SC weighs security, green worries over Char Dham road expansion project - Hindustan Times
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SC weighs security, green worries over Char Dham road expansion project

ByAbraham Thomas, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Nov 10, 2021 07:15 AM IST

The top court was considering two separate applications moved by the ministry of defence (MoD) and the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) to increase the width of three key hill roads in Uttarakhand to double-lane carriageways.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday said that concerns of national security cannot be overridden while dealing with the army’s request to expand the Char Dham project roads leading to Indo-China border, particularly in the context of heavy construction being carried out by China across the border.

Widening of the Char Dham Road in progress.(HT archive)
Widening of the Char Dham Road in progress.(HT archive)

The court was considering two separate applications moved by the ministry of defence (MoD) and the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) to increase the width of three key hill roads in Uttarakhand to a double-lane carriageways with a width of 7 metres each (or 7.5 metre where there is a raised kerb). Presently, the width of these roads cannot be more than 5.5 metre as per a September 2020 order passed by the Supreme Court.

“We are dealing with a matter where defence of the country is squarely affected. Can we say, being the highest constitutional court, that we will override the security of nation in the context of what developments have happened in the past?” observed a bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath.

The Centre’s application was opposed by the petitioner, Citizens for Green Doon, citing environmental concerns that have made the Char Dham project -- to link the four prominent Hindu pilgrimage sites -- a contentious one over concerns of severe ecological damage raised by several experts.

The army, however, cited operational exigencies in moving troops and heavy artillery to the border for seeking modification of the top court’s order. The court’s September order relied upon a 2018 notification issued by MoRTH fixing a uniform width of 5.5 metre for mountainous roads, keeping in view the fragile ecosystem of the hills. In December 2020, this notification was amended making an exception for expansion of feeder roads leading to Indo-China border up to 7 metres with 1.5 metre paved shoulder on either side.

In support of its plea, the Centre filed a sealed cover before the Court two days ago containing images of the heavy construction activity undertaken by China across the border. Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for Centre, said: “There is tremendous build-up by China including airstrips, helipads, positioning of tanks, buildings for troops, and railway lines. It appears they will be there on a permanent basis.”

The three strategic roads sought to be expanded include 281km Rishikesh to Mana (NH-58), 231km Rishikesh to Gangotri (NH-94, 108) and 162km Tanakpur to Pithoragarh (NH-125), which form part of the 889km Char Dham road expansion project to link the pilgrimage sites of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.

“We want the court to look at the sealed cover and see the situation in which the army is placed. In October, China even passed a stringent law in defence of their borders. We are quite concerned about the whole matter and importance of the infrastructure being built by them,” the A-G said.

Reminding the court about the 1962 Indo-China war, the top law officer added, “This court knows what happened in 1962. The armed forces had to take a serious note of the situation and move this application and not be caught napping and be prepared against what happened in 1962. Our soldiers had to walk up to the border.”

Appearing for the petitioner, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves argued that the real objective of the roads was pilgrimage and not the movement of military equipment.

“These roads are 100km away from the border and have nothing to do with the army. The expansion is for Char Dham yatra, a prestigious flagship of the central government. The ministry of defence is there in the matter as a fig leaf to give credibility to the political decision taken by the Government.”

He further stated that the Himalayan ranges are young, fragile mountains and any attempt to depart from the 5.5 metre width regulation will have a devastating effect on the ecosystem.

Faced with a hard choice to protect the environment and need to upgrade the defence at the borders, the bench said, “This court is treading into a critical area where defence of the nation needs to be upgraded in the context of what is happening across the border. Should we say that defence will trump over environment or can we be more nuanced in saying that interests of environment must be balanced?”

If the expansion is for the purpose of expanding tourism, the bench said, this court will impose much more stringent standards. “Look at our predicament in a matter like this. When the government says the expansion is to secure our borders, can we second guess their concerns?” the bench said.

Gonsalves, who had gone through the sealed cover report submitted by the army, felt that the immediate cause of concern was whether the Himalayas can sustain the road expansion project.

A 26-member High Powered Committee (HPC) that was asked by the Court in December 2020 to consider the army’s demand noted how the area in question was prone to landslides. This committee gave its report on December 31, 2020, and by majority approved the double-lane carriageway width of 7 metres for the Char Dham project roads, as desired by the Centre and the army.

However, four members of the panel, including the Committee Chairman Ravi Chopra dissented and recommended that the 5.5 metre width should not be altered with.

The report is being considered by the court.

During the three monsoon months this year, the road stretches in question witnessed 16 landslides, Gonsalves said, adding, “This is the most important climate change case in Himalayas coming before the court.” He also contended that increased vehicular traffic on these routes will have a cascading effect on nearby glaciers.

The court wished to know if the petitioner had any official or unofficial report on a similar impact on the environment due to construction taking place across the border. To this, Gonsalves replied: “The Chinese government is not recognised for robust environment protection as they generally carry out political decisions.”

The hearing will continue on Wednesday.

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