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Highway hurdle: the Chennai-Salem corridor

The Madras High Court verdict (judgement; फैसला /निर्णय) quashing (rejecting as invalid; अमान्य के रूप में अस्वीकार करना) land acquisition (seizing of land; अधिग्रहण /भूमि को जब्त करना) proceedings for the proposed (suggested; सुझाव)) Chennai-Salem greenfield expressway is an indictment (sign; संकेत ) of the arbitrary (random; मनमाना) decision-making process behind the project. This is a political setback (check in progress;अवरोध ) to its leading proponent (a person who advocates a proposal; प्रस्तावक /एक व्यक्ति जो एक प्रस्ताव की वकालत करता है), Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, given the extent to which he went to aggressively stifle (crush; कुचालना/दबाना ) all criticism and protests against it. The court has referred to how “peaceful protests were stifled, unwritten gag orders (an order prohibiting further action; आगे की कार्रवाई पर रोक लगाने वाला आदेश)) were promulgated (promoted; प्रख्यापित /पदोन्नत), [and] police force was used to handle the peaceful protesters who were making a request to spare them and their lands”. It was only after the court intervened (interfered so as to prevent something; हस्तक्षेप करना) that “these high-handed actions subsided (became less intense; तीव्रता कम होना )”. It invalidated (cancelled; रद्द) the notification for intent to acquire land for the project on the ground that the National Highways Authority of India cannot acquire land without complying (to agree to something; किसी बात के लिए सहमत होना) with the requirement of preparing an environment impact assessment report. The decision is important for affirming (reinforcing; पुष्टि करना ) the principle that environmental clearance ought to be obtained before any project is allowed to advance to a stage where measures become irreversible. It underscores (underlines; रेखांकित करना) that sufficient data on the possible harm to the environment is needed before resources are committed to a project. In this case, not only would land titles be transferred to the state; heavy compensation (money awarded for a loss; क्षतिपूर्ति) amounts would also have been paid by the time the environmental impact is known.

The project was pushed by the Centre and the State even though it was set to pass through wetlands, fertile farmlands, reserved forests and water bodies. Farmers who stood to lose their land and environmentalists had questioned the claim (assertion; दावा) that by reducing the transit time, there would be saving of fuel, thereby cutting the carbon footprint. What has been exposed (revealed; उजागर/प्रकट) in the verdict is that the eight-lane corridor was never really cleared as a project under the Centre’s Bharatmala Pariyojana. It did not figure in the list of road projects approved under Bharatmala-I. The NHAI did not explain in its counter-affidavit how the Chennai-Madurai highway, an approved project, was dropped and the Chennai-Salem project included in its place. The court examined the record and found that there was nothing to show that it was approved (officially accept or agree; स्वीकृत /आधिकारिक रूप से स्वीकार या सहमत)) by either the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs or the Public-Private Partnership Appraisal Committee; the Chennai-Tiruchi-Madurai corridor had much higher vehicular traffic to justify its inclusion (the act of being included; समावेश /शामिल किए जाने का कार्य) in Bharatmala. The court’s conclusion that labelling its replacement by the Salem project as a ‘policy decision’ was not a sufficient (adequate; पर्याप्त) explanation is unexceptionable (not open to objection; अप्राप्य). Having failed to convince the court that the procedures (norms; मानदंड)it followed were above board (overcompensate;अत्याधिक प्रयास करना), the least that the Centre can now do is to make a comprehensive (extensive; व्यापक) study of its impact on the environment and on farming and rural livelihoods before moving ahead.

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