NAGPUR: Was a loophole exploited to give environmental concerns a go-by in the case of NH-7? Vice-president of BJP's national legal cell and nature lover Vinod Tiwari said that environmental impact assessment (EIA) report was needed for stretches of over 29km on the highway. Therefore, the highway was divided into stretches of less than 29km while awarding tenders to highway contractors to obviate the need for EIA reports.

This, Tiwari said, was wrong.

"It's an example of the nexus between contractors and bureaucrats. A reassessment needs to be done for the entire affected stretch with a larger view. The reassessment can be conducted in 90 days if done on a war footing," he said.

Environmental activist Vishakha Rao-Jathar said that if the highway was widened, the noise and traffic will take a huge toll on wild animals. Entrepreneur Ajay Sanghi argued that while trees could be replanted or compensatory afforestation done, wild animals cannot be relocated.

Swanand Soni, former secretary of NGO Srushti, explained the history of the controversy with a startling revelation. "Even Oriental, the firm that is building the 37km stretch, had written to NHAI on December 25, 2012, and again on September 16, 2013, saying that the stretch should not be widened into a four-lane road. Even NHAI had suggested mitigation measures worth Rs750 crore. Later, the Supreme Court appointed a Centrally-Empowered Committee (CEC) to study the situation. The CEC suggested that an alternative road should be given a priority rather than four-laning the highway. In the CEC report, the NHAI revised the budget of the mitigation measures to Rs244 crore.

Soni added that environmentalists were not against banning of vehicles or stopping traffic on the road all together. "We are also realistic. I have been travelling to Pench since I was 12 years old. The road has been this wide ever since and it can remain at the same width, but in a much better condition," he said. Tiwari said that when Justice Sharad Bobde was chief justice of Jabalpur High Court, he travelled on this road many times and experienced its pathetic condition firsthand. "He was the one who ordered time-bound repairs of the road," Tiwari said.

Naturalist and wildlife lover Himanshu Bagde said that a balance should be struck between development and conservation. "It is important in the case of NH-7 as well because studies show that apart from destruction of habitat, fragmentation and poaching, isolation is also a threat to tigers," he said.

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