ADVERTISEMENT

Explained: The Char Dham Project, Its Ecological Impact & the SC Judgment

What is the Char Dham project? Why have the environmentalists opposed it? What does the Supreme Court say?

Updated
Explainers
5 min read
Explained: The Char Dham Project, Its Ecological Impact & the SC Judgment
i

In a victory for the Centre, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, 14 December, allowed the widening of roads in three hill stretches of Uttarakhand – Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh – which fall under the Char Dham project.

While the court has pronounced its judgment to increase the carriageway length to 10 m, in favour of the government's plea for expansion of the roads, many environmentalists have raised concerns about the ecological impact of the development project on the Himalayan region.

What is the Char Dham project? What uses will it serve? Why have environmentalists opposed it? What does the Supreme Court say?

Here's all you need to know.

Explained: The Char Dham Project, Its Ecological Impact & the SC Judgment

  1. 1. What Is the Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna?

    The Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna, whose foundation stone was laid in December 2016, seeks to improve connectivity between four pilgrimage sites – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunothri, and Gangothri – in Uttarakhand.

    The project, which costs around Rs 12,000 crore, seeks to develop approximately 889 km of road in the Himalayan region.

    The Char Dham project will focus on the widening of the existing roads in the region, along with ensuring adequate and sufficient slope protection.

    The entire length of the highways will be two-laned with paved shoulder and with a minimum width of 10 metres, the government has announced.

    The width of the carriageway had been in contravention to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways circular of 2018 which had advised against building full-fledged roads cutting across the Himalayan slopes, prescribing a maximum of 5.5 m width for the sensitive roads.

    "The projects also include mitigation measures/ stabilisation of chronic landslide & sinking spots/zones as standalone project or part of road widening projects to avoid land slide and safety of road users. Bio engineering methods like hydro seeding are being used for vegetative growth on fragile slopes for their stability. All these measures shall safeguard the highway and habitation against natural calamity."
    Ministry of Road Transport and Highways

    The works under Char Dham Pariyojna are being implemented by 3 executing agencies of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH): Uttarakhand State Public Works Department, Border Road Organization (BRO), and National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).

    Expand
  2. 2. What Will Be the Benefits of the Char Dham Project?

    The existing roads in the precarious terrain are travel through fragile mountainous slopes, and suffer from the handicaps of load, capacity, safety, and speed, as per MoRTH.

    The improved road connectivity, which seeks to develop and widen these roads, will make travel safer, economical, comfortable, environment-friendly, and all-weather.

    In addition to conveniencing travel for purposes of tourism and pilgrimage in Uttarkhand, wider roads are required in the Char Dham region in order to transport crucial military equipment to the mountainous territory, which is adjacent to the India-China border, the government has posited.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Supreme Court Case

    The MoRTH's road-expansion project was in 2018 challenged for its potentially hazardous impact on the Himalayan ecology.

    What Were the Objections?

    Environmentalist groups, including Dehradun-based Citizens for Green Doon, in their plea opposing the widening of the highway, cited the massive landslides and other environmental disasters that have resulted due to felling of trees and destruction of ecosystems for infrastructure projects.

    A High-Powered Committee (HPC) was set up the Supreme Court to consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the Himalayan valleys.

    The Report of the High-Powered Committee

    In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members of the panel conflicted on the ideal width for hill roads. The minority recommendation, made by 4 members of the HPC argued that “a disaster-resilient road is much more critical” than a wider road “prone to frequent blockages, landslides and recurring slope failures,” reported The Indian Express.

    On the other hand, 21 HPC members, 14 of them government officials, sought a 12-m road width.

    Supreme Court Rules in Favour of 5.5 KM Road Length

    The Supreme Court in September 2020 upheld the recommendation of the minority, ruling that the carriageway width should be limited 5.5 m in the precarious terrain.

    The Central Govt's Contention

    The central government challenged the ruling, citing concerns of national interest. It had pushed for the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders, and having a width of 10m.

    "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 had told the top court in November 2021.

    The Environmentalists' Argument

    Citizens for Green Doon in November had argued in the court that the army was satisfied with the existing roads but was only following the dictates of the government, as per The Indian Express.

    The NGO further contended that the road widening exercise was being sought merely in order to facilitate the Char Dham Yatra.

    The Supreme Court's Judgment

    Pronouncing judgment in the Char Dham case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, 14 December, allowed the double-lane paved shoulder configuration for the Chardham road project.

    The court's order was devised taking into consideration the recent security challenges at the India-China border, and the strategic importance of having double-lane roads for swift movement of the armed forces.

    Expand
  4. 4. What Do Environmentalists Say?

    "It is quite a disappointment and extremely unfortunate that the judges have come to this kind of a conclusion. There is no rationale for this. They have bypassed all of the scientific evidence from over the years for the dangers of infrastructure projects going beyond the carrying capacity," environment activist Mallika Bhanot told The Quint.

    "This is one of the most disaster-prone areas. The Ganga-Himalaya basin is one of the most fragile, vulnerable valleys in the entire Himalyan range. It is a great responsibility that the decision such large scale infrastructure projects, which have proven to cause so much environmental impact, should not have been taken like this. It should have considered the repurcussions on ground."
    Environmentalist Mallika Bhanot

    "The judgment that has come out is totally one-sided. It is only talking about the defence needs of the country. It is not talking about the food and water security we are dependent upon, it is not talking about the safety of the residents, it not talking about the security of the tourists and the pilgrims," Bhanot added.

    "It is preposterous to say that tourist-related projects have suddenly become defence projects," she said.

