Dismissing a public interest litigation (PIL) by a green, non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is likely to affect the Salem-Chennai Expressway, a division bench of the Madras High Court, comprising justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan, upheld the constitutional validity of Section 105 and Fourth Schedule of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency (RFCT) in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
G Sundarrajan, one of the trustees of ‘Poovulagin Nanbargal’, sought declaration of the RFCT Act, its Fourth Schedule, as well as the entire land acquisition proceedings under the National Highways Act, 1956, in respect of the proposed greenfield Chennai-Salem Highway in Tamil Nadu, as unconstitutional and null and void.
The bench, in its order, said, “If the prayer sought for by the petitioner, to declare Section 105 as unconstitutional is granted, the land owners would be gravely prejudiced. This is so, because the manner of determination of compensation is more advantageous to the land owner under the RFCT Act.”
The National Highways (NH) Act does not provide for the procedure for rehabilitation and resettlement, nor setting up of infrastructural facilities, as envisaged in Schedule 1, 2 and 3 of the RFCT Act. “Thus, if Section 105 is struck down, the NH Act will govern the field and the acquisition will proceed under the NH Act and the compensation will have to be determined under the said Act. This, undoubtedly, would be prejudicial to the interest of the land owners,” the bench said.
The court said it failed to understand what benefit would accrue to the land owners, by declaring Section 105 as unconstitutional. The bench also refused to accept the arguments of the petitioner’s counsel M Radhakrishan that availability of two sets of procedures (under the RFCT Act and another under the NH Act) would by itself not make one of it as discriminatory. Also, it would not be hit by Article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution, the bench said.
On the argument that the same set of land owners were treated differently, the court held that they were in no way prejudiced, by inclusion of the 13 enactments in the Fourth Schedule, as their interest on compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement had been fully safeguarded, as the relevant provision of the RFCT Act has been made applicable to the NH Act.
The bench made it clear that it was not dealing with the validity of acquisition proceedings for the subject ‘Highway’, which is the subject matter of challenge in a batch of writ petitions but confining itself to the constitutional validity of Section 105 and the Fourth Schedule of the RFCT Act.
The Rs 10,000-crore, eight-lane Salem-Chennai Expressway has been facing opposition from a section of locals, including farmers, over fears of losing their land, besides environmentalists who are opposed to felling of trees for the project.