The Supreme Court on Thursday lifted the suspension of the environment clearance to the Mopa international airport, allowing resumption of construction of the airport in Pernem taluka.
The SC bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta in its judgment said the suspension on “the EC shall accordingly stand lifted”.
The SC had ordered the state government and GMR Goa International Airport Ltd to maintain status quo on the under-construction airport due to environmental impact.
Giving relief to the state on the airport construction, the SC said, “We have also taken note of the assurance which has been tendered on behalf of the concessionaire that it will adopt a zero carbon programme both in the construction and operational phases of the airport. We accept the undertaking of the concessionaire and issue a direction for compliance.”
During the course of the hearing before the top court, a statement was made on behalf of the concessionaire GMR Goa International Airport Limited that in the event of the apex court sustaining the EC for the project it stands committed to fulfil the objective of making the Mopa airport a zero carbon airport operation.
The purpose of a zero carbon airport operation is to eliminate completely anthropogenic carbon emissions reaching the atmosphere, or to the minimum extent possible from airport activities performed during its operation.
The top court said, “The minutes of the meeting of the EAC dated April 23, 2019 are taken on record as prayed for. The additional conditions which have been imposed by the EAC shall, together with the original conditions of the EC dated October 28, 2015 and the directions issued by the NGT, be cumulatively observed.”
The earlier SC judgment in the Mopa airport case had highlighted numerous deficiencies by the project proponent leading to the grant of the EC. The SC had highlighted numerous concerns including the preservation of forests, the existence of ESAs with their attendant features and the impact of the project on natural water channels.
The SC had also noted the abject failure of the project proponent to provide complete information on the existence of reserved forests.
In the proceedings that had followed the SC order, the project proponent had sought to remedy its failure by taking into account additional information on significant aspects of the environment.
In the process leading to the grant of the EC as well as the lifting of its suspension by the top court, numerous mitigatory conditions have been imposed on the project proponent.
The SC also observed, “We deem it appropriate to ensure the oversight of the project by a specialised body to ensure compliance with the directions cumulatively issued by this court. We direct the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute to be appointed to oversee compliance with the directions cumulatively issued by this court. The project proponent shall bear the costs, expenses and fees of NEERI.”
The Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change had moved proceedings, seeking a direction that the minutes of the fortieth meeting of the expert appraisal committee dated April 23, 2019 be taken on the record so that the embargo imposed by the top court on the environmental clearance for the Mopa airport could be lifted.
This followed upon the judgment which was rendered on a challenge addressed to the SC against a decision of the National Green Tribunal upholding the EC, subject to compliance with certain conditions.
The SC said the evaluation of merits is a matter which primarily rests with an expert authority. The court can certainly supervise procedural compliance and ensure that all necessary inputs which are required to be factored into the decision making process have been duly borne in mind. Once this has been done, the court must be circumspect in micro-managing the decision-making process by the EAC by substituting its own opinion for that of the EAC. Undoubtedly, no process can be perfect or free from studied criticism.
The original appellant represented by Anitha Shenoy, senior counsel, attempted to perform such an exercise when she submitted that the collection of primary faunal data from a nearby village and secondary Part E data from ZSI sources was not an adequate means of dealing with the concerns expressed by the top court.
The SC said, “In assessing these criticisms, we must equally be cognisant of the fact that by the judgment of this court dated March 29, 2019, the EAC was required to carry out the exercise within a period of one month from the receipt of the order of this court. The court did not quash the EC but directed that it should remain under suspension until the EAC revisited its recommendations in the light of the concerns which were expressed by this court. Having assessed the process which took place following the judgment of this court and the outcome, it would be difficult for this court to hold that it fails to meet the standards which the court applies in the course of judicial review in environmental matters.”
The apex court had ruled in favour of two petitions filed by Goa-based Hanumant Aroskar and members of the Federation of Rainbow Warriors, who had challenged the green nod given by the National Green Tribunal, Pune.
Separately, the tribunal also rejected applications by the two petitioners in August 2018.
The two petitioners had sought a stay from the SC over the illegal felling of 55,000 trees at Mopa, arguing that the environment impact assessment report by the green watchdog only mentioned the bushes on the airport site.