fully well that the NGT may disallow this project on account of the felling of trees.
Permissions roll in
Following months of slow going, the NGT gave a direction on July 31, 2017. The chairperson’s bench directed the Delhi Forest Department (FD) to submit a report and take action “in accordance with law.” The FD took over a month to revert, by which time Netaji Nagar and Nauroji Nagar received their ToRs for impact assessments on August 17 and 21, subject to the final decision in the Raghunath Jha case.
Come September, the NGT disposed off the Jha case, with the condition of planting for felled trees in a 1:10 ratio. On September 22, the tribunal added that the tall trees should be planted at the site or at another available place, and ordered the transplanting rather than cutting of trees. They also added that:
“The plants shall be planted as a condition precedent to the cutting of the trees.”
The directions further emphasised:
“In the event, the order is not complied with, the Project Proponent shall be liable to pay environmental compensation and even we will direct the stoppage of the project going on.”
The tribunal’s conviction that trees can be felled and compensated for elsewhere rests on the report of the FD, which was filed on the court’s insistence. This report is not yet publicly available.
September is also the month when NBCC finalised its EIA report based on the three-month baseline data and submitted it to the environment ministry. On October 13, 2017, the ministry’s EAC (infrastructure and CRZ) recommended the environment clearance of the projects in one sitting. The EC for both Netaji and Nauroji were issued on the same day, November 27, 2017.
The strangely long wait for tree felling permission
Documents related to the tree felling permissions have emerged through social media during the citizen’s campaign and in response to the PIL filed in the Delhi high court by Kaushal Kant Mishra. They only show that the secretary (environment and forest) issued an exemption notification under the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA), 1994 for Nauroji Nagar project on November 15, 2017. With this, NBCC could start construction on the World Trade Centre.
However, the documents for the Netaji Nagar felling permission reveals that on February 17, 2017, the NBCC applied for tree felling permission knowing fully well that the matter is pending before the NGT, where they have also filed a response. There is no public record of what happened thereafter. The next available document for this is of 14 months later, April 23, 2018, when a similar exemption notification is issued.
This is issued using Section 29 of the DPTA, 1994 which waives off the requirement for the designated tree officer to communicate his decision on NBCC’s application within 60 days failing which the application is eligible for a deemed approval. Within a week, the tree officer communicates the permission to the NBCC on May 1, not specifying details of when and how he carried out the mandatory enquiry as the designated tree officer. The permission could have been granted only after this enquiry.
Loss of faith
This circular and overlapping timeline of how the project came to receive approvals is still full of holes. But the information available so far is enough to show that several principles of good governance, if not mandatory legal procedures, were compromised.
The full truth may come out through the ongoing cases. Meanwhile, the several citizen teams conducting night patrols to ensure that trees are not felled at the proposed construction sites show their complete loss of faith in the governments involved in this case.
*Environmental researchers at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
This article first appeared in The Wire