The Bombay High Court has directed the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM or the BMC) to stop all reclamation work and maintain status quo with regard to the coastal road project for now.
A division bench of Chief justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice NM Jamdar followed the Supreme Court's lead in environmental jurisprudence and the precautionary principle which flows from the maxim: in dubio pro natura that is 'In case of doubt, in favour of the nature.'
The bench was hearing a couple of PILs filed by an NGO Society for Improvement, Greenery and Nature and activist Shweta Wagh. Senior advocates Janak Dwarkadas and Gayatri Singh appeared on behalf of the petitioners. Whereas senior advocates AY Sakhare and SG Aney appeared on behalf of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.
The petitioners raised various issues like legality of the project and its impact on the environment, more particularly on the geomorphology and coastal ecology of the areas where reclamation work is being done for the said project.
In a previous hearing, the municipal corporation, through its lawyers, had verbally assured the court that no new reclamation would be carried out till the next date of hearing. The petitioners mentioned the matter on Monday (15 April), complaining that, despite the verbal assurance, the reclamation has ventured in the new areas and in fact the work had gathered more pace.
The proposed coastal road is around 35.56 km in length from north to south Mumbai. Around 168 hectares of coastal stretch, mostly rocky shore, is being reclaimed.
It was argued on behalf of the petitioners that for the northern side of the project, i.e., from Bandra to Versova, the corporation had to obtain environmental clearance because of the order passed by the National Green Tribunal on February 19, 2015. However, it is inconceivable that one segment of this coastal road would require environmental clearance and the other segment will not, Dwarkadas said.
The petitioners contended that since the prior environmental clearance is mandatory, this point goes to the root. Secondly, the amendment dated December 30, 2015, to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2011, on which the respondents rely, cannot be read as a free charter for the destruction of the coastal areas, they argued.
On the other hand, SG Aney argued that whether the southern part of the project would require environmental clearance or not is being debated before the National Green Tribunal. According to the MCGM, environmental clearance is not required.
Moreover, it was contended that the interpretation of the petitioners of the amendment of 2015 was flawed. It was submitted that the problem of traffic congestion and commuting in the city had been considered at various levels and an informed decision is taken to build a coastal road.
According to the respondents, the coastal road is the only solution to the commuting woes of the city. This need, according to the respondents, is the exceptional circumstance envisaged under the 2015 Amendment. Permissions from the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) had been obtained, Aney submitted.
Aney also submitted that the state exchequer would stand to lose Rs.10 crore per day if the work is stopped.
After hearing submissions on behalf of both the respondents and petitioners, the court noted-
"At this stage, we cannot say that the challenge of the petitioners is so meritless that it requires summary dismissal without even a reply. There is an order passed by the National Green Tribunal regarding the part of the very same Project holding that environmental clearance is necessary."
The court observed further-
"They have emphasized the destruction of existing natural features and habitats and that the work will be permanently transformed and erase existing geomorphology. They have averred that the excavation and crushing of natural rock bed and change in the gradient of the shoreline would alter the tidal patterns. Impact on the coastal habitats and biodiversity is also asserted."
Finally, the court referred to the Supreme Court and its decisions in environmental cases and said-
"Fortunately, we are not without guidance. The Supreme Court, expounding the environmental jurisprudence, has settled many principles; one of them is the Precautionary Principle. It flows from the maxim: in dubio pro natura that is 'In case of doubt, in favour of nature.' These words are clear enough to require any elaboration."
Thus, the respondents were directed to stop all reclamation work and maintain status quo till April 23, the next date of hearing in the case.
Read the Order Here