Char Dham project has raised Uttarakhand’s vulnerability: Former HPC chairman
Ravi Chopra, chairman of an expert panel set up by the Supreme Court to oversee the widening of roads under the Char Dham Pariyojana in Uttarakhand, has resigned
Ravi Chopra, chairman of an expert panel set up by the Supreme Court to oversee the widening of roads under the Char Dham Pariyojana in Uttarakhand, has resigned. He is disappointed that the central government hasn’t paid heed to most of the recommendations of the panel, including the chairman’s view that a road width of 12m to 14m with paved shoulders could make them vulnerable to disasters in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. The Char Dham road project has increased the vulnerability of Uttarakhand to disasters, led to loss of forests, blockage of streams with muck and slope instability, Chopra said in an interview to Jayashree Nandi. Some members of the panel changed their views on a safe road width when they were asked to vote publicly on the matter last year, Chopra said, creating factions within the committee. Edited excerpts:
Did MoRTH implement any of your recommendations as chairman of the high powered committee on the char dham road project? Which recommendations were not implemented?
The ministry either ignored or responded tardily to our recommendations. I will give you a few important examples. After the first meeting of the committee in September 2019, we recommended to the roads ministry to immediately get a Rapid environment impact assessment (REIA) done, which could then guide the committee in its work. The ministry issued the contract letter in June 2020, when I think the final report was already under preparation. The REIA was done thereafter and a report was submitted in September 2020 after justice Rohinton Nariman’s order of September 8, 2020.
Second example—in early March 2020, we strongly recommended a list of vulnerable sites be prepared immediately and adequate protection works begun and be completed before monsoons. In this case, a preliminary list of vulnerable sites was given to us in May 2020, a much longer 200 vulnerable sites list was given to us in September 2020. In the meantime, massive damage had taken place during the monsoon.
Third example, in October 2019, our team learnt that a large mixed dense forest is going to be cut down at Kund near Guptkashi. A disputed bypass had been planned through the forest. When people protested to the HPC, we discussed with engineers of the Public Works Department, the implementing agency, and they agreed that they would halt work until further guidance from us. About 5 or 6 weeks later, when we went to the site, we found that the road cutting had already started through the forest.
There are many such instances related to muck dumping, our asking for data which was never provided. I can’t think of anything significant that was done on time.
Why do you think there were differences in HPC, with one group of members aligning with the Centre’s view on DL+PS width?
Up until the submission of the interim report in February 2020, there was a unanimous view within the committee that roadway width is the key factor that determines the extent of hill cutting and subsequent environmental damage. In May 2020, news appeared about the crisis with China in the Galwan valley. The defence ministry representative in the panel, an engineer of the Border Roads Organisation, argued that the DL+PS (10 m tarred surface)was needed for easy movement of troops and equipment. But when we asked them repeatedly on the maximum width of defence vehicles, we were not informed about that.
A counterview was that national security can be better served by having disaster-resilient roads, which could allow vehicles to pass each other. When the vote was taken in June 2020, several members changed their earlier view and 13 members voted for DL+PS road width while five voted for the shorter intermediate width (5.5m tarred surface), which had been recommended in March 2018 by MoRTH itself, a fact never revealed earlier to the HPC or the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
A senior government official, a member of the committee, told me that even when he sympathised with a particular viewpoint, when it came to voting in public, he would vote for the government view. This same view was reiterated by a scientist from a government institution who was a member of the panel.
Why do you think the road ministry went against its 2018 guidelines on keeping mountain highways narrow, when it came to the road width of the Char Dham project?
There appear to be two major reasons for the ministry persisting with DL+PS width, even after the ministry had notified in 2018 that experience had proven that national highways in the mountainous region should be of intermediate width. What are the two reasons? The Char Dham pariyojana was announced in December 2016 to impress voters from Uttarakhand before the 2017 state elections.
The ministry probably began preparing the project design right away to take a large number of tourists to Char Dham everyday and the DL+PS width was needed to transport over 9,000 vehicles everyday. If you have a narrower width, you cannot take so many vehicles up there.
The second reason was most likely because the toll tax notification in 2013 made the DL+PS configuration mandatory for toll collection on highways. I can think of these two reasons.
How do you feel about resigning from the high-powered committee after documenting two important issues: the 2013 flash floods and the impact of the Char Dham project in your very detailed reports? Do you think you forewarned the authorities of the impacts we are going to see?
Yes, I believe that both the committees have done a good job of forewarning the authorities. Even in HPC on all the recommendations other than the road width, we were unanimous. So, I think there was enough forewarning for the authorities.
