Above: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the then Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat visiting an exhibition during the launch of the Char Dham Rajmarg Vikas Pariyojna, in Dehradun (file picture)/Photo: UNI
The PM’s much-touted Char Dham project runs into rough weather as the Supreme Court stays an NGT order which okayed it. Questions are being raised about environmental issues and displacement of people
~By Govind Pant Raju in Lucknow
In a major setback for both the central and the Uttarakhand governments, the Supreme Court recently passed strictures on the Char Dham all-weather road, which is already disputed. The Court stayed a September 26 National Green Tribunal (NGT) order that gave the clearance to this controversial 900-km highway project.
The petitioners had challenged the NGT order, arguing that it was in violation of an earlier order of the Supreme Court, dated August 27. However, the state government said that the Supreme Court had not stopped the project and work would continue. A long history precedes this matter. The Char Dham highway project aims at expanding the highways connecting four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand considered holy by Hindus—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. But the project, which is pegged to cost an estimated Rs 12,000 crore, created a lot of controversy with its probable impact on the environment.
The Supreme Court on August 27 ruled against a fresh hearing in the Char Dham highway case by the NGT and ordered that the original bench, which had heard the case over several days, hear the matter over a day and “finally dispose of it”. In its public interest litigation to the NGT, Citizens for Green Doon (CFGD), an NGO, had attached the views of two experts. The experts are Dr Ravi Chopra, who earlier headed the Supreme Court-appointed committee on the impact on hydropower projects post-Kedarnath tragedy, and Navin Juyal, an Ahmedabad-based researcher. Chopra, incidentally, was also formerly director of the Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute. A report by one of the experts alleged that the all-weather road project was divided into parts to avoid environment assessment. “Though a total of 900 km road length is to be widened along the Char Dham route, it appears that in order to avoid the environmental clearance, very tactfully the roads have been segmented into stretches of less than 100 km, which according to present regulations, do not require environmental impact assessment (EIA),” stated the report.
Chopra said: “The state falls in active seismic area frequented by innumerable earthquakes of varying magnitude. As a consequence, the rocks are highly fractured and fissile. The mountains may appear solid, but are weak from inside because of seismic activity.”
Previously, an NGT bench headed by Justice Jawad Rahim had heard the matter over 14 hearings in which the petitioners had argued against the highway project. They said that necessary environmental clearances had not been obtained. On May 31 this year, the bench heard closing arguments by both parties and reserved its judgment. In June, Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel took over as chairperson of the NGT and, while the judgment was due, decided to hear the matter afresh.
Following this, CFGD approached the Supreme Court against the NGT’s decision for a fresh hearing in the matter, arguing that jurisdictional errors had been committed on September 14. “Since the matter appears to be a complex one and has been heard over several days, we take it that the rehearing will only be on some final aspects,” the Court had noted in an order. Now, the matter will be heard by the Supreme Court on November 15. “There shall be stay of the impugned judgment in the meantime,” Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and S. Abdul Nazeer noted.
The state government responded by saying that the Court had banned only the order of the NGT, not the work on the project. Soling and painting work will continue wherever road cutting is being completed. Until the decision of the Court, no tree in the project area will be cut.
In December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had laid the foundation stone of the project, announcing that it was a tribute to the victims of the 2013 Kedarnath floods in which an estimated 6,000 people lost their lives. A day before the inauguration, Modi had even tweeted that the Char Dham highway project will give a “strong boost” to connectivity and tourism in the region. “I assure you that whenever you will come for Kedarnath, Badrinath yatra, you will remember this government and Nitin Gadkari Ji (Union Minister) like Shravan is remembered.”
However, environmentalists argued that the construction of the highway could lead to more disasters like the floods of 2013. They contested that a project of this magnitude in an ecologically fragile state like Uttarakhand could have disastrous consequences. Soumya Prasad, a Dehradun-based tropical ecologist, said: “This project could lead to some major disasters. The width of roads that they are talking about is simply not sustainable with the ecology of Uttarakhand. Also, the way the mountains are being cut is not scientific.”
According to Chopra, project fragmentation is being done to “evade responsible and sustainable development”. He told India Legal: “People work very hard to do the Environment Impact Assessments (EIA). But governments in power want to evade these checks. What’s worse is that in this particular case, Modi in his flamboyant style announced that he will make this an all-weather road, not recognising the nature of difficulties on the ground. This area is prone to landslides. Scientists and engineers have tried for years to stabilise it, but haven’t succeeded.”
Chopra said that the Geographical Survey of India has marked 37 landslides in a short stretch from Dharasu to Gangotri. He cautioned that as the construction proceeds with blasts, the slopes become more unstable. An even bigger hazard is the felling of trees which hold the soil.
Scientists and activists have also pointed out that massive felling of trees, hillsides being cut at right angles and muck being dumped into rivers are some of the major environmental concerns that the project raises.
Recent studies have pointed out that with global warming, India faces increased risk from extreme rainfall events. Even though the total rainfall received during the monsoon season might not change drastically, the probability of heavy precipitation in a short period of time will increase. The consequences of high-intensity rainfall would be particularly severe in the Himalaya—as was observed during the Kedarnath floods—given their topography, propensity for tectonic activity and fragile ecology.
Prasad said: “We are already seeing the impact as thousands of trees have been cut and norms not adhered to while cutting hillsides and dumping muck. This year, we have seen massive landslides along the path of the highway. Lives of people along the construction path are already being impacted even before the highway has been fully built.”
With the ecology being at increased risk due to climate change, a project that could pose serious environmental risks would, ideally, be required to undergo comprehensive EIA. But the Char Dham highway project has bypassed any EIA, using a loophole. This led the petitioners to the NGT.
“The 53 segments constituted one unbroken, continuous stretch of the Char Dham highway, and the division into individual projects was done only to bypass the requirement of environment clearances. This is illegal and amounted to a fraud on the legislation,” said the petitioner’s counsel, Sanjay Parikh.
Local communities also believe that the project will be messy and lead to displacement of those affected by the project. Basanthi Lingwal, a 75-year-old from Banswada area of Uttarakhand, said the project will make her homeless. “We started living in this house decades ago, but this will now be taken away for the highway project. Though compensation will be offered, where will I go at this age?” asks Lingwal, whose husband died years ago.
Himanshu Arora of CFGD said: “Many aspects of the Char Dham project have not been focussed on as yet like displacement of people, impact on wildlife or effect on biodiversity. New landslide zones are being formed due to this project which never took into account the fragile ecology of the area. Money is spent on the construction of roads at places where it is not even required.”
Considering the unmitigated environmental disasters which hit the state in the past, the government should have been more careful.
Leave aside these pompous projects, no one has bothered to look into the sorry state of roads in the state which require immediate maintenance. This indicates the shallow development being projected by the state and the centre.
While the nation is being geared towards sustainable practices, the Char Dham project shows implicit disregard for people and the environment in the name of development.