Committee on Char Dham project divided over green impact

The report points out that the occurrence of landslides has been enhanced by vertical or near-vertical cuts without sufficient slope vulnerability analysis in the fragile Himalayas.
The proposed all-weather road will connect the four shrines of Uttarakhand -- Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. (Santosh Bhatt/HT Photo)
The proposed all-weather road will connect the four shrines of Uttarakhand -- Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. (Santosh Bhatt/HT Photo)
Updated on Jul 22, 2020 05:50 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Dehradun | BySuparna Roy

Members of a 26-member high-power committee formed by the Supreme Court last year to determine the impact of the 826km Char Dham road project on Himalayan valleys have submitted two separate reports, revealing differences within the panel.

A group led by the panel’s chairman Ravi Chopra and four others has listed potential adverse environmental and social life impacts of the proposed road, including environmental damage such as landslides, loss of forests, blocking of Himalayan streams, and threat to wildlife.

At the same time, a group of 21 members says the damage can be minimised.

Both groups submitted their reports last week to the ministry of environment and forests, committee members said.

The proposed all-weather road will connect the four shrines of Uttarakhand -- Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. The foundation stone for the project was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2016. According to officials in the state government, 350km of the road has been constructed so far under the project.

The main point of contention is the width of the road.

The report of Chopra and the others, a copy of which is with HT, says, “…environmentally less harmful approaches to road widening like the use of valley side filling, provisioning of tunnels, viaducts and snow galleries taking due cognizance of terrain fragility, ecological sensitivity and social concerns have received little attention...”. It goes on to list the adverse environmental impact of a 12-metre-wide road against an 8-metre-wide one.

The report points out that the occurrence of landslides has been enhanced by vertical or near-vertical cuts without sufficient slope vulnerability analysis in the fragile Himalayas.

“On National Highway 125 (Champawat-Tanakpur), 102 out of 174 fresh cut slopes were landslide-prone; 44 slope failures had taken place by mid-December 2019. In the first four months of 2020, there were 11 slope failures, almost one a week,” adds the report.

Listing more environmental damage, the report stresses that a bypass alignment proposed at Lohaghat (in Champawat district) “will severely impact the deodar and oak forests of Kali village Van Panchayat. Similarly, the proposed alignments for Champawat and Pithoragarh town bypasses under the project will also lead to felling of precious deodar trees in local forests.”

Other damage, according to the report ,include blocking of Himalayan streams due to improper dumping of muck, heavy dust and traffic pollution and impact on terrestrial and aquatic fauna and flora.

“Wildlife values, habitats, wildlife corridors and wildlife safety have been overlooked. Felling of trees and large swathes of forests forces resident small fauna, primates, wild pigs, porcupines and snakes into the nearby human settlements endangering human safety and farm productivity,” the report adds.

But a senior member of the majority group said the damage can be, and is being, mitigated. “It is obvious that more trees will be cut if a wider road is built, but we are taking precautions for environmental damages. We have made recommendation regarding the deposition of muck in designated sites and protecting it from flowing into water bodies. Along with this, plantation of tree saplings has been recommended,” added this person who asked not to be named.

He also pointed out that a wider road would be safer.

Another senior member of the majority group brought in the China angle, with the road also helping India move troops and supplies to border areas. “We will not deviate from the report because this road has strategic importance in terms of Indo-China relations. The committee would rather concentrate on mitigating and minimizing environmental damages,” he said.

In August last year, the Supreme Court ordered the formation of an 11-member high-powered committee to “consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Char Dham project on the entire Himalayan valleys…” A bench comprising justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and Surya Kant modified the National Green Tribunal’s September 26, 2018 order by constituting the committee.

The court mentioned that the high-powered committee, with the help of a technical body and engineers of the implementation agency, should consider whether the Char Dham project needs to be revised to minimise adverse impacts on the environment and social life.

The apex court issued these directions after hearing a plea by Dehradun-based NGO Citizens for Green Doon against the National Green Tribunal’s September 26 2018 order giving conditional approval to the Char Dham road project in view of larger public interest.

NGT, while clearing the Char Dham project said: “We are of the view that all environmental concerns can be addressed by having a responsible and independent oversight mechanism which may monitor the environmental safeguards during the execution of the project.”

In March 2018, the deadline for the project was extended from March 2019 to March 2020, but work is still continuing in the state.

A review meeting with the Union road and transport minister was held on July 17, on the progress on the ambitious project costing Rs 12,072 crore.

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