Questions raised over Char Dham road construction
The Union environment ministry has sought responses from the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) and the Uttarakhand government about alleged violations of the forest conservation act during the construction of Char Dham road in Uttarakhand.
The all-weather road is 889km long and will connect Hindu pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunothri and Gangotri in the Himalayas.
Uttrakhand-based ecologist Ravi Chopra, the chairman of a Supreme Court-constituted high-powered committee (HPC), submitted a detailed report on August 13 to union environment ministry specifying alleged violations that occurred during the construction of the project.
The issue of environmental violations in Char Dham project is also being heard by the SC, after it took suo moto cognizance of Ravi Chopra committee’s findings. The matter will be heard again on September 8.
The Chopra report says that the project carried out extensive works, including felling of thousands of trees without a final forest clearance from the environment ministry. Project developer agencies started constructions only based on conditional Stage 1 forest clearance, and a working order was not issued for most stretches, the report said. Temporary work permissions issued for some stretches had lapsed long ago, it added.
“The entire construction work in the above-mentioned projects, including cutting of thousands of trees therefore, started illegally and in gross violation of the provisions of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980,” the report said.
During committee said it found that wrong information related to project location was submitted to seek forest clearances. For many projects that fall under the eco-sensitive zone, instead of saying “yes”, the project proponent has said “no”, which is misleading and incorrect according to the report submitted by Chopra.
The Chopra report has referred to letters sent by the Uttarakhand government to the project authorities which acknowledge that tree felling has taken place without compliance to norms. When contacted, a senior environment ministry official said that there is a “provision of taking a working permission from the forest department that is valid for a year for linear projects”.
“But we have received complaints about various violations including dumping of muck in the rivers and forests. We have sought MoRTH and Uttarakhand government’s response. The matter is in court also,” he said, asking not to be named.
Officials at MoRTH confirmed that they had received the enquiry from the environment ministry for which responses are being prepared, but they declined to comment saying the matter is sub judice.
There was a controversy surrounding the HPC constituted last year by the top court when two separate reports were submitted to the environment ministry in July. Five members including Chopra suggested that “irreversible damage” was caused to the Himalayan ecology due to the project, while 21 other committee members submitted a separate report that said ecological damage can be “minimised”.
“The evidence of legal workarounds for this projects have been in question ever since it was proposed. The accidents and damage during the construction of the project without studies and necessary precautions have already exposed the risks to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem across the entire stretch of this highway. It is not just law but environmental ethics in question,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.