Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Widening roads for Char Dham will impact hilly region adversely, Supreme Court told

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Widening of roads that connect the Char Dham in Uttarakhand and also reaches the Indo-China border will cause adverse impact in the hilly region resulting in felling of trees and avalanches, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves told the Supreme Court.

The three-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath heard Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves appearing on behalf of the NGO Citizens for Green Doon opposing the Centre’s request for widening of road that connects the Char Dham in Uttarakhand and also reaches Indo-China border.

Gonsalves argued against the stand of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) relying on various reports from media agencies stating massive landslides wherever roads are widened. He has argued that NH125, NH94, NH58 are roads that are connected to Indo-China Border and have faced massive landslides; Narkota landslide this year was one of the examples cited. He further added that the roads which were not touched didn’t face any calamity as such.

He further submitted before the bench that the government has decided for realignment stating that it is the only option left. Going into technicalities, Gonsalves stated that when you do hill cutting of 12 metres length, the drilling needs to be done 24 metres into the mountain, as this process is going on, we are cutting down the earth resulting in falling of trees and avalanches. He was underscoring on the adverse impact of road widening in hilly regions.

Gonsalves has also relied on Supreme Court’s appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) report in which the Chairman Ravi Chopra himself has backed the 5.5 m for the carriageway and additional paved shoulder (also known as intermediary lane, IW). Though in minority, the Chairman along with 4 other members of a total of 26 members were not inclined to give their nod.   

Gonsalves further submitted that the idea of Ministry of Defence (MoD) with respect to widening of road having 7 m width along with paved shoulders is not a practical view. The proposed road will have no raw road for pilgrims to travel; they will have to walk on permanent road, during summers as well.

He then raised the argument that it is the MoRTH vide its December 15th 2020 circular on “Standards for Lane width of National Highways and roads developed under Central Sector Schemes in Hilly and Mountainous terrains” carried out additional guidelines, considering issues raised by MoD, stating partial modification i.e. the feeder roads to the Indo-China border are of strategic importance for national security and the carriageway should be 7m with 1.5m paved shoulder on either side. He submitted that the MoDs requirement is of Double Lane (DL) and not Double Lane with Paved Shoulder (DL+PS), which simply means that if the same is not stopped, the affected land due to hill cutting and protection works would be 18-24 m into the mountain instead of the normal 11-13 meters. He further added that Intermediate roads too are double lane roads and focus should be on controlling the number of visitors and restricting the use of roads so that Army can travel freely and transport its equipment.

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He further stated that we need to introduce pass system. “We need to avoid swarming in these areas. We have to maintain the carrying capacity of these areas.”

“If 2400 is the capacity of the shrine, then why do we need to have roads that could carry double or triple? There has been a talk of 3 million reaching Badrinath in 2030. Should that be permitted? It also raises the question as to how much road widening needs to be done, it is not a prudent or reasonable way to plan such volumes.”

He also pointed out that all=weather roads are collapsing in every weather and raised a question. “Are we going to defend our nation with roads that are being collapsed? How are our forces going to defend when they can’t even travel on these roads?”

He then stated that border roads were double lane roads, and fairly resistant. But the same was blocked for 60 days due to landslides and other calamities. He stressed on the Minutes of the meetings of HPC, when it comes to justifying 2020 circular, not one word on scientific reasons.

To which, Justice Surya Kant observed that even in these proceedings, RS Rao (Superintendent Engineer) from MoD was there, his words are very clear, he is only concerned about requirement of MoD. “MoD requirement should not be constrained. He has stated that he has nothing to do with Char Dham and other reasons. Requirement of Army is more than that.”

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Gonsalves reiterated his point that water sources in Himalayas are undermined, water sources being dried to 60 percent out of the total and in addition, the wildlife is endangered.

“Nothing has stopped the government and mighty MoRTH to show that see this is the DL+PS road we made, and after monsoon here it is. Nothing is shown; it is just in papers and experiment.”

He further stated that there is a provision for different sizes of road in village, district and highway, however, there are Double Lane Paved Shoulder (DLPS) in village.

“The mountain and road is the same, it is what cutting you do, I want safety for the troops, and if there is a guarantee that no stone will fall on trucks of troops. But no one can guarantee that.”

The Apex Court was hearing a plea filed by NGO Citizens for Green Doon challenging the Stage-I forest clearance and wildlife clearance granted for the expansion of roads under the Char Dham project. The project meant to widen 889 km of hill roads to provide all-weather connectivity between major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand and also to facilitate Army to easily connect to Indo-China border. The bench will hear Attorney General K.K. Venugopal tomorrow.

Case Name- Citizens for Green Doon and Ors. vs Union of India and Ors.

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