The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to throw open the 135-kilometre Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE), one half of the ring road coming up around Delhi to decongest the city, on June 1, whether or not the Prime Minister inaugurates the project before that date.
The court, which was hearing a petition related to air pollution in Delhi, said the project should be inaugurated on or before May 31, or be thrown open to traffic from the following day, reflecting its displeasure over the delay in the inauguration of the EPE
“Why are you waiting for the PM to inaugurate it? Delay is not in the interest of the people of Delhi,” a bench of justices MB Lokur and Deepak Gupta told NHAI counsel when the latter said the expressway had earlier been scheduled to be inaugurated on or before April 29.
The Prime Minister could not inaugurate the project because of his prior commitments, the counsel said.
The Rs5,763 crore EPE will provide signal-free connectivity between Ghaziabad, Faridabad, Gautam Budh Nagar (Greater Noida) and Palwal on the periphery of Delhi, channelling non-Delhi-bound traffic, decongesting the capital and reducing pollution.
Around 200,000 such vehicles pass through the capital every day, contributing to air pollution and traffic jams in the city .
Senior officials in the Union road transport and highways ministry, under which the NHAI functions, said that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had considered two dates — one in the last week of April and the second in the second week of May — for the PM to inaugurate the EPE.
“But the ministry took a conscious decision to defer it as the project was not 100 % completed. A technical glitch was detected on one of the road over bridge (ROB) spans because of which one side could not be completed on time. We are addressing the problem and hope to complete it by May 15,” said a ministry official who did not want to be named.
The official added that the ministry had been considering getting the project inaugurated by the PM on May 26.
Another senior official, also on condition of anonymity, said that because of the potential controversy, the ministry could decide to drop the idea of a formal inauguration and throw it open to the public once work on the ROB is completed.
The Supreme Court had asked the Centre in 2005 to build the expressway around Delhi by July 2016. The EPE was first approved in 2007 but could not take off because of various obstacles. It was reviewed several times and given final approval by the cabinet committee on infrastructure in May 2011. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone for the EPE, being implemented by the NHAI, in November 2015.
Together with the Western Peripheral Expressway (WPE), which is being overseen by the Haryana government, the will be part of a ring road around Delhi.
On Thursday, Justice Lokur told the NHAI counsel: “Why don’t you inaugurate it? Even he (additional solicitor general AS NAdkarni) can inaugurate it. He has taken a lot of pains in the case.” Nadkarni has been appearing in the matter on behalf of the Centre.
The NHAI counsel told the bench that the authority had written to the Prime Minister Office for the PM’s dates. “That’s the problem. The HC (high court) of Meghalaya was not inaugurated. But it is functioning for the last five years. You cannot pass the buck and say PMO, PMO only. Why don’t you open it and inaugurate it later,” the judge told the lawyer.
The six-lane access-controlled EPE starts from Palwal in Haryana and will pass through Noida, Ghaziabad and Kundli in Uttar Pradesh. The WPE, which will connect Kundli to Palwal via Manesar in Haryana, is 81 % complete. The Haryana government counsel informed the Supreme Court that the private entity developing it has said the project will be completed by June 30, much before the February 2019 deadline. At this Justice Lokur smiled and said: “Then you will say Prime Minister will inaugurate it, so wait.”
Advocate Aparajita Singh, assisting the court in the matter, requested the court to order the opening of the road. “Inauguration can be done later. Even the PMO would not mind it,” she said.
NHAI counsel submitted that the expressway was already being used and only toll counters needed to become operational. “Trucks are using it”, the lawyer said. But Singh countered the submission. She said she had been informed that the road was not in use.