By Archishman Chakraborty, Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Green Highway is a new concept that includes a roadway design integrating the functionalities of transport and ecological sustainability. The Green Highway Policy is an ambitious plan by the Government of India, to transform the country’s 96,000 National Highways with green cover which makes it mandatory to allocate an amount running to 1% of the total cost of the road project (TPC) for plantation. The entire exercise to plan, design and construct the roadways would be executed with an environmental approach.

The objective for the concept is that growth and development should go hand in hand with sustainability of the ecosystem and public health. Formulated by the Road Transport and Highways Ministry, as the “Green Highways (Plantation & Maintenance) Policy -2015”, the project aims to develop environmentally friendly National Highways with the active participation of communities, farmers, NGOs, Forest Department, private as well as the government sectors. The allocated amount will be used to develop and maintain highway plantations, and will be transferred to the National Highway Authority of India to maintain a separate fund account known as “Green Highways Fund” for the said purpose. However, the NHAI will act only as a Fund Manager for maintaining the account and releasing payments based on recommendation of concerned officials and agencies.

The Road Transport and Highways Minister, Mr. Nitin Gadkari had proposed the use of ISRO’s GPS aided BHUVAN and GAGAN satellites with remote sensing systems to monitor the progress of the project.

The Green Highways (Plantation and Maintenance) Policy, 2015 not only seeks to arrest a number of environmental concerns, by reducing the impact of air pollution and dust, arresting soil erosion at the embankment slopes and reducing the impact of noise pollution but also plans to generate local employment with active participation in the plantation and maintenance process by the native people and maintain biodiversity. The Ministry, in their policy document acknowledges the loss of vegetation in the process of building roads and takes it up as their responsibility to compensate for the same. It also considers the shortcoming in the present land-acquisition policy, wherein the land needed for the avenue plantation and landscape improvement is not considered during the acquisition and cites insufficient width throughout plantation avenue as a major problem and recommends requirement of land for tree plantation should be included in the Land Acquisition Plans prepared by the DPR consultants.

The choice of plantation in the area has to be made according to the physical growth characteristics of trees, like form and shape, foliage pattern, etc. while calling for care in choosing the species, which already exist along the project corridor, and also keeping in mind a sense of aesthetics, the policy document recommends making a uniform plantation of the same trees, and avoiding a mixture of different species. The paper gives a holistic list of trees that can be planted throughout the country, and suggests patterns of plantation and different nature of plants to be sowed in different landscapes – for instance, the species to be planted in median would be of low or medium height with ornamental value to enhance the visual experience of the road corridor. It also lays down a detailed procedure or method of tree plantation viz. removal of debris, removal of convexities and filling up of concavities and tree transplantation for new construction of roads etc.  Other areas dealt with in the policy paper are :

  1. Land acquisition guidelines
  2. Role of Plantation agency
  3. Recommends outsourcing of plantation activities following a bidding process.
  4. Recommends the involvement of local bodies in plantation and maintenance process.
  5. Plantation schemes have been divided into two categories:
  1. Tree planting along the Highway Turfing with grasses and shrub/herb.
  2. Planting on medians/special landscapes/embankment slopes.

In para 10.4, the paper states that in case of a default on the part of the agency to arrange adequate resources – manpower, pesticide, material etc., within 7 days of notice, the nodal agency will reserve the right to get it arranged at their risk and cost and will charge extra 20% on the actual expenditure incurred. Time limit can be extended in exceptional circumstances.

Para 12 states that “the monitoring Agency will conduct performance audit of Executing agencies for various projects on an annual basis and award of new contracts to the agencies will be decided based on their past performance”, whereas para 13 lays down the arrangement for the sharing of the usufructs from the roadside plantations, wherein the competent authority of the Forest Department will have the final say as for sharing of usufructs from plantations by the Forest Department, and in case of plantations raised by WSHGs, JFMCs, SHGs or other such local institutions, the said agency will have full rights on intermediary produce like dried fuel wood, fruits, etc. for the period of contract only, while the Panchayat/Local Authority will have full rights on intermediary produce like dried fuel wood, fruits, etc within their jurisdiction after the expiry of the contract period of plantation and maintenance with the plantation agency with the condition that they should protect the encroachment of row and plantation from the first day of project under implementation.

The policy, while calling for compliance with Forest Conservation Act and local laws by the agencies, also makes an obligation to ensure the survival rate of 90% after raising the plantation for one year and must be of normal shape and size. The project has been proposed to be developed on a turn-key basis, i.e, in a manner that it could be sold to any buyer as a completed product, the payment for which will be awarded based on the quantum of plantation for the specific site through bidding. Further, in case of default on the part of the Contractor with respect to planting/maintenance, the policy paper proposes to take action in accordance with the Concession Agreement/Contract Agreement or MOU with the concerned agency and imposes legal and financial liabilities on the plantation agency for non compliances to Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, subsequent amendments, Forest Conservation Rules and local laws.

The project has been carefully ideated to the advantage of a number of stakeholders, while living up to an international commitment of climate control. It aims to promote the greening of highway corridors with the participation of the local community, including local contractors and the local Forest Department with latent objective of generating employment. The policy envisages to enable local communities to avail the non-timber produces like gum, honey, fruits etc. from these corridors. The communities may slowly develop as small entrepreneurs, thus giving leverage to the promising Skill India Initiative and strengthening the food-processing industries. Also, the project of greening will be awarded to contractors in small stretches of 8-10 km, who would carry out three layers of plantation of native species – first will be of bushes so that if vehicles slide off the road, they do not hit the trees straightaway; second will be of medium sized trees, while third will be of tall fruit trees, thus giving a substantial push for safety of the roads along the National Highways. The plantation of native species of plants instead of exotic ones is a commendable idea and an improvement over social forestry. However, the project requires a strict implementation and transparency and accountability in the operation so as to make it more viable.