STAYED: The Supreme Court has stayed any work by GMR on the Mopa Airport which was promoted by Manohar Parrikar as a substitute for Dabolim. The Rainbow Warriors NGO exposed the lies and indifference displayed by the Chief Conservator of Forests to the adverse environmental effect on Pernem Taluka where the airport is coming up

The SC has stayed all work by the concessionaire GMR on the Mopa airport. On a  writ petition filed by NGOs, including the Rainbow Warriors, the Supreme Court upheld the stay issued by the High Court. The reason for the stay was the attempt of the government including the NGT and the Conservator of Forests to mislead the Union government on the total environmental damage that the project would cause. Ironically, the Chief Conservator of Forests had dismissed over 56,000 trees on the project as mere ‘bushes’. Goan Observer brings you extracts from the Supreme Court judgment…

A Introduction

1              An appeal was filed before the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal at New Delhi challenging the grant of an Environmental Clearance for the development of a greenfield international airport at Mopa in Goa. The NGT, by its judgment dated 21 August 2018 came to the conclusion that the present case “is not a case where the project compromises with the environment”. While affirming the EC, the NGT came to the conclusion that “further safeguards for environmental protection need to be incorporated”. The NGT, accordingly, proceeded to formulate additional conditions, while affirming the grant of the EC (environmental clearance).

4              On 1 May 2000, the Government of India communicated its approval for the setting up of an airport at Mopa and for the closure of the existing airport for civilian operations on the commissioning of the new airport. Subsequently, on 1 July 2010, the earlier decision was modified to allow for the continuation of civilian aircraft operations at Dabolim even after the commissioning of the new airport. The process of land acquisition commenced in 2008 under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Originally, the land area anticipated for the development of the project was pegged at 4,500 acres. During the pendency of project appraisals, the area required for the proposed airport stood reduced to 2,271 acres.

7              On 3 October 2014, the state government floated a tender for the development of a greenfield international airport project on a PPP basis. On 20 October 2014, the Directorate of Civil Aviation, Government of Goa submitted a draft EIA report to the Goa State Pollution Control Board, requesting it to initiate steps to conduct a public hearing. A public hearing was conducted at the project site on 1 February 2015. The EAC, at its meetings held on 9-11 March 2015, recommended an extension of the validity of the ToR for another year ending on 31 May 2015.

8              […]

In the meantime, a representation was submitted by the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, one of the appellants before this Court to the EAC. The EAC, at its 151st meeting held on 7-9 September 2015, deliberated upon the representation and sought a clarification from the project proponent on the issues raised. On 28 September 2015, the project proponent submitted its reply to the representation. The EAC, at its 152nd meeting on 20 October 2015, sought a further clarification from the project proponent on the reply submitted by the Federation of Rainbow Warriors. At that meeting, the EAC recommended the grant of an EC for the project.

9              On 28 October 2015, the MoEFCC, as the regulatory authority under the 2006 notification for Category ‘A’ projects, communicated its approval for the grant of an EC. Following the grant of the EC, the tender process which had been initiated on 3 October 2014 was concluded on 26 August 2016. Consequent to the opening of the final bids, a technical scrutiny, evaluation coupled with pre-bid meetings, deliberations on the draft concession agreement and other required steps, GMR Goa International Airport Limited was awarded the contract on a revenue sharing of 36.99 percent to the State of Goa. On 8 November 2016, the concession agreement was executed between the Government of Goa and GGIAL for the development and operation of the airport with the concession period of 40 years. Upon financial closure, the three-year period for the construction of the airport commenced on 4 September 2017. The target date for the commissioning of the first phase of the project is 3 September 2020.

10           The grant of the EC was challenged before the Western Zonal Bench of the NGT by the Federation of Rainbow Warriors. Hanuman Laxman Aroskar also filed an appeal before the Western Zonal Bench of the NGT. These appeals were subsequently renumbered before the Principal Bench of the NGT at New Delhi. On 7 November 2017, the NGT issued an ad-interim order restraining the cutting or felling of trees in the area designated as the site of the proposed airport. On 22 November 2017, the order of restraint was modified on the statement of the Advocate General of Goa that the state shall not cut or fell any trees, nor allow it to take place without valid permission from the lawful authority for a fortnight thereafter in order to enable the appellants to pursue their remedies. On 6 February 2018, the Deputy Conservator of Forests granted permission for felling 21,703 trees at the airport site. The appellate authority under the Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act 1984 dismissed the appeal on 7 March 2018.

