The Supreme Court has listed the hearing of pleas concerning the Char Dham project for May 18 while noting submissions made by the Centre that there is a urgency in the matter as the country needs strategic roads and should be taken up early.
The matter was listed on Thursday before the bench of Justices Vineet Saran and Dinesh Maheshwari which noted in its order, “The AG has submitted there is an urgency in the matter as the Country needs strategic roads and should be taken up early. The request for adjournment is accepted to the extent that matter is listed in Tuesday and the papers should be placed before the CJI for assigning an appropriate bench.”
During the hearing today, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves said he has submitted a note.
Justice Vineet Saran: I haven’t received any note from you, Mr Gonsalves.
Gonsalves: I mailed this morning too and sent on WhatsApp message to Court master. Sent it 7.40 pm last night.
Justice Saran: You sent it very late, we have not permitted you to file your written note, only asked you to file documents. We will fix it on Tuesday and ask the Chief Justice to assign the bench.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal: I have objection to the note submitted by Colin Gonsalves in Second Para. This sort of tactic is never done. I take strong objection to this.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta: What is the source of inspiration to this when our country is building strategic roads.
The Rs 12,000-crore, 899-km-long Char Dham highway project will connect the four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in the Garhwal Himalayas.
In the previous hearing, AG Venugopal had apprised the Court that the roads have to be constructed at a width of 7 meter or so. The bench led by Justice Rohinton Nariman had allowed for 5.5 meter but the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) amended it saying the roads are being used for different purposes, going right up to the China borders.
The project came under the Apex Court scanner after NGO Citizens for Green Doon raised environmental concerns over the cutting of trees and harm to fragile Himalayan ecology by the widening of the existing roads. A high-powered committee was formed to be the eyes and ears of the Supreme Court on the project.
In January, the government had supported a majority view within the committee favouring the necessity of broadening the Himalayan feeder roads to the China border in order to facilitate troop movement.
The MoRTH affidavit, filed in January this year in the Supreme Court, urged it to accept the majority view of the high-level committee, which has suggested a width of 10 metres for the project.
According to the Ministry, 21 of the 26 members of the court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) have supported the need for a broad road to facilitate movement of troops along the China border and ensure availability of better facilities for the locals.
Between September and November 2020, both MoRTH and MoD maintained that “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7 m (or 7.5 m in case there is a raised kerb)” with 8-10 m formation width would “meet the requirement of the Army”.
Three HPC members, including its chair Prof Ravi Chopra, opposed the demand to increase the carriageway width from 5.5 m to 7 m, the MoRTH on December 15 amended the specifications of its 2018 circular to a 10-m tarred surface. Subsequently, the MoD also changed its position in its affidavit on January 15, seeking a 10-m carriageway with 12-14 m formation width.
In 2019, the committee was set the following terms and reference of the committee by the Supreme Court:
I. The Committee shall consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the entire Himalayan valleys and for that purpose, the HPC will give directions to conduct EIA/rapid EIA by the Project Proponent/MoRTH.
II. The HPC, with the help of the technical body and engineers of implementation agency (MoRTH) should consider whether revision of the full Chardham project (about 900 Kms) should at all take place with a view to minimize the adverse impact of the project on environment and social life.
III. The HPC shall identify the sites in which work (i.e. hill-cutting) has started and the stretches in which the work has not yet started. As far as the sites in which work has started, the High Powered Committee should recommend the measures which are required for stabilizing the area where hill-cutting has taken place, among others, the environmentally safe disposal of muck which has been generated so that it does not adversely affect the flora and fauna of the catchment area of the river.
IV. As regards the stretches where work has not started, the HPC will review the proposed project and recommend measures which will minimize the adverse impact on environment, social life and bring the project in conformity with the steep valley terrain, carrying capacity, thus avoiding any triggering of new landslides and ensuring conservation and protection of sensitive Himalayan valleys.
V. The HPC will assess the environmental degradation in terms of loss of forest land, trees, green cover, water resources, dumping of muck and impacts on the wildlife and will direct the mitigation measures. Specific attention will be laid on protecting wildlife corridors, and rare and endangered flora and fauna.
VI. The HPC will assess and quantify the impact on social infrastructure/public-life due to triggering of fresh landslides, air pollution, frequent road blocks etc. and will suggest necessary measures for its redressal, including preparation of disaster management plans prior to the monsoon season.
VII.In Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone (Gangotri to Uttarkashi), the HPC will make special provisions in its report keeping in mind the guidelines given under the Notification of the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone so as to avoid violations and any environmental damage.
VIII. The HPC will also suggest the areas in which afforestation measures should be taken. It will also suggest the kind of saplings which have to be planted in different terrains of Himalayas. A separate Committee be constituted by the Forest Department of Uttarakhand to continuously monitor and report on the website that the saplings which have been planted have survived and grown. In case of non-survival of any sapling, further plantation should be done. Compensatory afforestation should be ten times the number of trees which have been cut. The HPC shall prepare an effective afforestation plan ensuring its proper implementation.
IX. The HPC will invite experts from different fields and consult local people or hold public meetings in the local areas to take recommendations and suggestions, as it deems fit.
X. The HPC shall consider giving specific directions to the concerned agencies to put in the public domain the landslide-prone areas, and their treatment by the Project Proponent, the total muck generated, and the places where it has been disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.