The Supreme Court while dealing with the issue relating to the construction of the railway overbridges in West Bengal as a part of the Setu Bharatnam project held that the development projects in the country cannot be stalled.

The Court said that the protection of the environment and ecology is important but at the same time, human life is equally important.

The two-Judge Bench comprising Justice B.R. Gavai and Justice Vikram Nath observed, “The contest between development and environmental concerns is ever ongoing. While there is no doubt that ecology and environment need to be protected for the future generations, at the same time, development projects cannot be stalled, which are necessary not only for the economic development of the country, but at times for the safety of the citizens as well. No doubt that the protection of environment and ecology are important. However, at the same time, it cannot be denied that human life is also equally important.”

The Bench further noted that the Calcutta High Court considered all the relevant aspects of the matter by restricting the number of trees to be felled to only 356 and further put the State Government on terms for compensatory afforestation.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan appeared on behalf of the petitioner while Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi appeared on behalf of the State of West Bengal.

Brief Facts

The Setu Bharatam project being stayed since the year 2018 post the order passed by the Calcutta High Court wherein cutting down 356 trees was challenged in the Apex Court and in the year 2020, the Supreme Court constituted an expert committee to examine such a matter. The High Court had held that the cutting down of numerous trees was necessary for the purpose of implementing the important public project of constructing the five Railway Over Bridges (ROBs).

The counsel for the petitioner submitted before the Supreme Court that such a project envisaged the felling of thousands of trees, including heritage trees, and hence, such felling should not be permitted. On the other hand, the counsel for the State contended that the project was necessary and also pointed out the fact that more than 600 lives were lost due to railway accidents. It was also argued that the State had undertaken to plant five trees as against the one tree felled as a compensatory measure.

The Supreme Court after hearing the contentions of both the counsel asserted, “It is thus clear that the Committee itself is not sure, as to whether by constructing local overbridges, any of the 306 trees could be saved or not. … On account of non-construction of ROBs, a number of accidents have taken place at Railway Crossings resulting in death of hundreds of human beings. The Report of the Committee itself would show that there is a congestion, on account of which, the construction of the project is necessary. They have given an alternative that instead of ROBs local over bridges can be constructed.”

The Court held that it did not find any error being committed by the High Court and said that it would appreciate if the Central Government holds a joint meeting with all the stakeholders including the representatives of all the State Governments/Union Territories and come out with a unified proposal for consideration of the Court.

However, the Apex Court kept the petition alive to consider the report of the Experts on the subject of compensatory conservation in India.

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the Special Leave Petition.

Cause Title- Association for Protection of Democratic Rights v. State of West Bengal [SLP(C) No. 25047/2018]

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