How do I feel about resigning? I was given a task to perform and that I accepted more as a sense of duty to protect the Himalayan ecology and ecosystems. As I have said in my letter, I have worked in this region for over 40 years, trying to protect the Himalayan environment and livelihoods of people. I did my job honestly and to the best of my ability, therefore, I have a sense of personal satisfaction.
How do you think the DL+PS width and char dhan project will impact Uttarakhand?
The vulnerability of the state along these highways has definitely been increased. There are a dozen major stretches that have become perennial problems, which will now disrupt traffic, particularly during the monsoon.
There has been massive unforeseen loss of forests and trees due to unanticipated landslides. Loss of forests for local people is a loss of resources and leads to impoverishment. There is growing recognition across the world that one of the major actions to mitigate or adapt to climate change is to enhance forest cover. So, we have become more vulnerable in that sense.
When forests go, where do you think the resident wildlife goes? They wander into surrounding habitations, leading to human and wildlife conflict. We have also seen loss of springs and creation of sites of new potential disaster due to unscientific and illegal muck dumping. A lot of muck has just been thrown into valleys of small mountain streams. These streams are very dangerous. When there is an extreme rainfall event, they can easily flood, and if there is an obstruction to the flood, the flood will break it and cause havoc downstream.
Another less-appreciated aspect is that of the construction of bypasses to avoid congested habitations. This we were repeatedly told is going to hurt the businesses of local people that were going to be bypassed. There will be some economic benefits, but they are going to be skewed in the favour of those more powerful.
How is hill cutting impacting slopes in these stretches?
A lot depends on the specific situation. There is Totaghati, about 35-40 km north of Rishikesh. Totaghati rocks, though they appear strong, are not. They are highly fractured. I recall a paper in Current Science journal, which said there are caves inside these rocks. The kind of studies that were needed to be done have not been done.
You go past Srinagar and come to the village of Pharasu, and what we noticed in October 2019, a part of NH 58 had sunk into the reservoir of Srinagar dam. This is a phenomenon that is well known and was predicted for Tehri dam also. The surrounding slopes of a reservoir can collapse due to the drawdown effect. Geologists who have studied this particular stretch of the mountain range are clear that now this area will sink and it’s a perennial problem.
They are trying to widen the road at Lambagad between Joshimath and Badrinath, an absolutely notorious place. The slope at the bottom, which they are trying to build the road on, is made up of old avalanche debris. Every year during monsoon, the debris blocks the road. To widen the road, they have encroached on about half the width of Alaknanda river at that point. It’s a huge, furious river and cannot be controlled by the protection measures.
The Himalayas are extremely vulnerable to the climate crisis. The Chamoli disaster was an example of escalation in extreme weather events. How do you think this region can be made resilient to the climate crisis?
It can be made more resilient. As I said earlier, forest cover has to be protected and increased. We must reduce the threats to melting of glaciers and warming uppermost or last stretches of river valleys. Air pollution is a major pollution in these valleys if you have too much traffic. We have done a preliminary analysis in the committee’s final report, and therefore, we suggested there is a need to move away from petrol and diesel vehicles in these large stretches.
The HPC had recommended that petrol or diesel vehicles be stopped in places such as Uttarkashi or Joshimath and that people be transported by state electric buses to Gangotri and Badrinath. The era of hydropower is over. Economically and ecologically, they are no more viable in the Himalayas.
In 2014, the expert body that I headed had warned against construction of dams above the main central thrust or the paraglacial zone. If that warning had been heeded, the Tapovan Vishnogad disaster in Chamoli last year could have been avoided and over 200 lives saved. There have been several court orders that no building should be built within 100 or 200 metres of river banks. With climate change, there will be extreme events and therefore this should be followed. A forest, horticulture and sustainable agriculture-based economy along with development of community-based tourism, not highly centralised tourism, needs to be promoted in the mountain districts.
What is your view on the Centre's nod to hydropower projects in Uttarakhand where 50% construction work has already taken place?
I signed a letter to the PM saying that this decision should be reversed. It is a very short-sighted decision based on misleading information. The era of hydropower is over. The arguments that we gave in our letter to the PM was that six of the seven hydropower projects in question are either located in paraglacial zones or on the edge of paraglacial zones.
It is wrong to say the Phata Byung and Tapovan Vishnugad were more than 50% complete because these projects were destroyed. They need to start all over again. The bed-slope has changed and hence the design needs to be changed. For all these projects EIAs are old and in the meantime climate change impact has become more ferocious.