Judgment of the Supreme Court regarding decision to construct a commercial airport in Silchar, Assam, 06/05/2024

  • 06/05/2024

Judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter of Tapas Guha & Others Vs Union of India & Others dated 06/05/2024.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation of the Union Government decided to build a commercial Airport at Silchar in Assam since the existing defence airport is not suitable for domestic civilian operations. Three tea estates, namely, (i) Doloo; (ii) Khoreel; and (iii) Silcoorie were identified by the Government of Assam for the sites of the airport.

The Airport Authority of India1 conducted a feasibility study and chose Doloo as the site for a new Greenfield Airport on land measuring approximately 335 hectares. AAI made a request for additional land, following which an adjacent area in the same tea estate measuring 69 hectares was identified. About 173 dwelling units are situated on the additional area of 69 hectares. The total land area thus measures 404 hectares.

The appellants moved the National Green Tribunal with the grievance that though in terms of the Notification dated 14 September 2006 of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, an Environmental Clearance is required for the construction of an airport, the site has been cleared of shade trees and tea bushes despite the absence of such a clearance.

The National Green Tribunal, by its order January 25, 2024, dismissed the OA. The NGT held that an Environmental Impact Assessment Report was awaited and the Environmental Clearance for the airport has not been granted. Yet it held that the plea of the appellants for an order of restraint on the grant of site clearances and in principle approvals was without merit at that stage. The NGT also observed that the mere inclusion of a clause under the head 'Environment Clearances' in the form of said Notification does not deem the same to be mandatory for purposes of the EIA assessment study.

The appeals were taken up by the Supreme Court on April 22, 2024.

It is an admitted position that an Environmental Clearance is required for the project of setting up the airport and no such clearance has been issued.

The SC was informed that (i) tea bushes were uprooted from Doloo Tea Estate Airport site with the help of JCBs in the month of May 2022; (ii) the entire operation took place over three days and involved the use of about 200 to 250 JCBs ‘day and night’; (iii) shade trees were cut and uprooted; and (iv) during the operation the inhabitants were prevented from moving out of their homes.

There was a complete abdication of adjudicatory duties by the NGT to verify the authenticity of the grievance of the appellants. As an expert body which has been formed under a statute enacted by the Parliament, in the interest of the preservation of the environment, it was first and foremost the duty of the Tribunal to verify the authenticity of the grievance of the appellants. The tribunal, however, simply dismissed the OA having come to the conclusion that no Environmental Clearance had been issued. The perfunctory dismissal of the case by the NGT not only reflects a lack of due diligence but also demonstrates a disregard for the gravity of the environmental concerns raised by the appellants. This casual, if not callous, approach to adjudication not only undermines the integrity of the judicial process but also compromises the very purpose for which the NGT was established – to safeguard the environment, ensure sustainable development and facilitate the effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to the protection and conservation of the environment, forests, and other natural resources. Such negligence on the part of the Tribunal sets a concerning precedent, eroding public trust in the efficacy of environmental governance mechanisms, said the SC order. 

From the material which has been placed on the record, the apex court was of the view that the authorities have acted in violation of the provisions contained in Para 2 of the notification dated 14 September 2006 by carrying out an extensive clearance at the site even in the absence of an Environmental Clearance.

The Assam government has emphasised the need for establishing a civilian airport at Silchar which has led to the proposal to set up a Greenfield Airport on land admeasuring 335 hectares to which an additional component of 69 hectares has been added. The decision on whether an airport is situated at a particular place is a matter of policy. However, when the law prescribes specific norms for carrying out activities requiring an Environmental Clearance, those provisions have to be strictly complied with, the SC said.

Environmental regulations are in place precisely to ensure that developmental projects, such as the establishment of airports, are undertaken in a manner that minimizes adverse ecological impacts and safeguards the well-being of both the environment and local communities. While acknowledging the importance of infrastructure development, it is paramount that such projects proceed in harmony with environmental laws to prevent irreparable damage to ecosystems and biodiversity. The requirement for Environmental Clearance serves as a crucial safeguard against unchecked exploitation of natural resources and helps uphold the principles of sustainable development- which safeguards the interests of both present and future generations.

In consequence, there shall be a direction that absolutely no activity shall be carried out in breach of the provisions of the Notification dated 14 September 2006 at the site of the proposed greenfield airport at Silchar.In the event that any application for the grant of Environmental Clearance has been filed or is filed hereafter, the processing of the application shall take place on the basis of the condition of the site as it existed prior to the date on which the illegal clearance of the tea bushes and shade trees took place in the proposed site of the greenfield airport.

In the above view of the matter, the SC allowed the appeals and set aside the order of the National Green Tribunal dated 25 January 2024. The judgment was passed by the bench comprising the Chief Justice of India, Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Justice J B Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra.