Chairman of Supreme Court-formed Char Dham panel resigns

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
Feb 11, 2022 07:09 AM IST

In his letter dated January 27, chairman of the high powered committee for the Char Dham Pariyojana, Ravi Chopra, has said the union ministry of road transport had ignored recommendations

The chairman of a panel set up by the Supreme court to oversee widening of roads under the Char Dham Pariyojana has written to the top court saying he wanted to resign as the road ministry was ignoring the committee’s recommendations.

Chairman of SC-formed Char Dham panel Ravi Chopra resigns.
Chairman of SC-formed Char Dham panel Ravi Chopra resigns.

In his letter dated January 27, chairman of the high powered committee (HPC) for the Char Dham Pariyojana, Ravi Chopra, has said the union ministry of road transport (MoRTH) had ignored the panel’s recommendations regarding the road width.

“I am writing to inform the Hon’ble Supreme Court of my decision to resign as chairman and member of the High Powered Committee for the Char Dham Pariyojana. I shall be obliged if you will kindly place this letter before the Hon’ble Judges. Let me say at the outset that it was an honour to be asked by the Hon’ble Court to head the HPC by its order dated August 8, 2019,” the letter, circulated by one of the HPC members, stated. HT has seen a copy of the letter.

Accoding to Chopra’s letter, MoRTH had accepted a double lane paved shoulder (DLPS) configuration for roads that come under the project’s ambit, despite the HPC’s recommendations against it.

“The Hon’ble Court’s order dated September 8, 2020 accepting my final report was a reassurance that the balanced approach therein would be helpful in protecting the Himalayas to a great extent, while allowing the disaster-resilient road width, fulfilling the needs of both pilgrims and defence. By the judgment dated December 14, 2021, while recognizing the hard work put in by the HPC, the Hon’ble Court has accepted the wider DL-PS configuration, instead of what the order dated September 8, 2020 envisaged,” the letter states, adding that the judgment has also confined the role of the HPC to overseeing the implementation of its recommendations on two non-defence roads only.

In the HPC’s final report dated September 8, 2020, the HPC had said: “The Hon’ble Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the need to consider the fragile terrain and the impact of road widening on the Himalayan ecology. Any damage to the hilly terrain of Himalayas, which has a permanent adverse impact irreversible in nature, has to be avoided. These aspects have already been discussed in detail earlier. Keeping in view the directions of the Supreme Court, fragility of the region and the intention reflected in the 2018 circular of MoRTH itself, my view is that the parameters provided in MoRTH’s Circular 2018 for the hilly terrain. (5.5 m carriageway, with 1.5 m raised footpath, within 8-10 m RoW and 0.5 m parapets. On curves carriage way can be increased up to 1.5 m) should be adopted, especially in those sections of the Char Dham Pariyojana that have not yet been worked in, i.e., where hill cutting is yet to take place. Most of these stretches lie in the Higher Himalaya which is probably one of the most fragile regions in the world. The issue of road width must be based on science.”

In his latest letter to the SC, Chopra stated that the HPC’s directions and recommendations have been ignored by MoRTH in the past as well. “This experience does not inspire confidence that the response of MoRTH will be much different even in relation to the two Non-Defence roads. The Hon’ble Court has also permitted the respondents to seek legal relief for widening of the Non-Defence highways. In the circumstances, I do not see any purpose in continuing to head the HPC or indeed, even to be a part of it,” the letter stated.

When called, Chopra said it was premature to comment on the matter.

On December 14, the Supreme Court had permitted the Union government to construct all-weather roads with 10m width as part of its Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, underlining that “the recent past has thrown up serious challenges to national security”, and that wide strategic feeder roads to Indo-China border areas were required for the infrastructural needs of the armed forces.

In January last year, the HPC in its report to the SC had presented a divided opinion, with the majority in favour of the wider roads on the Char Dham route, considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.

The majority report also took into account the state government’s focus on reversing the migration in border areas by providing ample livelihood opportunities and ease of transportation, and said that the latest MoRTH circular on wider roads should be accepted. It further added it is not “feasible” to revisit the entire project where work is already completed and reduce the road width from 10 m to 5.5 m, underlining that it was “impractical” to reclaim the already tarred road because it will not be possible to grow trees on the excavated parts.

But several ecologists and geologists have been raising concerns about the impact of hill cutting, muck disposal and instability that will be caused by a DLPS category road.

AP Pandey, a scientist at the national center for seismology had said after the February 7 flash floods and glacier breach in Chamoli that the himalaya region is still seismologically active.

“Chamoli experienced a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 1999 and Uttarkashi experienced a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in 1991. The main frontal thrust, main boundary thrust and the main central thrust (all geological faults in the Himalayas) are extremely active, which means they have the potential to generate a great earthquake. So, any construction in this region has to be carried out extremely carefully. The Himalayas are still evolving and hence seismologically active,” Pandey had said.

Nitin Juyal, a member of the HPC and retired geologist from the physical research laboratory in Ahmedabad, had said in February, 2021: “For Himalayan roads, three things are very important to consider; One is the slope. In Rishikesh for example, there are lower slopes and as you go higher up, the slopes are steep, which can be prone to erosion. The other important aspect is the nature of rocks. Are they inclined towards the road or the other side? The third is extent of vegetation and loose material on the hill being cut. One should never do a vertical scarp against the road.The government is saying it wants a 12-metre-wide two-lane road with paved shoulder. If you consider the right of way needed, this means 24 metres. How will you get that much area in the high Himalayas? Then you have to cut the hills. No wonder over 50,000 trees had to be cut to make way for some of these stretches. But have we assessed what’s the collateral damage?”

“I have long been aware that development in the Himalayas must be respectful of the sacred status that these mountains have in our country. Sustainable development demands approaches that are both geologically and ecologically sound. Such development also enhances disaster-resilience and 2 hence national security, especially when climate challenges to slope stability are becoming far more unpredictable. As a member of the HPC, however, I saw at close quarters the desecration of the once impregnable Himalayas,” Chopra added in the letter.

“In September 2019, when asked to accept the assignment to chair the HPC, I deliberated whether my age would permit me to fulfil the strenuous responsibilities the assignment entailed. I was compelled to accept by an inner voice born out of a 40-year commitment to help restore the degraded Himalayan environment and the livelihoods of its people. That same inner voice now compels me to move out. The belief that the HPC could protect this fragile ecology has been shattered. I can do no more. I therefore choose to resign,” Chopra wrote in the resignation letter to SC.

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