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The Construction Case Demystified
Any construction requires permits and approvals from different government departments to ensure that it is safe, well-provisioned and not harmful to the environment. IIT Madras has been in trouble for not getting these permissions as required by law before undertaking construction activities. Various stances on the issue have emerged in media recently, and the developments are confusing. In such a scenario, the case history is a good place to start to decide for oneself. Here’s a simplified version.
The appellant (the person who filed the case) is Mr. E. Seshan, a wildlife photographer from the Zoological Survey of India. His case is against the Union of India, with six respondents (organizations or people who respond to the case filed against them). All six are government entities, including representatives from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), and of course, IIT Madras. The case is ongoing at the National Green Tribunal’s Southern bench consisting of Justice M. Chockalingam (judicial member) and Prof. Dr. R. Nagendran (expert member).
Appeal and the Restraint Order
On 4th March, 2014, the counsel (lawyer) for Mr. E. Seshan submits to the Tribunal that the Shaastra festival in IITM has led to deer deaths, and that IITM is felling trees without appropriate permission for construction purposes. The Tribunal decides to act on the second issue and passes an ‘interim’ order restraining IITM from a) felling any more trees on campus and b) any construction activities, until further notice from the Tribunal.
Certain construction activities have to obtain Environmental Clearances (ECs) after assessment by government bodies. Since IITM’s construction is “located within 10 km”  of the Guindy National Park and involves a large area of construction, it requires an EC. It has to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which is then submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests for approval. An Environmental Appraisal Committee processes the application and conducts site checks before granting an EC.
As the legislation was passed in 2006, construction prior to this is excused. However, the ten buildings on campus completed after 2006 and the seven in progress, as well as the rest of the 27 planned are not excused.
IITM also never got clearance from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority. Apart from this, numerous No Objection Certificates (NOCs) are required from various government departments, from water to traffic authorities. With all these often time-consuming, confusing and costly permits, it is no surprise that India is ranked 184th out 188 countries in ‘Dealing with Construction Permits’ by the World Bank. As a consequence of this and poor legislation, more than 50% of the buildings in Chennai do not have adequate permits for construction. IITM is no different, but this does not mean that its actions are justified.
 Environmental Impact Assessment Guidance Manual, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Page 2
Save Trees or Save Students?
Continuing our story — in the next hearing, the Department of Environment and Forests decides to appoint an Expert Committee to file a report on the situation, which would take some time. The Tribunal also clarifies that IITM is allowed to make minor civil and electrical construction activities in existing buildings. IITM files applications to the CMDA and the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIA). However, the Tribunal concurs that according to the EIA Act, 2006, the application has to be placed at the Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi. Under this act, IITM also needs to make an application to the Chief Wildlife Warden stating that the campus’ biodiversity and ecosystems will not be harmed by the proposed projects.
In May, the counsel for IITM pleads that the hostels, Sabarmati (95% completed) and the new boys hostel (50% completed) are necessary for the accommodation of new students in the next academic year, unless they are expected to live in cramped conditions. Therefore, this results in a conflict between regulations of different departments. While the Ministry of Education is raising the number of students every year, they cannot be accommodated on the present campus due to required environmental clearances that take several months to complete. The Tribunal takes pity on the respondent and sets deadlines for the CMDA and forest department to permit the construction of the two hostels by 29th May.
On 29th May, the CMDA contends that it cannot permit this construction because IITM has not submitted all the required documents. The Tribunal chides the CMDA for being slow in processing applications and orders it to quickly reach a conclusion. However, the CMDA adds that according to law, IITM has to obtain permission from a Multi-Storied Building Panel and the government. Apart from this it needs to obtain NOCs from the Airport Authority of India, Fire and Rescue Services and the Traffic Police. The institute seems to be sinking in unfinished legislation.
On 16th October, the Tribunal permits the construction of only the two hostels as they receive an EC from the environmental authorities. However, the other seven projects are blocked according to the earlier interim order, awaiting further consideration from the National Green Tribunal.
The Tribunal’s order ensures that students do not face adverse conditions, while stressing on the need to protect the environment. It also acts as a precedent for future entities that do not procure appropriate permits by law. However, the government needs to reduce the complexity of regulation and streamline the NOCs from different departments to make it less costly and time-consuming. It also needs to process applications faster. At the same time, the legislation of permits needs to be uniform throughout the city and not just for those against whom cases have been filed.
Note: As of today, the case has been disposed of by the Green Tribunal, citing the fact that a notification has been passed by the Government of India exempting educational institutions from obtaining environmental clearance. IITM, however, has been warned against further construction without following due process of law. Latest records are available at the National Green Tribunal site.
http://www.greentribunal.gov.in/South_daily_order.aspx — Case history as available on 8th December
http://www.cseindia.org/node/403 — Centre for Science and Environment: Environmental Clearances
https://www.iitm.ac.in/content/iitm-environmental-clearance — Environmental Clearance (pdf) granted for the two hostels