The Supreme Court on Tuesday quashed the clearance granted to an ambitious housing project of the Tata Group in Chandigarh on the ground that it was very close to a "wildlife sanctuary", saying the Punjab government acted arbitrarily and failed to uphold the "doctrine of public trust".
The top court upheld a Delhi High Court verdict that had revoked sanctions given to CAMELOT, a project of Tata Housing Development Company Ltd (THDCL) spread over 52.66 acres near Sukhna lake in Chandigarh.
Observing that "the earth and human civilization" are facing "the most potent threat" in the form of environmental and wildlife degeneration, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra slammed the Punjab government for according sanction to the project in which the state MLAs were to get an apartment each.
"The entire exercise of obtaining clearance relating to the project is quashed. We regret that such a scenario has emerged in the matter and that it involved a large number of MLAs of Punjab Legislative Assembly. The entire exercise smacks of arbitrariness on the part of the government including functionaries. Thus, we dismiss the appeals with the directions mentioned above," the bench, also comprising Justices M R Shah and B R Gavai, said.
The apex court's verdict came on the appeal of THDCL against a 2017 judgement of the Delhi High Court in which it had said that the project site was "found to be a part of the area of Sukhna Lake" and the permission granted to the project by the Nagar Panchayat was set aside.
The bench said that the court "has to perform its duty" when authorities have failed to protect the wildlife sanctuary and its eco-sensitive zone as there was a need to stop "environmental degradation and wildlife degeneration" to protect the Earth and civilisation.
"The need to protect flora and fauna which constitutes a major portion of our ecosystem is immediate. Development and urbanization coming at the cost of adversely affecting our natural surroundings will in turn impact and be the cause of human devastation as was seen in the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand and in 2018 in Kerala," it said.
The total 'CAMELOT' housing project area, located in Mohali district, was 52.66 acres out of which 41.54 acres was to be developed for group housing. The parking facility was being designed to accommodate 3,645 vehicles and the proposed maximum height of the building was to be 92.65 metres.
The bench, after dealing with factual and legal issues pertaining to the case, said the Punjab government had failed to act on the basis of the "doctrine of public trust".
The public trust doctrine has been founded "on the ideas that certain common properties such as rivers, seashores, forests and the air were held by government in trusteeship for the free and unimpeded use of the general public".
"The origination of the project itself indicates that the state of Punjab was not acting in furtherance of doctrine of public trust as 95 MLAs were to be the recipients of the flats," it said, adding that it was clear as to why the government has not been able to protect the eco-sensitive area around a wildlife zone and permitted construction of high-rise buildings, which was not permissible at all.
The bench, in its verdict, said, "In the ...facts and circumstances of the case, considering the distance of 123 metres from the northern side and 183 metres from the eastern side of the project in question from wildlife sanctuary, in our opinion, no such project can be allowed to come up in the area in question.
"Resultantly, we hold that such projects cannot be permitted to come up within such a short distance from the wildlife sanctuary. More so, in view of the notification issued with respect to the Sukhna wildlife sanctuary towards the side of Chandigarh Union Territory, and also considering the fact that proposal made by the Punjab government of confining the buffer zone to 100 metres has rightly not been accepted by MoEF, as the Government of Punjab as well as the MoEF cannot be the final arbiter in the matter," it said.
The company had applied for environmental clearance (EC) from the state authority which had forwarded the firm's plea to the State Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC), which awarded "gold grading" to the housing project.
The SEAC then forwarded the project file to another state authority for grant of EC and the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) also recommended that EC be granted.
The MoEF, however, called for a report from its Northern Regional Office at Chandigarh. After inspection of the site, the report was submitted which said the housing project is found to be 123 meters on northern side and 183 meters away from the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary.
It also said the project fell under the catchment area of Sukhna Lake as per the Survey of India Map. The view was also supported by Chandigarh Union Territory.
The top court upheld the Delhi High Court verdict in the case which was earlier transferred to it from the Punjab and Haryana High Court at the direction of the Supreme Court.
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