    Echoing a similar sentiment, environment activist and river expert Himanshu Thakkar said:

    "The Supreme Court had earlier already gone through the whole process and directed that the project cannot happen. After that, they (the Centre) brought in the security issue, and now they are saying that we require it for the security. This is very unfortunate."

    "Uttarakhand is already facing so many disasters at such a increased intensity, increased frequency and increased grade. And then each of those highways, broad highways that they are building is actually increasing the vulnerability of the whole area," Thakkar added.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is the Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna?

The Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna, whose foundation stone was laid in December 2016, seeks to improve connectivity between four pilgrimage sites – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunothri, and Gangothri – in Uttarakhand.

The project, which costs around Rs 12,000 crore, seeks to develop approximately 889 km of road in the Himalayan region.

The Char Dham project will focus on the widening of the existing roads in the region, along with ensuring adequate and sufficient slope protection.

The entire length of the highways will be two-laned with paved shoulder and with a minimum width of 10 metres, the government has announced.

The width of the carriageway had been in contravention to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways circular of 2018 which had advised against building full-fledged roads cutting across the Himalayan slopes, prescribing a maximum of 5.5 m width for the sensitive roads.

"The projects also include mitigation measures/ stabilisation of chronic landslide & sinking spots/zones as standalone project or part of road widening projects to avoid land slide and safety of road users. Bio engineering methods like hydro seeding are being used for vegetative growth on fragile slopes for their stability. All these measures shall safeguard the highway and habitation against natural calamity."
Ministry of Road Transport and Highways

The works under Char Dham Pariyojna are being implemented by 3 executing agencies of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH): Uttarakhand State Public Works Department, Border Road Organization (BRO), and National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (NHIDCL).

ADVERTISEMENT

What Will Be the Benefits of the Char Dham Project?

The existing roads in the precarious terrain are travel through fragile mountainous slopes, and suffer from the handicaps of load, capacity, safety, and speed, as per MoRTH.

The improved road connectivity, which seeks to develop and widen these roads, will make travel safer, economical, comfortable, environment-friendly, and all-weather.

In addition to conveniencing travel for purposes of tourism and pilgrimage in Uttarkhand, wider roads are required in the Char Dham region in order to transport crucial military equipment to the mountainous territory, which is adjacent to the India-China border, the government has posited.

The Supreme Court Case

The MoRTH's road-expansion project was in 2018 challenged for its potentially hazardous impact on the Himalayan ecology.

What Were the Objections?

Environmentalist groups, including Dehradun-based Citizens for Green Doon, in their plea opposing the widening of the highway, cited the massive landslides and other environmental disasters that have resulted due to felling of trees and destruction of ecosystems for infrastructure projects.

A High-Powered Committee (HPC) was set up the Supreme Court to consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the Himalayan valleys.

The Report of the High-Powered Committee

In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members of the panel conflicted on the ideal width for hill roads. The minority recommendation, made by 4 members of the HPC argued that “a disaster-resilient road is much more critical” than a wider road “prone to frequent blockages, landslides and recurring slope failures,” reported The Indian Express.

On the other hand, 21 HPC members, 14 of them government officials, sought a 12-m road width.

Supreme Court Rules in Favour of 5.5 KM Road Length

The Supreme Court in September 2020 upheld the recommendation of the minority, ruling that the carriageway width should be limited 5.5 m in the precarious terrain.

The Central Govt's Contention

The central government challenged the ruling, citing concerns of national interest. It had pushed for the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders, and having a width of 10m.

"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 had told the top court in November 2021.

The Environmentalists' Argument

Citizens for Green Doon in November had argued in the court that the army was satisfied with the existing roads but was only following the dictates of the government, as per The Indian Express.

The NGO further contended that the road widening exercise was being sought merely in order to facilitate the Char Dham Yatra.

The Supreme Court's Judgment

Pronouncing judgment in the Char Dham case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday, 14 December, allowed the double-lane paved shoulder configuration for the Chardham road project.

The court's order was devised taking into consideration the recent security challenges at the India-China border, and the strategic importance of having double-lane roads for swift movement of the armed forces.

ADVERTISEMENT

What Do Environmentalists Say?

"It is quite a disappointment and extremely unfortunate that the judges have come to this kind of a conclusion. There is no rationale for this. They have bypassed all of the scientific evidence from over the years for the dangers of infrastructure projects going beyond the carrying capacity," environment activist Mallika Bhanot told The Quint.

"This is one of the most disaster-prone areas. The Ganga-Himalaya basin is one of the most fragile, vulnerable valleys in the entire Himalyan range. It is a great responsibility that the decision such large scale infrastructure projects, which have proven to cause so much environmental impact, should not have been taken like this. It should have considered the repurcussions on ground."
Environmentalist Mallika Bhanot

"The judgment that has come out is totally one-sided. It is only talking about the defence needs of the country. It is not talking about the food and water security we are dependent upon, it is not talking about the safety of the residents, it not talking about the security of the tourists and the pilgrims," Bhanot added.

"It is preposterous to say that tourist-related projects have suddenly become defence projects," she said.

Echoing a similar sentiment, environment activist and river expert Himanshu Thakkar said:

"The Supreme Court had earlier already gone through the whole process and directed that the project cannot happen. After that, they (the Centre) brought in the security issue, and now they are saying that we require it for the security. This is very unfortunate."

"Uttarakhand is already facing so many disasters at such a increased intensity, increased frequency and increased grade. And then each of those highways, broad highways that they are building is actually increasing the vulnerability of the whole area," Thakkar added.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Published: 
Edited By :Padmashree Pande
Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Quint Insider
25
100
200

or more

PREMIUM

3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Insider Benefits
ADVERTISEMENT
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!
ADVERTISEMENT
×
×