The government plans to embark on a major road-building exercise to counter security threats both along the China border as well as in Maoist-affected areas within the country. And it has relaxed environment norms to a great extent to facilitate this.
Under the changed rules, infrastructure projects in these areas won’t have to adhere to strict environment protection conditions.
The compensatory afforestation rule has also been eased with security agencies required to reforest an area equal to that diverted for the project, against the norm of twice the area.
The environment ministry’s decision would translate into the development of 6,000km of roads within 100km of the strategically important China border.
This becomes more significant in the wake of Beijing’s announcement of plans to build 1,300km of rail network — including two lines linking Lhasa to the Indian border — and over 8,000km of roads.
The Border Roads Organisation is developing around 80 roads along the 4,056km China border from Arunachal Pradesh to Jammu and Kashmir, including widening some existing roads. A defence ministry official said work on new projects would start in the next few months and take eight to ten years to complete.
“If we don’t have good roads, how can we compete with China on strategic defence? We can protect our environment only if we protect our borders,” environment minister Prakash Javadekar told a press conference on Tuesday.
The Line of Actual Control has seen a series of incursions by Chinese forces in the recent past. Building roads would help in swifter movement of our troops and in creating adequate security infrastructure.
It would also bring employment opportunities and economic development to locals.
But experts have raised questions about such a spurt in road development in the ecologically fragile Himalayas, pointing out that the destruction of a large chunk of good forest could have an adverse and lasting impact on the local ecology.
“The Himalayas are a loose mountain range and constructing so many roads without proper environment impact could be dangerous,” said a scientist with the Uttarakhand-based GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Ecology and Development who refused to be named.
The ministry has similarly relaxed norms for the construction of roads — except those passing through wildlife sanctuaries — in 117 Maoist-affected districts, which make up one-fifth of all districts in India.
In addition, the ministry has allowed the diversion of up to five hectares of forestland in these districts for construction of security outposts, laying of optic fibre networks for communication purposes, construction of mobile towers and quarrying of material for construction of roads without mandatory appraisal process.