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Above: An all-weather route to the Char Dham is likely to ease travel disrupted by inclement weather

The controversial Char Dham project which aims to provide connectivity to the holy towns of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri has been cleared by the apex court despite ecological concerns

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

A Supreme Court bench of Justices RF Nariman and Vineet Saran recently gave the green signal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham development project in Uttarakhand. The project proposes to provide all-weather connectivity to the four holy towns of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri in the hill state.

The petitioner in the case, Citizens for Green Doon, told the Court about the damage the project would cause to the environment. It argued that the environment impact assessment for the 900-km project had not been carried out and cautioned that the “blatantly illegal” project would leave the region vulnerable to ecological disasters like the 2013 floods in Kedarnath.

The Supreme Court had, in October last year, stayed an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) which cleared the project. The Tribunal bench headed by NGT Chairman Justice AK Goel had said in its order of September 26, 2018, that it was “inclined to clear the project in view of the larger public interest and the country’s security in the construction of the highway”. Following this order, Citizens for Green Doon approached the Supreme Court which stayed the NGT order and sought a response from the central and state governments.

Arguing for the petitioner in the Supreme Court, advocate Sanjay Parikh said that the order of the green tribunal bench contravened the apex court’s direction of August 27 in which it asked the NGT chairman to assign “one clear day” to the original bench which had heard petitions concerning environmental clearance pertaining to the project.

The original bench comprised Justices Jawad Rahim and SP Wangdi and expert member Nagin Nanda. This bench had stayed the felling of trees for the project and reserved the case for final hearing on May 31. When Justice Goel took over as NGT chairman, the matter was listed for hearing before a bench headed by him. This prompted Citizens for Green Doon to move the Supreme Court. It pointed out an anomaly—that the Char Dham project was approved by a bench which was different from the one which had originally heard the petition. While seeking the replies of the centre and Uttarakhand governments, Justices Nariman and S Abdul Nazeer of the apex court stayed the NGT judgment.

Considered strategically significant, the project ran into its first obstacle when the Dehradun-based NGO filed a petition before the NGT in February 2018. The matter was heard for four months before the Tribunal reserved its decision. On September 4, the NGT referred the case to a larger bench.

In the course of the hearing, the petitioner gave video evidence of environmental damage caused by violation of norms and debris dumping. Explaining how the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) were violating ecological norms, Himanshu Arora of Citizens for Green Doon was quoted as saying that “since any road project beyond 100 km needs environmental clearance and environment impact assessment, they divided the 900-km project into more than 53 segments. As a result, thousands of trees are being cut for this project, triggering the falling of several other trees.” That loss is never counted, he said.

That the project was divided into 53 segments to avoid ecological bottlenecks was confirmed by the Union environme­nt ministry which said in its affidavit that the project did not require green clearance because none of its 53 stretches was more than 100 km long. This is in conformity with the ministry’s guidelines for the expansion of existing highways less than 100 km in length.

The NHAI and MoRTH argued that they had built retaining walls along the roads to prevent the muck from flowing into the Mandakini river valley, but the NGT found that the retaining walls weren’t enough. “When it rains, the entire muck goes down in the river. This doesn’t work,” the NGT said after watching the video evidence.

Citizens for Green Doon also pointed out the shifting stands of the centre when it came to describing the Char Dham project. While the MoRTH and environment ministry’s affidavits stated that “Char Dham is a programme and not a single project”, thus not requiring a single environmental clearance, the Union cabinet called it Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna (Char Dham Highways Development Project), a single project. According to one report, the Uttarakhand government and MoRTH had separately applied for specific stretches for felling of 40,000 trees.

The Char Dham project was launched by the prime minister on December 27, 2016. It is estimated to cost Rs 12,000 crore. Originating from Rishikesh, the highway will include long bridges and tunnels to eliminate slide-prone areas and will reach upto the India-China border. According to one source, 15 big bridges, 101 small bridges, 3,596 culverts and 12 bypasses are to be built under the project. Good roads in the region are considered of great strategic importance, given the heavy Chinese deployment. Also, one has to consider the high quality of roads built by China.

To underline the significance of the highway, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) told the NGT: “The road is extremely important from strategic point of view, as it is in close proximity to the China border…defence preparedness will get adversely affected in case the roads are not improved as per the requirement of defence forces.” The BRO also stated that “in the eventuality of any aggression, movement of heavy weapons, plants and equipments, artillery guns etc. would not be possible in case roads are not improved”.

The BRO made these submissions in its 12-page affidavit filed in response to a plea filed by one Birendra Singh Matura and others against the violation of Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone Notification in the name of road widening work to connect Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. These border points are Nelang Valley, which is in India’s operational control in the Gangotri region and Barahoti Valley in the India-China border area, which also is in India’s control.

Environmentalists are concerned about the denuding of mountains and displacement of the local population. RC Sharma, head of the environment science department in HN Bahuguna University, Srinagar, Garhwal, was quoted as saying: “You can’t cut the hill vertically at 90 degrees as they are doing now. If the base is removed the mountain will fall, landslides will naturally happen, and we are already watching this happening. There are places in the hills where we never saw landslides, but since this construction started, numerous landslides are happening.”

These and many other similar concerns have been brushed aside as project completion is going full steam ahead. However, it is unlikely to be over before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In fact Mansukh L Mandaviya, the Union minister for road transport and highways, told the Lok Sabha in March 2018 that the project is targeted to be completed by March 2020. Till then, it will be Rocky Mountain High.

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