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Char Dham project: SC urged to not allow ‘wide’ roads in Himalayas

The Modi government’s Rs 12,000-crore pet project seeks to create two-lane express highway to connect Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri
alyan Ray
Last Updated : 17 February 2021, 16:54 IST
Last Updated : 17 February 2021, 16:54 IST
Last Updated : 17 February 2021, 16:54 IST
Last Updated : 17 February 2021, 16:54 IST

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A week after a killer flash flood washed away two hydropower stations and affected over 200 people in Uttarakhand, environmentalists have petitioned the Supreme Court urging not to allow construction of 10-metre-wide roads in the Himalayas at the cost of the environment as part of the ‘Char Dham’ project.

In a fresh affidavit and a letter to the apex court, they pointed out how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) shifted their positions in the last six months demanding a 10-metre-wide road high up in the hills citing national security after agreeing to a 7-metre-width road.

The Modi government’s Rs 12,000-crore pet project seeks to create two-lane express highway to connect Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri— four places of religious importance. But the scheme has been a controversial one from the beginning after the Centre bypassed the environmental impact assessment norms by splitting 889 km of road construction into 53 smaller segments, each less than 100 km, to avoid scrutiny.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court set up a High Powered Committee (HPC) under the chairmanship of Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, to review the project.

In a peculiar turn of events, the panel is now divided, resulting in two reports, both of which are before the top court. While the majority, mostly government officials, favour wider roads, there is a minority report that recommends an intermediate width in order to lessen the hill cutting and reduce ecological damage.

“There are repeated warnings of the devastating outcome if we do not reign in our appetite for reckless development. The repeated ignoring of these warnings now amounts to criminal negligence given the enormity of the human tragedy we are witnessing. The ‘Char Dham’ project also stands on a similar crossroads,” the environmentalists said in the affidavit.

In the letter, Chopra pointed out that the MoD was in agreement for a 7-metre-wide road till November 27, but changed its position after the MoRTH came out with a notification on December 15 favouring 10-metre-wide road and overruling its 2018 order that mandated 5.5-metre road width in the hills.

Almost simultaneously at a meeting of the Chopra Committee in Dehradun, Defence Ministry officials said it was absolutely necessary to develop these strategic highways to two-lane specifications of road width 10-12 metres due to the strategic requirement.

Naming the people who authored the minority report (Chopra and two other environmentalists), MoD said it was surprising that the minority in the HFC was prepared to reject the need of the armed forces for defending the country as such wide roads are needed to cater to the areas close to the India-China border.

The environmentalists, however, took strong objections to how the MoD singled out authors of the minority report in its affidavit.

“From a point of view of defence preparedness, a disaster-resilient road (7 m) is much more critical than a DL+PS (10 m) road that is prone to frequent blockages, landslides and recurring slope failures. An intermediate width is more judicious,” they informed the court.

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Published 17 February 2021, 16:54 IST

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