Observing that "This is a classical case of how board is influenced," the Karnataka High Court on Thursday by way of interim relief directed that no further steps shall be taken on the decision taken by the State Board for Wildlife to allow diversion of 595.64 hectares of forest land for constructing railway line between Hubballi and Ankola.
A division bench of Chief Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Nataraj Rangaswamy said "The decision taken by the State Wildlife board in its meeting held on March 20, in the presence of two state ministers as special invites calls for closer scrutiny."
The bench took into consideration the fact that on March 9, in the 13th meeting of the board which was attended by the Chief Minister in his capacity as Chairman. After deliberations it was unanimously resolved to reject the proposal, the Minutes of the Meeting even recorded that the Chief Minister as the Chairman of the Board agreed for rejection. However, in the 14th meeting held 11 days later the unanimous decision was overturned and the project was granted clearance.
The court said "Within the span of 11 days, unanimous decision taken by the state board was completely changed the Ministers were allowed to address the state board who are not members of the state board. This decision taking process by the state board in the March 20 meeting calls for closer scrutiny, especially when a unanimous decision taken 11 days back was changed in presence of two ministers who were not members of the board."
The direction was given during the hearing of a petition filed by Project Vruksha Foundation. In which it is claimed that the 14th meeting of the state board recommending/approving wildlife clearance for the construction of 168-KM new broad gauge railway line was taken by the Chief Minister by abuse of discretion, non application of mind, without due care and caution and without responsibility in the exercise of discretion.
Advocate Sreeja Chakraborty appearing for the petitioners argued that the decision of the Chairman is solely based on the pro-project arguments forwarded by his special invitees, during the 14th meeting of the board. The special invites included Minister for Large and Medium Scale Industries, Jagadish Shettar, Minister of Labour and Sugar, Shivaram Hebbar, R V Deshpande, MLA and former minister for large and medium scale industries and the Chief Secretary of the state, who all are not members of the board.
The petition states that the presence of such special invitees vitiates the proceedings of the meeting as it amounts to violation of Rule 9 of the Karnataka State Board for Wildlife Rules, 2006, which only allows people with experience and expertise in wildlife conservation as special invitees. It is estimated that around 2.2 lakh trees will have to be cut for the project.
The plea also says that the project area falls in the Eco-sensitive zone of the Kali Tiger reserve also known as Anshi-dandeli tiger reserve in the Western Ghats and cuts across the elephant and tiger corridor. The project passes through the Western Ghats which was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2012.
It is further said that the decision taken in the March 20 meeting is in violation of the wildlife conservation spirit as envisaged under the Wildlife Protection Act, and India's Wildlife Action Plan.
The plea prays for quashing the decision taken in the 14th meeting of the state board for wildlife recommending wildlife clearance to the project. Direct the Standing Committee of National Board For Wildlife not to consider the said decision as the final recommendation of the Karnataka SWB in their subsequent meetings.
The court has issued notice to the respondents returnable on July 14 directing them to appear before the court and file their statement of objections.