Supreme Court to hear plea on Char Dham Highway project on May 14


The Supreme Court on Friday will hear the plea concerning the Rs 12,000-crore, 899-km-long Char Dham highway project which connects four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in Garhwal Himalayas.

The matter was listed today before the bench of Justices Vineet Saran and Dinesh Maheshwari, who has asked the Centre to place all relevant orders in this case and agreed to hear the case on Friday. 

Attorney General KK Venugopal apprised the Court that the roads have to be constructed at a width of 7 meter or so. Justice Nariman Bench had allowed for 5.5 Meter but the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways amended it saying that the roads are being used for different purposes, going right up to the Chinese borders. 

The project is under the Supreme Court’s scanner after an NGO, Citizens for Green Doon, raised environmental concerns over the cutting of trees and harm to the fragile Himalayan ecology by the widening of the existing mountain roads. The high-powered committee was formed to be the eyes and ears of the Supreme Court on the project.

In January, the government had supported a majority view within the committee favouring the necessity of broadening the Himalayan feeder roads to Indo-China border in order to facilitate troop movement.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) had filed an affidavit in January this year, in the Supreme Court urging it to accept the majority view of the high-level committee, which has suggested a width of 10 metres for the Rs 12,000-crore Char Dham highway project.

The matter was listed for hearing before the bench of Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, K.M. Joseph and Ajay Rastogi. The bench had asked the petitioner to file their reply/objections if any to the MORTH report. The interim order passed by the Apex Court to keep the road width at 5.5 metres along the Char Dham route continues in the meantime, said the Court. 

According to the Ministry, 21 out of 26 members of the court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) have said that there should be a broad road to facilitate movement of military forces along the Indo-China border and ensure availability of better facilities for the locals.

The Ministry had agreed that HPC should monitor the Char Dham road project, that has been started to improve connectivity to the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

The Apex court had in September 2020 ordered that the road width on the entire Char Dham route cannot be more than 5.5 metres in view of the Ministry’s own circular in 2018. This was followed by the MoRTH and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seeking a modification of this order due to security concerns and tensions along the Indo-China border.

The MoRTH recently on December 15, 2020, amended its previous circular and increased the road width in hilly and mountainous terrain along the Indo-China border to 10 metres.

Between September and November 2020, both MoRTH and MoD maintained that “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7 m (or 7.5 m in case there is a raised kerb)” with 8-10 m formation width would “meet the requirement of the Army”.

While Chopra and two HPC members opposed the demand to increase the carriageway width from 5.5 m to 7 m, the MoRTH on December 15 amended the specifications of its 2018 circular to a 10-m tarred surface. Subsequently, the MoD also changed its position in its affidavit on January 15, seeking a 10-m carriageway with 12-14 m formation width.

In 2019, The High Powered Committee was constituted headed by Prof Ravi Chopra to act as the chairman of the Committee and the Court had directed the Ministry of Environment and Forest & Climate Change to provide the venue and secretarial assistance to the HPC. The Court had decided the following terms and reference of the Committee; 

I. The Committee shall consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the entire Himalayan valleys and for that purpose, the HPC will give directions to conduct EIA/rapid EIA by the Project Proponent/MoRTH.

II. The HPC, with the help of the technical body and engineers of implementation agency (MoRTH) should consider whether revision of the full Chardham project (about 900 Kms) should at all take place with a view to minimize the adverse impact of the project on environment and social life.

III. The HPC shall identify the sites in which work (i.e. hill-cutting) has started and the stretches in which the work has not yet started. As far as the sites in which work has started, the High Powered Committee should recommend the measures which are required for stabilizing the area where hill-cutting has taken place, among others, the environmentally safe disposal of muck which has been generated so that it does not adversely affect the flora and fauna of the catchment area of the river.

IV. As regards the stretches where work has not started, the HPC will review the proposed project and recommend measures which will minimize the adverse impact on environment, social life and bring the project in conformity with the steep valley terrain, carrying capacity, thus avoiding any triggering of new landslides and ensuring conservation and protection of sensitive Himalayan valleys.

V. The HPC will assess the environmental degradation in terms of loss of forest land, trees, green cover, water resources, dumping of muck and impacts on the wildlife and will direct the mitigation measures. Specific attention will be laid on protecting wildlife corridors, and rare and endangered flora and fauna.

VI. The HPC will assess and quantify the impact on social infrastructure/public-life due to triggering of fresh landslides, air pollution, frequent road blocks etc. and will suggest necessary measures for its redressal, including preparation of disaster management plans prior to the monsoon season.

VII.In Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone (Gangotri to Uttarkashi), the HPC will make special provisions in its report keeping in mind the guidelines given under the Notification of the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone so as to avoid violations and any environmental damage.

VIII. The HPC will also suggest the areas in which afforestation measures should be taken. It will also suggest the kind of saplings which have to be planted in different terrains of Himalayas. A separate Committee be constituted by the Forest Department of Uttarakhand to continuously monitor and report on the website that the saplings which have been planted have survived and grown. In case of non-survival of any sapling, further plantation should be done. Compensatory afforestation should be ten times the number of trees which have been cut. The HPC shall prepare an effective afforestation plan ensuring its proper implementation.

IX. The HPC will invite experts from different fields and consult local people or hold public meetings in the local areas to take recommendations and suggestions, as it deems fit.

X. The HPC shall consider giving specific directions to the concerned agencies to put in the public domain the landslide-prone areas, and their treatment by the Project Proponent, the total muck generated, and the places where it has been disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
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