11           On 8 March 2018, the High Court of Judicature at Bombay at its seat at Goa set aside the order of the Deputy Conservator of Forests and remanded the matter to be heard by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. On 2 April 2018, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests stipulated several conditions for the cutting and the felling of trees at the site of the airport including: (i) enumeration of trees; and (ii) the plantation of ten times the number of trees felled. Upon being moved in a Public Interest Litigation, the High Court by its order dated 25 April 2018 allowed the exercise of enumeration to be carried out. As a result, 54,676 trees were enumerated, including the 1,548 trees which had been felled earlier in terms of the order dated 6 February 2018 of the Deputy Conservator of Forests. On 13 January 2018, the High Court issued final directions in the PIL directing the State of Goa to approach the NGT seeking permission for felling and cutting trees. The state was directed to carry out the cutting and felling of trees only after prior permission was granted by the NGT.

13           On 18 January 2019, notice was issued in the appeals and an order of status quo was passed by this Court. The appeals were admitted for hearing and final disposal.

B Submissions

15           […] The project proponent is required to submit Form 1 complete with relevant details of the proposed project and the status of the environment. The ToR which is finalized by the EAC is founded on the disclosures which are made by the project proponent. In this backdrop, the principal submissions urged by the appellants before the Court are as follows:

(i)           There were material concealments by the project proponent in failing to disclose that as many as 54,676 trees were required to be felled. Form 1, which was submitted by the project proponent, was silent in regard to the number of trees required to be felled. The final EIA report, while dealing with the biological environment in clause 2.1.5 contains the following statement:

“2.1.5 Biological environment

Construction phase

Impacts (Significance-Medium)

The area acquired for proposed airport has only few trees, mainly bushes. These will be cleared during site preparation.”

20           […]

(iv)         The EIA report records that the surrounding land use of the airport site is predominantly forest land. Land use and land cover specifically for a 10

kilometre radius from the airport site in Maharashtra is also set out in Chapter II of the EIA report, which indicates a reference to the forest area. Annexure IX of the EIA report incorporates land use with land cover maps, both for Goa and Maharashtra in the 10 kilometre radius, which includes forested areas within the State of Maharashtra; Annexure X of the EIA report elucidates surface water bodies both in Maharashtra and in Goa in the radius of 10 kilometres while Annexure XI provides a hydro-geo-morphological map of Goa and Maharashtra. In other words, it was urged that: (i) a legally designated forest under the Indian Forest Act 1927 requires a notification under Section 20; however, at the same time, (i?i) the EIA report contains a clear disclosure of the presence of forest areas in both the States of Goa and Maharashtra within a radius of 10 kilometres including areas of dense forest.

21           As regards the lack of sampling points in Maharashtra, the learned ASG urged that while all the six sampling points for ambient air quality within 10 kilometres of the study area were in Goa, the air quality which was being tracked was within the stipulated radius and was not confined to the State of Goa. Similarly, in studying the water environment, the ground water quality was measured at four locations in Goa within 10 kilometres of the study area. As regards the monitoring of noise, nine sampling points were chosen within the State of Goa in accordance with the Central Pollution Control Board guidelines. The monitoring of noise environment, both at the construction and operational phases, has similarly been dealt with in the EIA report.

The learned ASG urged that the choice of the sampling locations was not arbitrary: though the sampling points were not in Maharashtra, data required was tracked across a radius of 10 kilometres from the ARP which also included the State of Maharashtra.

C Scheme of the 2006 notification and the Guidance manual for Airports

35           […] Concealing factual data or submitting false or misleading information would make the application liable for rejection and would lead to the cancellation of any EC granted on that basis.

