Chennai-Salem expressway project: What's in the verdict of the Supreme Court?

Amid huge expectations and objections, the Supreme Court has on Tuesday dictated a balanced verdict for the controversial Chennai-Salem expressway project by allowing the Center to go ahead with the project with the fresh notification and directed the government to handover the already acquired lands to the people and come up with the fresh notification of land acquisition by adhering to all the environmental norms. 

Chennai-Salem eight-lane expressway is a project worth Rs 10,000 crore under the 'Bharatmala Pariyojana'. The project was approved in February 2018 and it was expected to cut down travel time between Chennai and Salem. The expressway would be stretching for 277 kilometers, but, however, the project had met with opposition from the activists, farmers, and residents who staunchly objected to the project, which they feared, would be destroying the agricultural land and would cause damages to the forests. 

The matter has gone to the Madras High Court after the activists had moved their petitions to repeal the project. After the marathon hearings, the high court bench comprised of Justices TS Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan had in April 2019, observed that the projection made by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) on the benefits of the highway were illusory and it had noted there was no proper study in the environmental impact before launching the project. 

The High court had quashed the notifications for the acquisition of land for the highway project, which brought relief to the activists and farmers as the legal halt for the project by the judicial body was seen as a major blow for the National Highways Authority and the Central government. However, the NHAI and the Central government had filed appeals in the apex court to challenge the quashing order pronounced by the Madras High Court against the project. 

After episodes of hearing, the Supreme Court has on Tuesday had delivered the judgment in which the apex court had upheld the Center's notifications issued for acquiring land for the Chennai-Salem eight-lane greenfield expressway project. Through its verdict, the Supreme court bench comprised of Justices AM Khanwilkar, BR Gavai, and Krishna Murari had partly allowed the appeals of the Union of India and the National Highways Authority of India after the apex court had turned down the order of the Madras High court to the extent the latter has quashed the land acquisition notifications. 

The apex court had ordered the Center to issue a fresh notification for land acquisition and it has to comply with all the environmental norms following which the Center can go ahead with the project. By setting aside the Madras High Court's order in 2019 that quashed the acquisition of land, the apex court noted that the government had acquired the land without obtaining a prior environmental clearance and ordered to hand over the acquired lands to the farmers and Center has to come up with the fresh notification to adhere to the environmental laws following which it can acquire lands and go ahead with the project. 

While the verdict has been seen as a balanced one between the farmers, activists, and the National Highways Authority, the farmers say that the absence of a clear and strong verdict of repealing the project had disappointed them. The movement for opposing the project had vowed, after the verdict, that it would stage intense protests till the project gets repealed. According to reports, PMK Chief Dr.Ramadoss had expressed his dissent and disappointment for the Supreme Court's verdict of giving a nod for the project. 

As the apex court had given a green light partly to the project, the reports say that the further proceedings of the government would determine the course of the project as the government and NHAI are pushed to meet the environmental norms for acquiring the land. According to the Tamil Nadu government, the Chennai- Salem Greenfield project under the Bharatmala Pariyojana would cut down the travel time between Chennai and Salem. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had repeatedly claimed that the project is required to enhance the growth in the western districts of the state.