Ecostani | Proceed with Char Dham project — with strict ecological safeguards
Last week, a hamlet in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district started sinking. The villagers had to be relocated to a new location. And, it was because of road construction without any slope management.
Dhar, a village in the Darma valley of Dharchula, is not the only village in the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand which has slipped from its original location due to road construction caused ecological imbalance in the fragile northwestern Himalayan region. Although the state government has not conducted any survey of such sinking villages, locals say the impact of road construction can be seen in villages on steep slopes.
Dhar (meaning steep slope) village is an important construct for the debate on whether the R 12,000 crore Char Dham road construction project should be treated as one for national security or for promoting tourism, pilgrimage and bringing economic prosperity to locals.
Since the Char Dham project was envisaged in 2016, it was projected as the one to promote religious tourism in Uttarakhand. While inaugurating the project on December 27, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the all-weather road would provide enormous employment to locals through an increase in religious tourism in the region. A Press Information Bureau statement then said the project was to provide “better connectivity” to Char Dham pilgrim places in the Himalayas, making journeys safer, faster and most convenient.
In September 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated the same in a letter to former Lok Sabha member Revati Raman Singh saying the project is a flagship programme aimed at linking all important pilgrim sites in the state, which would also provide better connectivity for strategic locations.
But, in November 2021, the Ministry of Defence told the Supreme Court that the project was of national strategic importance because of the troop build-up by the Chinese on their side of the border and therefore, the ecological by-laws should not apply. “China is building helipads and buildings on the other side… so trucks carrying artillery, rocket launchers and tanks may have to pass through these roads,” Attorney General KK Venugopal told the Court on November 9, while emphasising why environmental regulations should not apply to the project. In all this, he missed the original aim of connecting four pilgrim places in Uttarakhand – Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
Intriguingly, the AG’s claim is not applicable to Himachal Pradesh or Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a longer border with China than Uttarakhand, and where the main roads leading to the border are not even double-lane, and is some places are narrow single lane. Venugopal’s submission in the court propels a key question — why does the Central government want the Supreme Court to consider the project as one of strategic importance now.
The answer apparently lies in the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) guidelines of 2014 for charging a toll on roads. According to the 2104 notification, the four-lane hill roads with paved shoulders can impose a toll tax of 60% of the specified fee. The Char Dham road being constructed under the Supreme Court supervision does not meet the criteria and therefore, may not attract toll tax. However, if the Supreme Court accepts the Defence Ministry plea of having a minimum seven-meter wide road excluding paved shoulders, the Char Dham project will be eligible for imposing toll tax.
NHAI made its intention clear that it wants to impose a toll for using Char Dham road by issuing a notification for acquiring land to construct a toll collection centre in mid-2020 but its plans could not fructify because the Supreme Court reduced the width of the road to 5.5 meters without paved shoulders from the proposed 10 meters in September 2020. The petitioners in the case, Citizens for Green Doon, told the Supreme Court in November 2021 that increasing the width would result in the imposition of the toll on the highway, which had traditionally been a toll-free road. They also said that a road with a real road width of 6.5 meters with paved shoulders was enough to transport defence missile vehicles all along the highway.
The change in Centre’s stand should be looked at with regard to the ecological cost of the project so far. NHAI in its submission this year informed the Supreme Court that it was treating about 100 slopes under the Char Dham project, where landslides have been witnessed due to road construction this monsoon. According to Ravi Chopra, who headed the Supreme Court-appointed high powered committee on Char Dham Project, 102 out of 172 fresh cut slopes on the national highway number 125 in Uttarakhand was landslide-prone, with 44 landslides reported there till mid-December 2019. “Similar situation prevails on all the Char Dham highways,” he said.
According to Uttarakhand Disaster Management Department, the number of landslides has increased to 972 in 2020 from only 33 in 2015 and experts said most of them were on the road construction sites triggered by extreme rainfall events. To be sure, the substantial increase in landslide number could be because of better recording.
Hindustan Times on September 13 reported weather-related calamities over the years have increased with the state registering 7,750 extreme rainfall events and cloud bursts since 2015, most of them over the last three years, that killed 230 people. In February this year, more than 200 people were killed after a glacier burst in Tapovan led to a sudden rise in the water level of the Dhauliganga river in Chamoli district that damaged two hydel projects. On May 3, several houses were damaged after heavy rainfall triggered landslides and floods in Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag districts. Days later, a cloudburst in Devprayag town in Tehri Garhwal washed away two local municipality buildings. On July 19, three persons, including a three-year-old girl, died following extreme rainfall in Uttarkashi district. In October, 46 people died due to extreme rainfall in Nainital and Chamoli districts, with part of a hill sliding into the famous Nainital Lake, resulting in it overflowing for the first time in over 50 years.
Explaining the reasons behind the rise in such incidents, geologist CC Pant, a retired professor from Kumaon University, said hill cutting across Uttarakhand for constructions, development projects or activities such as the Char Dham road-building causes slope instability, making them more vulnerable to landslides. “Road construction on slopes with a weak foundation in times of extreme rainfall is a modern ecological catastrophe,” Chopra said. Pradeep Kumar, Pithoragarh district geologist, who surveyed Dhar village, said the village started sinking because of the road widening work as it distributed the underground water channels and rock formations. And that is happening at several places on Char Dham project roads but the NHAI, which is implementing the project, has overlooked most as treating these sites fully could lead to substantial cost overrun.
As the Supreme Court itself pointed out that it needs to “nuance” ecological balance with strategic needs and may announce a new approach soon. The court should look at another important aspect — the people who live in the hills, as nobody seems to speak about them. They need developmental and economic opportunities like citizens in the rest of the country while protecting the environment, which is their livelihood source. Most people in the hills derive their income from horticulture, which is emerging as a major revenue source for locals and Uttarkhandis have the potential to match Himachal in horticulture produce. For that, they need both the Char Dham project that provides better connectivity to the market, that is the plains of India, and a sound environment that ensures high quality produce. Poor road connectivity has been the biggest bane for people in Himalayan hills and a reason for the high migration of Uttarkhandis from hills to plains. The Char Dham highway can undo that historical injustice by improving village connectivity through smaller roads. And last but not the least, the project will provide enormous economic activity as tourists would easily reach new places, making locals important stakeholders in tourism through home-stays and other auxiliary services.
In view of all this, the Supreme Court needs to issue comprehensive guidelines on ecological safeguards in view of the increasing extreme rainfall and to deal with a higher influx of people to the upper reaches of Uttarakhand. The guideline should clearly define the width of the hill roads as NHAI has come out with confusing norms and they should be applicable for all road construction projects across the Himalayas. The court should allow the NHAI to charge a toll on Char Dham, as it is a tourism project, with the condition that the revenue collected should be used only for ecological restoration including restoring traditional riverine systems. There should be an incentive for use of emission-free electric vehicles and a specialized agency to collect and treat waste. The court should consider Char Dham an ecological project, with value for the movement of defence troops.
The views expressed are personal