“Mere internal squabble that has been brought to the NGT”: ASG Shankaranarayanan in Auroville Crown Road Case

  • Thyagarajan Narendran
  • 09:14 PM, 06 Jan 2022

Additional Solicitor General R. Shankaranarayanan representing the Auroville Foundation today submitted that the dispute in Auroville regarding the felling of trees for laying the Crown Road is merely an internal squabble between two opposing parties of the township and that it does not warrant the interference of the National Green Tribunal.

When the hearing of the matter began, Shankaranarayanan took the tribunal through the pleadings and submitted that the petitioner is well aware that it is merely a construction of roads, however, the petitioners have dragged the issue to the tribunal for no apparent reason. He further submitted that as per the procedure laid down in the Auroville Foundation Act, 1988, the plans were placed before the residential committee and permission was duly granted by the committee. However, the petitioners are contending that the plans subsequent to the approvals of the governmental authorities were not placed before the committee and that it is not contemplated that they should do so.

Shankaranarayanan argued that what was being laid is not an expressway or a State High way but merely a pathway. He argued that the burden of proof to show that a reserved forest was being destroyed is on the petitioners. The Bench however told the ASG that in case of environmental matters, reverse burden applies. The ASG replied to this saying reverse burden applies only when the petitioners have established a prima facie case and not under any other circumstance.

The ASG submitted that the land was barren land and trees were planted in order to battle soil erosion and there was no existing forest prior to that. He further questioned the bonafide of the petitioners asking how their homes would have been constructed if not for felling a few trees.

The ASG submitted that the prayer of the petition seeks directions and a mandatory injunction which is in fact in the nature of a specific performance thereby making it a civil dispute. The ASG further submitted that the petitioners initially sought directions, then they changed their stance to seeking approval from the Town Planning committee thus not having a uniform prayer. The ASG submitted that a street to grant access to a place is not a development, it is merely an easement.

On the argument of the petitioner stating that the road could be deviated to save the trees, the ASG submitted that it will amount to expanding the scope of the petition and that more trees might have to be felled for that purpose since 90% of the construction has already concluded. The ASG further submitted that the revenue records make it clear that these were not forest lands and these were agricultural lands and that it does not come within the purview of NGT. The ASG concluded by saying that the petitioner was having a shack that was demolished for the purpose of laying the road, now that there is an interim order he has rebuilt the shack.

Nithyaesh Natraj, the Advocate, appearing for the intervenors in support of the project submitted that there has been no demonstrable environment issue and that the petitioners have been shifting their arguments from time to time. This is the case where all the lands are owned by Auroville which is deemed to be a State under Article 12 and that the activities of the State are deemed to be fair unless there is a prima facie violation of rights.

He further submitted that the project was first approved in 2001, if the petitioner was so aggrieved he could approach the NGT when the NGT act came into force in 2010. However, the petitioner has waited till 2021 to approach the tribunal just because his shack has been demolished. He submitted that the shack which has been reconstructed now is being used for all nefarious activities.

Natraj argued that each family most of whom are not Indian in Auroville occupies one acre of land for their residence, enjoy free food and other amenities all because Auroville receives substantial funding from the central government. He further submitted that none of Gram Panchayats in India enjoys such luxuries and now that there is a threat to that one acre being encroached for laying this road they have approached the tribunal.

Natraj submitted that all is not well with the organisation that is Auroville and its residents and that it

The grievance in the application was that the Auroville Foundation (respondent) was engaged in cutting large scale trees from the Auroville Forest area which has its own biological diversity and eco-sensitiveness.

The Counsel appearing for the applicant had relied on certain newspaper reports to convince regarding the location of the area with a large number of trees and the manner in which cutting was done by using heavy machinery.

Though certain objections were raised before the authorities, no action had been taken by the authorities which prompted the applicant to file the application, claiming to be an environmental activist to protect the Auroville Forest area against destruction, sought-following reliefs:

a. Direct the 1st respondent to prepare a Detailed Development Plan including a mobility plan which is based on and respects the present-day ground realities, to be approved as mandated in the Master Plan and implement projects based on such plan after necessary impact assessments and feasibility studies in an environmentally sustainable manner.

b. Direct the respondents to pay costs to the applicant.

c. Issue such other orders as it deems fit in the interest of the case and renders justice.

The Counsel appearing for the State of Tamil Nadu had submitted that,

“Tamil Nadu Government has no interest in this matter. Though part of the area is falling within Tamil Nadu the area where activities are going on is exclusively in the possession of the 1st respondent- Auroville Foundation and high dignitaries are at the helm of affairs of the administration of the Foundation.”

On perusal of the facts stated the Bench was satisfied that there arose a substantial question of the environment as to whether any permission is required under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for cutting trees from an area which can be treated as a ‘Deemed Forest’ under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. As a result, the matter was admitted.

Considering the urgency of the matter, the Bench felt the need to pass an ex-parte interim as if no interim order was passed then it was likely to cause greater damage to the environment.

“Even under Order 39 Rule 1 read with Section 19 (4) of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, if Court is satisfied that there arises an extraordinary circumstance which requires the Tribunal to exercise the discretion of issuing an interim order without hearing the other side, then Court can issue such order in order to protect and preserve the property which is said to be under danger,” noted the Bench.

The counsel for the petitioners submitted that he needs some time to reply to the arguments of the respondents. The bench has now posted the matter on Monday for the reply of the petitioner.

Case title: Navroz Kersasp Mody & Anr Vs The Auroville Foundation

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