Infrastructure Development Must Comply with Environmental Law

In a decision of the Supreme Court on May 6, 2024, in the case of Tapas Guha and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors. [2024 INSC 399] the Supreme Court observed that while infrastructure development is important, it must exist in harmony and compliance with environmental laws and reprimanded the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for not intervening in the construction of the Silchar Greenfield Airport Project, which proceeded without the required Environmental Clearance.

The present case is regarding the construction of a commercial airport at Silchar, Assam, for which the Government of Assam had identified three tea estates namely, Doloo, Khoreel and Silcoorie, as sites of the airport. After conducting a feasibility study, the Airport Authority of India chose Doloo as the site for the construction of the new Greenfield Airport. The appellant in the present case had brought a grievance before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) regarding the requirement of an environmental clearance, as per a notification dated September 14, 2006, issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, for the construction of the airport without which the site had already been cleared of shade trees and tea bushes. The NGT held that the plea of appellants lacked merit since the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was awaited and did not halt the construction of the airport. The present case was brought before the apex court challenging this order of the NGT.

The main issue for consideration was whether the authorities were justified in continuing with the construction of the airport and clearing the site without obtaining the necessary environmental clearance, as required by the Notification dated September 14, 2006.

After hearing the contentions of both parties, the Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that as per the notification dated September 14, 2006, prior Environmental Clearance was required before any construction work was undertaken. The Court further pointed out that the clearance of the site could not be attributed to the cultivation activities of the tea estate for which no environmental clearance was required.

While coming down heavily on the NGT, the Court stated that as an expert statutory body set up in the interest of the preservation of the environment, there was a complete abdication of adjudicatory duties by the NGT in its failure to verify the appellants’ grievances. Thus, while holding that although the decision to establish an airport would serve broader policy objectives, it must be executed within the confines of legal frameworks set up for the protection of the environment, the Court set aside the order of the NGT and halted further activities for the airport construction.