In a letter dated 27 January that has now been made public, Ravi Chopra – the chairperson of the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee (HPC) that was supposed to be overseeing execution of the Narendra Modi government's Char Dham road widening project in Himalayan regions – has resigned, according to reports.
"The belief that the HPC could protect this fragile ecology has been shattered. I can do no more. I therefore choose to resign,” Chopra wrote in his letter, The Indian Express reported.
Seventy-five-year-old Chopra, a renowned environmentalist, had been appointed by the Supreme Court in September 2019 to head the HPC, which was tasked with looking into how wide the mountain roads in the Char Dham region could be made under the new project, while being environmentally sustainable.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had issued a circular in 2018 for widening of roads around the Badrinath-Kedarnath-Gangotri-Yamunotri region (that is, the Char Dham circuit).
This had been challenged in the Supreme Court by an NGO, which then set up the HPC to examine the environmental concerns and give its recommendations for how it could be implemented.
In September 2020, the HPC's recommendations were accepted by the apex court, but in December 2021, after the Ministry of Defence sought wider roads for military purposes given the proximity to China, the Supreme Court allowed for increased width on roads, which had a significance for the armed forces.
A new oversight committee, headed by retired Supreme Court judge AK Sikri, has been set up to look into the widening of the "defence" roads and report to the top court.
According to Chopra's resignation letter to the Supreme Court, as reported by The Hindu, this meant that the HPC's recommendations would only apply to two "non-defence" roads.
Given previous directions and recommendations by the panel had been ignored or responded to very late by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, Chopra reportedly wrote that “In the circumstances, I do not see any purpose in continuing to head the HPC or indeed, even to be a part of it.”
In the letter, the environmentalist lamented the "desecration" of the Himalayas that he witnessed as the chairperson of the HPC.
“I have seen engineers armed with modern technological weapons assaulting the Himalayas. They have slashed through pristine forests, wounding vulnerable Himalayan slopes to widen highways. Ever-increasing numbers of tourists speed along them, their vehicles spewing noxious gases that cover the towering peaks ahead in an unsightly haze. The engineers exult and circulate photographs proving their conquest of Nature, little realising that they too are a part of Nature and cannot survive if their own natural environment is destroyed.”Chopra's resignation letter, according to The Hindu
Chopra noted that there had been natural disasters in the region in June 2013 and February 2021, which had been ignored. Back in February 2021, he had written a letter to the central government linking the road widening project to the flash floods which devastated the state, but the Centre had insisted there was no connection.
(With inputs from the Indian Express and The Hindu.)