Road to nowhere

By amending the National Highways Act, Prime Minister Deve Gowda seems to be "giving an open charter of exploitation to the building lobby"

Published: Friday 28 February 1997

ominous promises that were being made by Prime Minister (pm) H D Deve Gowda, undermining the environment and people's rights, are now being kept one by one. The latest is an ordinance amending the National Highways Act, 1956, to facilitate speedier acquisition of land for national highways (nh).

According to the ordinance approved by the President on January 24, if the Centre "is satisfied that for a public purpose any land is required for the building, maintenance, management or operation of the national highway... it may, by notification in the official gazette, declare its intention to acquire such land". And the land so acquired, "shall not be called in question in any court or by any authority".

According to noted Supreme Court lawyer Rajiv Dhawan, the legislation "is unparalleled when compared with legislations anywhere in the world". As per the amendment, the Centre will appoint a "competent authority" having the powers of a civil court to deal with the modalities of land acquisition, whose decision would be final. Only the quantum of compensation may be contested. Even here, any difference between the parties concerned on the amount of compensation would be resolved "by an arbitrator to be appointed by the Central government". This would not stop the Centre from using the land in the meantime. However, no standard of compensation has been specified in the ordinance so far.

The move is part of a larger Central policy on developing nhs following the pm's statement at the Destination India summit held in New Delhi in September 1996, where he had promised "...certain legislation about acquiring the land which will ease the burden of the investor". It may be recalled that last year, referring to the unfinished Mumbai-Sangmaner roadlink, the pm had promised the Maharashtra chief minister Manohar Joshi that relevant provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, would be amended in favour of "developmental activities" (Down To Earth, Vol 5, No 17). As Dhawan puts it wryly, "Our pm is obsessed with highways and this obsession is to be achieved at all costs -- both social and economic."

Armed with the ordinance, the Centre will simply hand over the land to the concerned private party who can then develop nhs through the build-operate-transfer (bot) route. Other than facilitating building roads, the bot route also helps in their maintenance and in providing commercial facilities like restaurants, motels, warehouses and even residential and commercial complexes along the roads. According to Tejinder Khanna, lieutenant-governor of Delhi, the Delhi government is already wooing private investment for an outer by-pass to make the city less congested.

"By promulgating such an ordinance, the Centre is debarring people from their right to approach the court," says Amit Rai, law officer at the Centre for Environmental Law, New Delhi. "This is something that cannot be found anywhere in law. It is a violation of the very basic theory of natural justice," he ruefully adds. Dhawan said there was no reason to promulgate an ordinance for a bill that could have easily gone through the usual rigours of a parliamentary debate once the budget session was on. He charged that the use of an ordinance to push through nhs "is a subversion of democracy, and Parliament should be urged to reject this order".

Dinesh Mohan, head of the Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (iit)-Delhi, opined that broadening highways by providing more land is no solution to traffic problems. "Studies have indicated that there are no traffic jams on Indian highways, except when these highways cross towns and cities. It is, therefore, wrong to assume that increased traffic load would be accommodated by enlarging existing highways," he said.

Geetam Tiwari, of iit-Delhi and an expert on traffic planning, corroborates Mohan's observations that increased roadspace certainly is not the need of the hour. Dhawan summed up the ordinance's disastrous impact as follows: "Gowda seems to be a man in a hurry. And through this ordinance, he is giving an open charter of rampant exploitation to the building lobby."

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