40           The salient objective which underlies the 2006 notification is the protection, preservation and continued sustenance of the environment when the execution of new projects or the expansion or modernization of existing projects is envisaged. It imposes certain restrictions and prohibitions based on the potential environmental impact of projects unless prior EC has been granted by the concerned authority. The EC is required before any construction work, or preparation of land (except for securing the land) is started on the project or activity listed in the Schedule to the notification. […]

60           The information provided in Form 1 serves as a base upon which the process stipulated under the 2006 notification rests. An applicant is required to provide all material information stipulated in the form to enable the authorities to formulate comprehensive ToR and enable concerned persons to provide comments and representations at the public consultation stage. The depth of information sought in Form 1 is to enable the authorities to evaluate all possible impacts of the proposed project and provide the applicant an opportunity to address these concerns in the subsequent study. Missing or misleading information in Form 1 significantly impedes the functioning of the authorities and the process stipulated under the notification. For this reason, any application made or EC granted on the basis of a defective Form 1 is liable to be rejected immediately.

HEROS: It was Hanuman Aroskar, of Nachipani village in Mopa, and the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, who filed the PIL which resulted in the stay by the High Court, currently upheld by the Supreme Court. The environmental clearance has been cancelled and the SC has ordered that fresh reports be submitted to it within one month

D Forests

65           The essence of the challenge to the EC is two-fold:

(i)           Form 1, which was filed by the project proponent, did not contain any disclosure of the name or identity of forests within an aerial distance of 15 kilometres. Item 2 under the heading of ‘Environmental Sensitivity’ requires a clear disclosure of “areas which are important or sensitive for ecological reasons – wet lands, water sources or other water bodies, coastal zone, biospheres, mountains and forests”; and

(ii)          Table 2.1 of Chapter II of the EIA report delineates ESZs within an aerial distance 15 kilometres from the project boundary. For the State of Goa, the table indicates the presence of forests but not of protected forests. For the State of Maharashtra, Table 2.1 indicates that there were neither reserved nor protected forests within 15 kilometres from the project boundary.

67           We cannot gloss over the patent and abject failure of the State of Goa as the project proponent in failing to disclose wet lands, water sources, water bodies, biospheres, mountains and forests within an aerial distance of 15 kilometres as required by Form 1. The disclosure in Form 1 constitutes the very foundation of the process which is initiated on the basis of the information supplied by the project proponent. Following the disclosure in Form 1, ToR are formulated, and this leads to the preparation of the EIA report. A duty is cast upon the project proponent to make a full, complete and candid disclosure of all aspects bearing upon the environment in the area of study. The project proponent cannot profess an ignorance about the environment in the study area. The project proponent is bound by the highest duty of transparency and rectitude in making the disclosures in Form 1.

68           There can be no manner of doubt that Form 1 is an important ingredient in the entire process envisaged under the 2006 notification. Hence, clause (vi) of para 8 of the 2006 notification provides that deliberate concealment or submission of false or misleading information or data which is material to screening or scoping or appraisal or decision on the application shall make the application liable for rejection and lead to the cancellation of a prior EC granted on that basis. The declaration which is required of the project proponent is to a similar effect.

69           We are unable to accept the submission that the disclosure required was of reserved forests comprehended within a notification under sub-section (2) of Section 20               of the Indian Forest Act 1927. Form 1 requires a disclosure of areas which are important or sensitive for ecological reasons, among them, being “forests”. The expression “forests” is used without reference to a statutory or artificial definition and must hence incorporate a meaning which bears upon the ordinary description of the term.  […]

F Sampling Points

SATISFIED: The MOPA Vimantal Pidit Xetkari Samiti welcomed the Supreme Court judgment and thanked the judges, advocates and petitioners for supporting the battle to protect the environment against the greed of developers

F.5 Felling of Trees

97           We express our serious displeasure with the manner in which the EIA report made an attempt to gloss over the existence of trees. The EIA report prevaricated by recording that the area required for the proposed airport has only a few trees, mostly bushes. The EIA report states that vegetation and trees are sparse at the site. A photograph and a google map image are put forth as illustrations in figure 2.3 of Chapter II. To realise later that the project involved the felling of 54,676 trees is indicative of the cavalier approach to the issue and a process of fact finding which is parsimonious with the truth. Post facto explanations are inadequate to deal with a failure of due process in the field of environmental governance. The State of Goa would have us gloss over the felling of trees by submitting that 54,676 trees over a project area of 2,133 acres averages out to 25 trees per acre or one tree over an area of 160 square metres. This is a fallacious approach to the issue. Mathematical averages cannot displace factual data about the actual number of trees which were affected by the project. The EIA report ought to have scrutinized the number of trees, their nature and longevity. Issues such as the extent to which the trees or some of them were capable of being transplanted had to be considered in the EIA report. The location of the trees is also significant. In a given case, if the trees appear in clusters or in a dense formation in segments of the project site, it would be necessary to determine whether felling all of them was necessary for the project to be implemented.

