Supreme Court Stays Laying Of Paver Blocks In Matheran, Says It'll Destroy City's Natural Beauty
The Supreme Court of India on Friday issued a stay on the laying of concrete paver blocks in the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of Matheran, the only pedestrian hill station in Asia, until the appropriate monitoring constituted by virtue of a 2003 notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests took a call on the issue within eight weeks.
While directing the committee to decide whether e-rickshaws would be permitted in the city of Matheran, and whether paver blocks could be laid on the roads, a division bench comprising Justices B.R. Gavai and Vikram Nath pronounced:
“Prima facie, we find that laying down of paver blocks would destroy the natural beauty of the said city. It cannot be in dispute that even prior to laying down of paver blocks the manpulled rickshaws were plying on the roads in the said city. If that be so, there should be no difficulty in the E-Rickshaws plying on the same roads, which are in existence for ages. Even in the reserved forests there are no concrete roads and the safari vehicles are plying on the jungle roads. The same can also be considered for the city of Matheran. This, in our view, would balance the concern of both the sides. We, therefore, direct the Monitoring Committee to take a call on the aforesaid two issues and submit its report within a period of eight weeks from today.”
The bench was hearing an application filed by three representative associations of the horsemen, or ghodawala sangathans, seeking a modification of an earlier order that permitted the implementation of eco-friendly e-rickshaw in Matheran, on an experimental basis, to check its feasibility to replace the hand-pulled rickshaws plying in the area.
Senior Advocate Shyam Divan, appearing on behalf of the applicants, submitted that the earlier directives failed to take into account the heritage value of the city and the special status conferred on it by the environment ministry. The installation of concrete pavers on the roads, the senior counsel vehemently urged, spoiled the natural beauty of the city. He also pointed out that residents and horses were in danger of slipping on the roads and getting injured. The e-rickshaw pilot project, he said, was essentially resulting in motorisation ‘creeping into’ the city. He also criticised the large-scale construction activities sanctioned by the municipal authorities to facilitate the pilot project on the ground that it made extensive and permanent changes to the ecology of the protected area. He argued, “The appropriate authorities, particularly the state of Maharashtra and the Matheran Municipal Council, have rendered nugatory all the steps taken over the years to protect the ecology and environment of the Matheran ESZ.”
No motorised vehicles were allowed in this quaint hill station in Maharashtra till the introduction of e-rickshaws in 2022. With tourists and residents still using horses and toy trains to travel long distances, the idyllic, old-world charm of country life has been preserved in Matheran. However, the amicus curiae, Advocate K. Parameshwar argued that the lack of transportation was a constant source of difficulty for the residents of the colonial city. Endorsing the move to replace hand-pulled rickshaws with e-rickshaws, the counsel said that when Matheran was designated as an eco-sensitive zone, the concept of e-vehicles did not exist as it did in the present day, and as such, there were no reasons to deny the people of Matheran, this advent of human technology.
After noting the submissions made by the counsel, the bench said, in no uncertain terms, that while the ecology and environment of Matheran had to be preserved, the concerns of both sides had to be balanced. The difficulties faced by the people residing in the city, and the implications of the hand-pulled rickshaws prevalent as a mode of transport had to be taken into consideration. Therefore, the court held, “It would be appropriate that the monitoring committee takes a call with regard to permitting the e-rickshaws and the laying down of paver blocks.”
These interlocutory application was filed in the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad case, an omnibus forest protection matter in which the top court issued the longest-standing continuing mandamus in the field of environmental litigation. Since 1996, when the writ jurisdiction of the court was invoked by a plea to protect the Nilgiris forest, numerous orders have been passed on a vast array of issues, such as deforestation, logging, mining, compensatory afforestation, and endangered species, with the court stepping beyond its traditional role of interpreting the law, and taking over day-to-day governance of Indian forests. In 2002, a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) was also constituted for monitoring the implementation of the court’s orders and bringing to its attention, incidents of non-compliance.
Divan, representing the applicant ghodawala sangathans was assisted by Advocate Nina Nariman, and briefed by a team from M/s Karanjawala & Co. Advocates comprising Advocates Tahira Karanjawala, Arjun Sharma, Shreyas Maheshwari, and Ritwik Mohapatra. The Maharashtra government was represented by the standing counsel of the state, Advocate Siddharth Dharmadhikari, Advocate K. Parmeshwar assisted the court as the amicus curiae in the matter.
In Re: T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India & Ors. | Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995