The ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) has rejected the argument of Indian Railways that it has power to acquire forest land falling in the right of way (ROW) and divert it for expansion of projects and that applicability of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 is not binding on the transport behemoth.
The latest MoEFCC direction comes in the wake of conversion of 176km meter gauge line between Akola-Khandwa to broad gauge. Of this, 39km line passes through Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Amravati district.
In the instant case, ministry of railways (MoR) had recently approached the MoEFCC contending that the meter gauge line passing through Melghat was constructed during 1955-59. The railways said it has power to acquire forest land under Section 11(a) of the Railway Act of 1989 and divert it for expansion as the said land falls in the ROW.
The MTR was among the first 9 tiger reserves notified in 1973. Recently National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in its report to the MoEFCC termed the project through the tiger reserve infeasible.
“We have been repeatedly clarifying that FCA and WPA will be applicable for diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes irrespective of the land ownership and forest land owned by the state cannot be acquired and transferred to the railways under Section 11(a) of the Railways Act without following the provisions of both the Acts,” said MoEFCC officials.
The MoEFCC also sought legal opinion from the Union ministry of law and justice on the applicability of the FCA on the use of land falling in the ROW for construction of new railway line. The law ministry in its reply opined, “Though railway administration has powers to construct or maintain the railways on any land, forest land falling in ROW attracts provisions of the FCA.”
The South Central Railway (SCR) has taken up gauge conversion work between Akola-Khandwa passing through the tiger reserve. The project will need additional 50.45 hectares reserve forest land, cost of which will be Rs4.05 crore. The total cost of the project from inside the MTR comes to Rs1,231.35 crore. NTCA has already reported that the project would spell doom for the tiger reserve.
On the contentious issue, the MoEFCC has written to all the states opining that railways has ROWs for construction and maintenance of railway lines for public welfare and may require land from the owners of the land but this right is also subject to other statutory provisions and regulations. “If forest land cannot be dispensed with for the railway track in view of conservation of forest and wildlife, then railways cannot acquire said land under the Railway Act without prior approval under the FCA. The state government(s) also cannot allot forest land, which is not the property of the railways,” says the MoEFCC.
The MoEFCC has told the states that railway projects passing through sanctuaries, tiger reserves and national parks amount to destruction of habitat under the WPA and hence such projects require approval from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). This is in pursuance of Supreme Court order issued on May 9, 2002.