98           In the written submissions which have been filed by the State of Goa, it has been submitted that of the 54,676 trees which were felled: (i) 32,193 trees representing 59% had a girth of 30 to 50 centimeters; (ii) 19,903 trees representing 36% had a girth of 50 to 100 centimeters; and (iii) ‘only 2,580 trees’ had a girth exceeding 100 centimeters. The Goa, Daman and Diu Preservation of Trees Act, 1984 defines the expression “tree” in Section 2(j) in the following terms:

“S. 2(j) – “tree” means any woody plant whose branches spring from and are supported upon the trunk or the body and whose trunk or body is not less than ten centimeters in diameter at a height of one meter from the ground level and includes coconut palm.”

This definition has been highlighted to indicate that it incorporates a stringent meaning of the expression ‘trees’. The point, however, is simple: there was a glaring omission of the factual existence of as many as 54,676 trees in the EIA report. For project proponents, the environment may not possess a human voice. But the purpose of prescribing an EIA report is precisely to undertake a baseline study on all aspects of the environment and to anticipate the impact of a projected activity on the environment. Ignoring any component of the environment amounts to a serious dereliction of duty which detracts from the rule of law in matters of environmental governance.

G Public Consultation

104         The public consultation was held on 1 February 2015 at Mopa. Nearly 70 persons spoke on the occasion and 1,586 persons signed the attendance sheet. 1,150 representations were received. Some of the environmental concerns expressed during the public hearing are catalogued below:

(i)           Mopa plateau has multiple water sheds and the discharge of water goes down to the rivers;

(ii)          Nearly forty springs would be affected along with flora and fauna;

 (iii)        The public hearing had been conducted in an area where the land was barren and with no plantation;

(iv)         The impact on river Chapora, which is within a 10 kilometre radius from the project, has not been adequately analysed;

(v)          Mopa plateau has a natural mechanism for ground water recharge;

(vi)         Protection of the Western Ghats is necessary, particularly with the view to not disturb flora and fauna;

(vii)        The EIA report has not been made available to the affected areas and Gram Panchayats in the buffer zone;

(viii)      Local plantations would be affected;

(ix)         The number of trees to be felled by the project proponent has not been specified in the EIA report;

(x)           The Dodamarg Wildlife Sanctuary had been ‘sanitized’ by the High Court;

(xi)         Forest clearance had not been obtained;

(xii)        The sacred groves of the area have not been described, including the Barazan which will be lost;

(xiii)       The slopes sustain cashew plantations with nearly forty lakh cashew trees resulting in an annual income of Rs Fifty crores; and

(xiv)       No study has been carried out in the 10 kilometre radius falling in Maharashtra.

105         These concerns are at the forefront of the debate in the present case. What is significant, is the manner in which they were projected before the EAC at its 149th meeting on 26 June 2015 where the project proponent made a presentation. The Minutes of the meeting recorded the following observations of the project proponent:

“x. Public Hearing was conducted on 01.02.2015 at Simechen Adven, Mopa, Goa. The major issues raised during public hearing and responses sought from the project proponent related to employment opportunities.”

(Emphasis supplied)

On the basis of a factual analysis, Ms Shenoy has submitted that only seven out of the 68 objections dealt with the issue of employment. Evidently, the project proponent failed to address the other significant concerns in the manner which is required by the

2006 notification.

H Appraisal by the EAC

110         A representation was received from the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, consequent to which the consideration was deferred and the project proponent was requested to submit a “point-wise reply to the issues raised” in the representation. The EAC, at its 152nd meeting held on 20 October 2015, observed that the project proponent had provided “pointwise clarifications to the concerns raised by the ‘NGO’”. The EAC noted thus:

“The EIA report has been updated by the PP after taking into account the issues raised in the public hearing and the same has been put in public domain.

