Development brings about benefits like goods and services to the people whereas unplanned development leads to deterioration of the environment in which people are living. Like all infrastructure projects, roads and highways play a major role in boosting the economy of our country. In our country, the road network has increased almost eightfold, from 0.4 million kilometers in 1951 to over 3 million kilometers in 2002. About 58, 112 km and 1, 37, 119 kilometers are covered by the countrys national and state highways respectively. Further, major district roads span over 4, 70, 000 km and rural roads over 26, 50, 000 km. However, these projects pursued with the aim of economic development have brought along with them negative impacts on the surrounding environment, especially the loss of biodiversity.

The construction of roads and highways has resulted in loss of thousands of square kilometers of forestlands. According to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) study, about 6,891 hectares of forestland has been diverted for the purpose of road construction during the period of 1980 - 1999, while 7, 172 hectares of forestland has been diverted between 1999 to 2003. Roads, especially if they pass through wildlife sanctuaries and natural reserves take its toll on the local ecologies resulting in the loss of lives of wild animals due to increased accidents. According to the Project Tiger Status Report 2002 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, 19 out of 25 Tiger reserves have roads (forest roads, state highways and National highways) passing through them, or on their periphery. Studies have reported the death of 5 tigers, 24 leopards and 50 other animal species in road accidents. The Great Nicobar Island has the North South - East West highways passing through it, which has affected the turtle nesting habitats. The Mumbai - Pune expressway passes through the coastal plains, Western Ghats and Deccan Plateau, which will lead to fragmentation of habitat, restriction of wildlife movement and disturb the life of most species.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has come as an effective tool to mitigate these impacts on the ecology. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has come out with various guidelines and made it mandatory for such projects to obtain prior environmental clearance. Let us have a look into the various notifications and amendments of the Government of India to ensure that these essential projects have minimum impacts on the ecosystems through which they pass.

EIA Notification of 1994: According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, which came into effect on 27th January, 1994, various developmental projects require prior environmental clearance. It includes highway projects if the cost of the project is more than 50 crores and tarred roads in Himalayas and / or forest areas.

Vide amendment dated 10th April, 1997, projects related to improvement of highways including their widening and strengthening with marginal land acquisition along the existing alignments provided these do not pass through ecologically sensitive areas such as National Parks, Sanctuaries, Tiger Reserves, Reserved Forests are exempted from the provisions of the EIA Notification, 1994.

It was further stated that marginal land acquisition means land acquisition not exceeding a total width of 20 meters on either side of the existing alignment put together. Bypasses are treated as stand alone projects and require environmental clearance if the cost of the project exceeded Rs. 50 crores. The cost has been increased to Rs.100 crores for new projects vide amendment dated 13th June, 2002.

Public opinion plays an important role in making the projects people friendly. The importance of involving the local people in the project planning stage was recognized by the MoEF and public hearing was made mandatory for projects attracting the provisions of EIA Notification, 1994 vide amendment dated 10th April, 1997. However, public hearing was waived in 2001 amendment but again in the amendment of 13th June, 2002, it was stated that for highway projects, public hearing shall be conducted in each district through which the highway passes.

In addition to the environmental clearance, forest clearance from Central Government is also essential for projects, if the highway requires diversion of forestland. If the project area falls within a national park or wildlife sanctuary, forest clearance is granted only after it is cleared by the National Wildlife Board.

Till the recent past, environmental issues were waived, brushing them aside as impediments to economic developments. In the regulations itself, there are some loopholes. Bypasses often are of short stretches and the costs are often less than Rs. 100 crores and hence are expensed from the environmental clearances. However, small projects do have serious consequences on the local environment.

However, in todays world, when the environmental brigade is gaining momentum, environmental clearance cannot be done away with. There are quite a number of road projects that are gathering dust, as they have not been approved clearance. Such situations can be avoided by the planners and designers right in the beginning of the project planning stage by selecting alignments, providing bypasses and detours, so that the impacts on the environment is minimal. As seen, there are quite a number of regulations, which should be strictly followed to avoid an environmental catastrophe.