The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has cleared the controversial Hubli-Ankola railway line that will cut across the eco-sensitive Western Ghats in Karnataka, and has allowed the Railways to approach the state government for its approval.
The NGT approval for the project comes after a Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) last year disapproved the 168-km rail link project, conceived in 1998 primarily to transport iron ore from the Bellary-Hospet mines, saying that it would have "huge and irreparable" ecological impact on the forests, wildlife and biodiversity of the Western Ghats.
Construction of the railway line will involve use of a total of 965 hectares of forest land in Dharwad, Yellapur and Karwar forest divisions in Karnataka for non-forest activity (construction of broad gauge railway line).
The NGT held that it is the state government is within its rights to convert forest land to a non-forest activity for a specific project and the issue has to be dealt with accordingly.
"Under the provision of section 2 of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the state government has to issue an order permitting such conversion with prior approval of the ministry of environment and forests of the central government. We do not think that CEC even intended to allow or deny such right to the project proponent (Railways) but has expressed its view for non-grant of such permission in terms of Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
"The principal apprehension was the environmental and ecological damage to the Western Ghats. In the circumstances, we dispose of this application with liberty to the project proponent to move the state government by submitting an appropriate proposal for diversion of land for this project," a bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar said.
In 2006, two Karnataka-based NGOs - Parisara Sanmrakshana Kendra and Wilderness Club – had filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the diversion of forest land for this project and the apex court had since halted the construction.
On 5 October last year, the Supreme Court transferred a bunch of cases involving forest clearances and the CEC's views on it to the green panel while asking it to decide them expeditiously.