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Char Dham Project and its Ecological Concern

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The Supreme Court of India has appointed Justice (retd.) A.K. Sikri as the chairman of the High-Powered Committee (HPC) constituted by it to “consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna on the entire Himalayan valley”. This was done after Professor Ravi Chopra resigned as the chairman of the Char Dham project accusing the Union Road and Highway Transport ministry of ignoring its recommendations. This has again brought into focus the controversial Char Dham road project.

What is Char Dham Project

The project is officially called as Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna(Char Dham Highway Development Project). The foundation stone of the project was laid down by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2016 at Dehradun.

  • It is a strategic highway project of the Union Ministry of Road  Transport and Highway (MoRTH) which seeks to develop an all weather 889 km National Highway in Uttarakhand.

  • These highways connect the holy shrines of Yamunotri Dham, Gangotri Dham, Kedarnath Dham, Badrinath Dham  which have been labeled as the “Chote Char Dham” in the State of Uttarakhand – Yamunotri (NH- 94/134 up to Janki Chatti), Gangotri (NH-108), Kedarnath (NH-109, up to Sonprayag), Badrinath (NH-58) and the Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route (NH-125). The total cost of the Project is Rs 11700 crore. 

  • The Project aims to improve  accessibility to these shrines by widening the existing roads, making travel safer, smoother and faster. The Project seeks to widen the existing highways into a double lane with paved shoulder configuration 4 with 16 bypasses, realignments and tunnels, 15 flyovers, 101 small bridges and 3516 culverts.

Agencies which will implement the Project

The Highway is being built by the Central agencies, Border Road Organisation. National Highway Infrastructure Development Corporation of India and Uttarakhand State Public  Works Department.

Controversy over the Project

No sooner was the project announced there were serious objections from the environmentalists groups to the projects.  A Dehradun based NGO, Citizen for Green Doon Approached the supreme Court and filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), asking the court to stop the project.

The main issue raised  in the petition were as follows :

  • The Himalayan ecosystem is very sensitive and if the roads are widened then trees will be felled and mountains will be cut. It will lead to a huge amount of muck which will choke water bodies.

  • The destruction of the ecosystem in the Himalayan will lead to massive and frequent landslides in the region. 

  • It was violative of the Ministry of Road Transport and  Highway  rule which limited the width of the road to 5.5 metres in ecologically sensitive areas.

Government argument

The Central government argued in favour of the project and argued that the Project ;

  • Was of strategic significance as Uttarakhand shares a long border with China. China has already built military infrastructure on their side of the border and India also needs to develop road infrastructure so that large military trucks and tanks can be rapidly deployed on the border. 

  • The road project was to boost tourism and economic development of the region.

Supreme Court Judgement

The Supreme Court set up a  21 member High Powered Committee(HPC) to consider the impact of the project on the ecology of Himalayas.  

The committee submitted its report in 2020. The minority view of the HPC was that the road width shall be 5.5 metres as it was more “disaster resilient” while the 17 member of the committee recommended the widening of the roads to 12 metres 

The Supreme went by the minority view of the HPC and restricted the width of the road to 5.5 metres  in its 8th September 2020 judgement.

Review petition filed in the Supreme Court

The government of India amended the Ministry of Road Transport and  Highway rule which limited the width of the road to 5.5 metres in ecologically sensitive areas and increased it to 10 metres and then it approached the Supreme Court.

  • In a review petition filed before the Supreme Court the Union Ministry of Defence pleaded in the court to allow the widening of roads to 10 metres as it was  crucial for defence purpose and national interest. 

  • It pleaded before the Supreme Court to allow the widening of important  national highways from Rishikesh to Mahana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh. 

  • The three stretches where the defence ministry wants to widen the road connect the Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police stations located in Joshimath, Uttarkashi, Roorkee, Rajwala, Dehradun, Tanakpur, Pithoragarh and other places to the International Border/Line of Actual Control with China.

Supreme Court Judgement

The Supreme Court in its 14 December 2021 judgement modified its September 2020 order and allowed the widening of the strategically important highways from Rishikesh to Mahana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh to 10 metres. 

  • The Supreme Court held that the national interest of the country needs to be taken into consideration. 

  • However the Supreme Court set up an oversight committee headed by Justice (retd) A.K.Sikri to ensure that the HPC 0bservation on environmental concern regarding the projects like, felling of trees, muck disposal, preservation of water bodies and hill cutting are heeded and HPC  remedial suggestion are implemented.

  • The committee was to submit its report to the Supreme Court every four months.

Role of  HPC

  • The HPC was to suggest remedial measures to the Char Dham project implementing agency so that the road widening of the project's impact on the environment and ecology of the Himalayan regions is minimised Prof Ravi Chopra was made the chairman of the HPC by the Supreme Court. 

  • However Prof Chopra resigned from the post alleging that the Government was not heeding its advice and recommendation on the projects.

  • The Supreme Court made Justice (retd.) A.K.Sikri the chairman of the HPC as he was already the chairman of the oversight committee and by appointing him the court hopes to bring harmony in the functioning of both the roles.

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