Stick to rule: SC on Char Dham road
The Supreme Court has ruled that the width of the Char Dham highway, an ambitious 900-kilometre project that promises to offer all-weather connectivity to four Hindu pilgrimage centres in Uttarakhand, and the ancillary benefit of facilitating rapid movement of Indian military forces to areas adjoining its border with China, shall not exceed the 5.5 metres specified in 2018 by the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) for roads under construction in mountainous terrain.
The matter came up for hearing before a bench headed by justice R F Nariman which told solicitor general Tushar Mehta on Tuesday that the ministry’s guidelines should apply to the two-lane highway, which will connect Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
“All you have to do is to go by your 2018 guidelines. How can you not go by your own guidelines?” the bench asked Mehta after hearing Ravi Chopra, chairman of the high-powered committee (HPC) formed by the apex court last year to review the environmental impact of the project.
The court accepted the final report submitted by the committee, some members of which have differed with the central government on the width of the highway.
The Centre has been in favour of a two-lane highway with a width of seven metres; some HPC members , including Chopra, contended that such a broad road would be dangerous for the fragile Himalayan ecology that is highly susceptible to landslides.
In its order published on Wednesday, the apex court rejected Mehta’s suggestion that the 2018 circular on road width was prospective in nature and not meant for projects under construction.
“Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General, persisted with his arguments that the 2018 circular is only prospective in nature. We are well aware of the distinction between something which is retrospective in the sense that it applies for the first time to projects which are already completed as opposed to ongoing projects, where it is necessary to take stock of the current situation and then move forward,” the court said.
“Having taken stock of the current situation and of the fragility generally of the ecosystem in mountain terrain, we are of the view that this argument has no legs to stand on,” the order read. It also says that plantations should be taken up in stretches affected by landslides and construction activity.
Solicitor general Mehta submitted to the court an affidavit by MoRTH hich said a width of seven metres was required for strategic roads connecting to international borders such as the one between India and China on which military vehicles ply. Mehta said the argument that the intermediate carriageway’s width should no exceed 5.5 metres was a “minority view” in the committee.
The advocate who represented the petitioner Citizens of Green Doon and Ors, a Dehradun-based environmental group, said the contentious issue of the highway’s width had been addressed by the apex court.
“The SC has clearly said that in the Char Dham project’s intermediate lane configuration with road width of 5.5 metres has to be followed, as per the MoRTH’s circular of 2018 meant for hilly and mountainous regions. The Centre’s plan of building a seven-metre wide highway will not be considered. I have highlighted that a lot of damage has been done to the fragile ecology of the Himalayas. Now, the damages have to be mitigated,” said the advocate, Sanjay Parikh.
Several landslides were triggered by construction work on the Char Dham highway this year, according to the committee that reviewed its environmental impact..
The affidavit, seen by HT, said that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) was engaged by the ministry to carry out landslide susceptibility mapping of vulnerable areas in Uttarakhand. The exercise revealed that around half of Uttarakhand is highly or moderately susceptible to landslides, establishing that the work on the Char Dham highway is not the only factor responsible for the phenomenon.
MoRTH cited a report by the Disaster Management Centre of Uttarakhand, which showed that between January 1 and August 28, 66 people were killed, 40 injured and 419 buildings destroyed by natural disasters in the state. Landslides claimed 22 lives; 38 died because of flash floods.
Chopra, the chairman of the committee, submitted a detailed report to the ministry of environment on August 13 citing environmental lapses and violations that took place during the construction of the Char Dham highway.The report said the developer carried out extensive work such as felling of thousands of trees without the clearance of the ministry.
“Works such as hill cutting, digging and dumping of muck is in gross violation of the Forest Conservation (FC) Act, 1980, which has resulted in massive damage to the ecology of these valleys,” the report added.
In August last year, the apex court cleared the decks for the Char Dham highway project by modifying a National Green Tribunal order to constitute a high-powered committee to look into environmental concerns. It said the committee shall consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Char Dham project on the entire Himalayan valley.
(PTI contributed to this story)