Centre denies Char Dham road expansion link to Chamoli disaster
The Centre told the Supreme Court on Wednesday that the recent Chamoli tragedy had no link with the ongoing Char Dham road expansion project as alleged by the head of the High-Powered Committee in a letter written to the Supreme Court last week. The Committee was formed by the Supreme Court to examine the environmental damage resulting out of the project.
The High-Powered Committee (HPC) Chairman Ravi Chopra in his recent letter dated February 13 said, “The recent disaster in the Rishiganga valley is located in the region north of the main central thrust (MCT), which is highly prone to landslides, flash floods and earthquake. A section of the defense road to the Indo-China border and a bridge across the Rishiganga river on that road have been swept away, lending credence to our argument for disaster resilience in the region. Vulnerability and disaster proneness of this region is bound to increase with extensive disturbances like deforestation, slope cutting, blasting, tunneling, damming of rivers, excessive tourism, etc. The cumulative impact of such activities on the nearby glaciers cannot be ignored.”
The letter further stated that several chronic landslide-prone locations and stretches, where the slope stability is precarious, exist on the three Char Dham highways identified by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as defence feeder roads. The Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways (MoRTH) data submitted to the HPC have identified 161 sensitive locations in 574 km (on NH-94 Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, NH-58 Rishikesh to Mana and NH-125 Tanakpur to Pithoragarh), about one location every 3.5 km.
Watch: After Chamoli flood, why Char Dham road project is in spotlight: Ground Report
The Centre received Chopra’s letter on Tuesday and for this reason could not file its response to the same. On Wednesday, when the Court took up the Char Dham road project matter pending consideration in a petition filed by NGO Citizens for Green Doon, Attorney General KK Venugopal appeared for MoD seeking time for filing a response to HPC Chairman’s letter.
“Yesterday we received the letter by the Chairman, HPC which he has written on his own behalf. These are unwarranted comments not based on facts. We would like to reply to it in two weeks,” AG Venugopal said. The bench of Justices RF Nariman, Hemant Gupta and BR Gavai adjourned the matter by two weeks at the request of the top law officer.
The HPC had on December 31, 2020 given its approval for the expansion of the Chard Dham project roads after the MoD demanded these roads to have a double-lane carriageway width of 7 metre (or 7.5 metre in case there is a raised kerb) to facilitate movement of heavy vehicles carrying troops, self-propelled artillery and other heavy machinery by the Army. The Court had asked the HPC to consider this request of the MoD as the earlier prescribed width according to MoRTH notification was 5.5 metre. HPC Chairman refused to go with the majority view and gave a separate report along with two other members.
In his letter to the SC, Chopra further stated that had the 2014 recommendation of an expert body (EB) chaired by him following the 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand been followed, the recent Chamoli tragedy could be averted.
VS Khaira, chief engineer, regional office of ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) Uttarakhand and project in-charge of Char Dham road project, said, “We will submit our response to the points raised in the letter (by HPC Chairman) in two weeks’ time.”
Chopra further stated in the letter that EB had recommended that hydro electric projects (HEPs) should not be built in these valleys “based on field visits, scientific publications, government reports and eye-witness reports” that provided evidence of irreversible damage to the Ganga river system’s Himalayan ecology.
The EB’s recommendations were accepted by the Central Government and submitted to the top court in the form of an affidavit in 2014. “The flood-related concerns in all existing projects including shortcomings of Tehri Dam were also highlighted and recommendations were made by the EB to develop and install the flood warning mechanism. Had these concerns and recommendations been adopted, the massive loss of lives and property could have been avoided in the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad projects”, the letter states.
Following the EB recommendation, the Supreme Court had stayed work on 24 proposed HEPs. But all under-construction projects continued their construction unhindered. “Instead of recognizing the sensitive nature of the area which is prone to disaster, the Union Ministries, MoRTH and MoD have been shifting their positions,” Chopra said in his letter referring to the SC judgment in 2013 in the Kedarnath tragedy case where it expressed concern that “with the mushrooming of large number of hydroelectric projects in the State of Uttarakhand…the cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, power-house, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. on eco-system, is yet to be scientifically examined.”