- Apprentice Lawyer
The Karnataka High Court on Monday took strong exception to arguments made by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) on affidavit that Environment Protection Act of 1986 (EP Act) was enacted by the Parliament at the instance of foreign powers and non-profit organisations which file public interest litigation petitions under the EP Act are acting at the instance of such foreign powers.
Chief Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka, who was heading the Bench, said that he had, in his 17 years as High Court judge, never come across such obnoxious arguments by a government agency.
The Bench which also comprised Justice SS Magadum said that such objectionable things cannot be filed by an agency of the State and the Bench cannot be deterred by such allegations.
The affidavit was sworn by RB Pekam, a Deputy General Manager at the Regional Office of NHAI in Bangalore.
The Bench observed that the "scandalous statements" on affidavit were verified by Pekam and the advocate for NHAI.
When the counsel appearing for NHAI prayed for withdrawal of the said affidavit, the Court was in mood to entertain it.
"We cannot casually allow the affidavit filed by NHAI to be withdrawn," said the Bench.
The Court, therefore, proceeded to direct the Chairman of NHAI to nominate a senior officer to look into the affidavit.
"If NHAI does not want to support the contents of the affidavit, then they must come clean. NHAI must tell what the Court what action has been taken against the officer who has filed the said objections," the Bench said.
NHAI, being an agency of the State, is under an obligation to place on record the procedure in which the affidavit was finalised, the Court added.
The Bench also directed the petitioner, United Conservation Movement Charitable and Welfare Trust to place on record the details of its constitution as well as its activities in the field of environment. It was further directed to clarify whether it was receiving funds from foreign entities.
However, the Court deemed it pertinent to add that,
"This does not mean that we have accepted the reckless allegations of NHAI."
The Court was hearing a PIL challenging an order issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2013 granting exemption for the expansion of National Highways greater than 100 kms without conducting Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
"That there is no power vested in the Central Government to exempt an activity which earlier required EIA and environmental clearance from the purview of EIA. Such power of exemption is not contained in the Environment (Protections) Act, 1986 read with the Environment (Proetction) Rules, 1986 and hence, the impugned order dated 22.08.3013 is ultra vires," the petitioner contended.
The NHAI, in response submitted that the EP Act was enacted at the instance of certain foreign powers and the present petitioner is an anti national.
"The Act was passed by the Parliament not only for protection of environment but also at the instance of foreign powers. And many NGOs are filing such writ petitions at the instance of foreign powers," the NHAI affidavit said.
The allegations in the affidavit were not limited to the petitioner in the present case but it also targeted other NGOs.
"Many organisations in India calling themselves Environmental Action Groups such as Amnesty International etc are actively involved in attacking development projects and challenging government policies and notifications and doing anti-national activities. There are many NGOs receiving funds from foreign sources and church funds in contravention of laws," it further alleged.
Interestingly, the affidavit said that "the fact that petitioner had quoted passages from books written by Duniway and Herrick shows that this writ petition may have been filed at the instance of foreign vested interest."
The Court in its order recorded this submission of NHAI - that the petition was allegedly filed at the instance of foreign interest since the petitioner had quoted from books of foreign authors in the petition.
"NHAI, in its statement of objections allege that most of the organisations which file PILs before this Court and the Apex Court are based on foreign powers", the Court said in its order passed on Monday.
Such objectionable allegations cannot be made by an agency of the State, the Court said.
"If you think that by making such allegations, you can deter the Bench, then you are before the wrong Bench," Justice Oka remarked.
After passing its order, the CJ orally observed that it was "shocked" to see such an "obnoxious" document.
The matter will be next heard on February 2, 2021.