Reversing the scale of priorities (The
Mains Paper 3: Environment
Prelims level: Sustainable development
Mains level: Environmental impact assessment
- In the weeks ahead, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on an appeal
filed against a judgment of the Madras High Court in P.V. Krishnamoorthy v.
The Government of India.
- There, a series of notifications acquiring land for a proposed
eight-lane expressway connecting Chennai to Salem were quashed.
- The Supreme Court has already denied, with good reason, the National
Highway Authority of India’s urgent request for a stay of the judgment. Such
an order would have rendered unavailing the High Court’s lucidly reasoned
- The quality of the High Court’s verdict is such that, when the appeal
made against it is heard, the Supreme Court could find that the judgment
demands a wider, national embracing.
Question of procedure
- The eight-lane highway is part of the “Bharatmala Pariyojana”, a
centrally sponsored highways programme, aimed chiefly as a corridor for more
efficient freight movement. The intended highway between Chennai and Salem
will cover more than 250 km, and, once constructed, will cut its way through
a slew of agricultural and reserve forest lands.
- Although the High Court framed a series of questions that required
answering, the ultimate controversy in the case came down to this: was an
environmental impact assessment (EIA) required before efforts were made to
acquire land for the highway project? If not, at what stage of the project
was such an assessment required?
- According to the petitioners, many of them landowners, the state had
failed to obtain an environmental clearance for the project before acquiring
land and had thereby violated its responsibilities.
- What is more, in any event, such permission, they argued, could hardly
be obtained since it was clear that the project would have a deleterious
impact on the forests, the surrounding water bodies and the wildlife of the
- The government denied this. It argued that its power to acquire land
under the National Highways Act, 1956, was unconditional.
- There was, it said, no law mandating an EIA before efforts are made to
acquire private land. In its belief, a notification under the Environment
(Protection) Rules, 1986, which required an EIA for the construction of a
new highway, did not decree such an assessment for the purposes of securing
- Recognising this, in 1987, a United Nations-backed committee led by the
former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland proposed a long-term strategy
which called for sustainable development, among other things.
- This programme, radical at the time, titled “Our Common Future”, defined
the principle as an endeavour to ensure that any development “meets the
needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future
generations to meet their own needs.”
- Since then, sustainable development has been viewed as something of a
mantra in environmental jurisprudence. So much so that in India, even before
the principle crystallised into a binding international norm, the Supreme
Court in Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum (1996) read the idea as intrinsic
to India’s constitutional structure.
- “The traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to
each other is no longer acceptable,” wrote Justice Kuldip Singh.
“‘Sustainable Development’ is the answer.”
Primacy to the environment
- Sustainable development can, therefore, work only if the environment is
seen as valuable for its own sake. The Madras High Court does this in its
judgment in Krishnamoorthy.
- To argue, as the government did, that an EIA wasn’t required before land
was acquired for a highway, as the court recognised, was to effectively
place the cart before the horse.
- As the court pointed out, the highway in question here was a greenfield
project that was intended as an altogether new road to be constructed on
- In such a case, to eschew an EIA before land was obtained would have
created irreversible effects that would have had a bearing not only on the
environment, but also on the social and economic life of the landowners.
- “The land of an agriculturist,” wrote Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, for the
court, “is vital to sustain his livelihood.
- The land provides dignity for the person.”
- The judgment, therefore, not only holds the state accountable for the
violation of basic notions of due process, in exercising the power of
eminent domain, but also sees the possession of farmlands by farmers as an
article of faith.
- But most importantly, the ruling deepens a commitment to the protection
of forests and waterbodies. It places the environment in a position of
primacy over unthinking measures of ostensible development.
- The Madras High Court has effectively reversed the prevailing scale of
- This is especially remarkable since it comes at a time when the
government is seeking to further weaken the existing norms for environmental
- That such efforts at diluting environmental protections are underway
when it has become increasingly apparent that climate change represents an
existential threat ought to alarm us into action.
- One way to act is to compel the state to look beyond exercises of
balancing, as the High Court does, and to see nature as intrinsically
Q.1) "This temple was built over a period of centuries. While inscriptions
suggest that the earliest shrine dated to the ninth-tenth centuries, it was
substantially enlarged with the establishment of the Vijayanagara Empire. The
hall in front of the main shrine was built by Krishnadeva Raya to mark his
accession to the throne. The marriage of the local mother goddess, Pampadevi, is
celebrated annually in this temple." Which temple is being referred to in the
paragraph given above?
(a) Brihadiswara temple
(b) Virupaksha temple
(c) Lingaraja temple
(d) Guruvayur temple
Q.1) The Chennai-Salem highway case will test the judiciary’s assessment of
environmental and economic interests. Critically examine the statement.