The project is outside the ESZ delineated by the Dr Kasturirangan Committee and TERI.

The  project  envisages  construction  of  rain  water harvesting pits within the plot area, which would contribute to ground water recharge. Hence, the objection of NGO in this regard does not hold.

The biological data in respect of flora and fauna was collected by the functional area experts of M/s Engineers India Limited and not by M/s Pragati Labs stationed at Goa during November, 2014 to January, 2015 for collection of ambient air quality, noise, water quality, soil, socio-economics.”

Following the above statement, the EAC recommended the grant of an EC subject to certain conditions. […]

111         The above explanation must be assessed with reference to the norm that the EAC is required to submit reasons for its recommendation. The above extract indicates that the EAC has adverted to the following circumstances:

(i) The “peculiar circumstances” of the case;

(ii) The difficulties in land acquisition which led to a delay in the preparation of the EIA report;

(iii) The “larger public interest” involved;

(iv) The project proponent had not concealed facts and circumstances of the case;

(v) The project is in the public interest; and

(vi) The project proponent had provided a reply to the rebuttal by Rainbow

Warriors on various issues.

This analysis of the EIA report is, to say the least, sketchy and perfunctory and discloses an abdication of its functions by the EAC. The requirement that the EAC must record reasons, besides being mandatory under the 2006 notification, is of significance for two reasons:

(i)           The EAC makes a recommendation to the regulatory authority in terms of the 2006 notification. The regulatory authority has to consider the recommendation and convey its decision to the project proponent. The regulatory authority, as para 8(ii) provides, shall normally accept the recommendations of the EAC. Where it disagrees, it would request reconsideration, stating the reasons for its disagreement. In turn, the EAC will consider the observations of the regulatory authority and furnish its views within a stipulated period; and

(ii)          The grant of an EC is subject to an appeal before the NGT under Section 16 of the NGT Act 2010.

J Environmental Rule of Law

 141        Repeatedly, it has been urged on behalf of the State of Goa, MoEFCC and the concessionaire that the need for a new airport is paramount with an increasing volume of passengers and consequently the flaws in the EIA process should be disregarded. The need for setting up a new airport is a matter of policy. The role of the decision makers entrusted with authority over the EIA process is to ensure that every important facet of the environment is adequately studied and that the impact of the proposed activity is carefully assessed. This assessment is integral to the project design because it is on that basis that a considered decision can be arrived at as to whether necessary steps to mitigate adverse consequences to the environment can be strengthened.

143         In the present case, as our analysis has indicated, there has been a failure of due process commencing from the non-disclosure of vital information by the project proponent in Form 1. Disclosures in Form 1 are the underpinning for the preparation of the ToR. The EIA report, based on incomplete information has suffered from deficiencies which have been noticed in the earlier part of this judgment including the failure to acknowledge that within the study area contemplated by the Guidance manual, there is a presence of ESZs.

The EAC, as an expert body abdicated its role and function by taking into account circumstances which were extraneous to the exercise of its power and failed to notice facets of the environment that were crucial to its decision making. The 2006 notification postulates that normally, the MoEFCC would accept the recommendation of the EAC. This makes the role of the EAC even more significant. The NGT is an adjudicatory body which is vested with appellate jurisdiction over the grant of an EC. The NGT dealt with the submissions which were urged before it in essentially one paragraph. It failed to comprehend the true nature of its role and power under Section 16(h) and Section 20 of the NGT Act 2010. In failing to carry out a merits review, the NGT has not discharged an adjudicatory function which properly belongs to it.

145         In this view of the matter, neither the process of decision making nor the decision itself can pass legal muster. Equally, as an area requiring balance between development of infrastructure and the environment, we are of the view that appropriate directions should be issued by this Court, which would ensure that while the need for a public project as significant as an international airport is duly factored into the decision making calculus, such development proceeds on a considered view of the importance of the prevailing state of the environment. Bearing in mind the need to bring about a wholesome balance between the development of infrastructure of an airport and the preservation of the environment, we have come to the conclusion that time bound directions should be issued.

146         Bearing in view the necessity to maintain a balance between the need for an airport and environmental concerns, we are of the view that it would be appropriate if the EAC is directed to revisit the conditions subject to which it granted its EC on the basis of the specific concerns which have been highlighted in this judgment. Such an exercise primarily is for the EAC to carry out in its expert decision making capacity. The EAC is entrusted with that function as an expert body. The role of judicial review is to ensure that the rule of law is observed. Hence, we propose by the directions which we will issue under Article 142 of the Constitution, to direct the EAC to revisit the conditions for the grant of an EC. While doing so, it would be open to the EAC to have due regard to the conditions which were incorporated in the order of the NGT and to suitably modulate those conditions in pursuance of the liberty which we have preserved to it. To facilitate an expeditious decision, we propose to direct the EAC to carry out this exercise in a prescribed time schedule during which period, the EC shall remain suspended. We propose to direct that after the EAC has formulated its views, they shall be placed before this Court in a Miscellaneous Application in the present proceedings, so as to enable the Court to pass final orders. The Miscellaneous Application may be filed either by the State of Goa as the project proponent or by the MoEFCC. We clarify that no other Court or Tribunal shall entertain any challenge to the ultimate decision of the EAC and final orders thereon shall be passed by this Court in the present proceedings.

K Directions

147         We accordingly issue the following directions:

(i)           The EAC shall revisit the recommendations made by it for the grant of an EC, including the conditions which it has formulated, having regard to the specific concerns which have been highlighted in this judgment;

(ii)          The EAC shall carry out the exercise under (i) above within a period of one month of the receipt of a certified copy of this order;

(iii)         Until the EAC carries out the fresh exercise as directed above, the EC granted by the MoEFCC on 28 October 2015 shall remain suspended;

(iv)         Upon reconsidering the matter in terms of the present directions, the EAC, if it allows the construction to proceed will impose such additional conditions which in its expert view will adequately protect the concerns about the terrestrial eco systems noticed in this judgment. The EAC would be at liberty to lay down appropriate conditions concerning air, water, noise, land, biological and socio-economic environment;

(v)          The EAC shall have due regard to the assurance furnished by the concessionaire to this Court that it is willing to adopt and implement necessary safeguards bearing in mind international best practices governing greenfield airports;

(vi)         We grant liberty to the State of Goa as the project proponent and the MoEFCC, as the case may be, to file the report of the EAC before this Court in the form of a Miscellaneous Application so as to facilitate the passing of appropriate orders in the proceedings; and

(vii)        No other Court or Tribunal shall entertain any challenge to the report that is to be submitted before this Court by the EAC in compliance with the present order.

148        Before we part with the present case, we consider it appropriate to record a finding on the bona fides of the appellants before this Court. It was briefly urged by the respondents that the appellants have invoked the jurisdiction of this Court based on a personal agenda and consequently, the present appeal is liable to be dismissed. This argument cannot be accepted. We accept the submission of Ms Shenoy, learned counsel appearing on behalf of the appellants, that the non-consideration of vital issues by the EAC has led to the invocation of the statutory remedy available to them under Section 22 of the NGT Act 2010. Vague aspersions on the intention of public-spirited individuals does not constitute an adequate response to those interested in the protection of the environment. If a court comes to the finding that the appeal before it was lacking bona fides, it may issue directions which it thinks appropriate in that case. In cases concerning environmental governance, it is a duty of courts to assess the case on its merits based on the materials present before it.

Matters concerning environmental governance concern not just the living, but generations to come. The protection of the environment, as an essential facet of human development, ensures sustainable development for today and tomorrow.

149         The learned Attorney General for India has presented the submissions before this Court with his characteristic sense of objectivity and candour. We wish to record our appreciation for the able assistance rendered to this Court by Ms Anitha Shenoy, learned counsel for the petitioner, Mr ANS Nadkarni, learned Additional Solicitor General for the MoEF, Mr Parag P Tripathi, learned senior counsel and Ms Aastha Mehta, learned counsel for the concessionaire.

150         The appeal is allowed in the above terms. There shall be no order as to costs.

Civil Appeal No 1053 of 2019

151        This appeal is also disposed of in the same terms, conditions, directions and observations as in Civil Appeal No 12251 of 2018.

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