Ecostanais | Continue with the Char Dham project – with strict ecological guarantees
Last week, a hamlet in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand began to sink. The villagers had to be moved to a new location. And, it was because of the construction of roads without any slope management.
Dhar, a village in the Darma Valley in Dharchula, is not the only village in the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand that has slipped from its original location due to road construction which has caused an ecological imbalance in the fragile region in the northwestern Himalayas. Although the state government has not conducted any investigation into these sinking villages, locals say the impact of road construction can be seen in villages on steep slopes.
The village of Dhar (which means steep slope) is an important construction for the debate on whether the 12,000 crore Char Dham road construction project should be treated as a national security project or to promote the tourism, pilgrimage and bring economic prosperity to the inhabitants.
Since the Char Dham project was envisioned in 2016, it has been projected to promote religious tourism in Uttarakhand. At the inauguration of the project on December 27, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the all-weather road would provide huge jobs for locals through increased religious tourism in the area. A press release from the Press Information Office then said the project aimed to provide “better connectivity” to Char Dham’s pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas, making travel safer, faster and more convenient.
In September 2021, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated the same in a letter to former Lok Sabha member Revati Raman Singh, saying the project is a flagship program aimed at connecting all of the important pilgrimage sites of state, which would also provide better connectivity for strategic locations.
But, in November 2021, the Defense Ministry told the Supreme Court that the project was of national strategic importance due to the constitution of Chinese troops on their side of the border and that, therefore, ecological regulations should not apply. “China is building helipads and buildings on the other side … so trucks carrying artillery, rocket launchers and tanks may have to cross these roads,” Attorney General KK Venugopal told the court. on November 9, while highlighting why environmental regulations should not apply to the project. In all of this, he missed the initial goal of connecting four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand – Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
Oddly enough, the AG’s claim does not apply 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 track, and some places are narrow single track. Venugopal’s submission to court raises a key question: why does the central government want the Supreme Court to view the project as a project of strategic importance now.
The answer apparently lies in the 2014 National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) guidelines for tolling roads. According to Notice 2104, four-lane hill roads with paved shoulders may impose a toll tax of 60% of the specified duty. The Char Dham road under construction under the supervision of the Supreme Court does not meet the criteria and, therefore, may not be subject to toll charges. However, if the Supreme Court accepts the defense ministry’s plea to have a road at least seven meters wide excluding paved shoulders, the Char Dham project will be eligible for the imposition of a toll. .
NHAI has made it clear its intention to impose a toll for the use of the Char Dham road by issuing a notice to acquire land to build a toll collection center in mid-2020, but its plans have failed. could not succeed because the Supreme Court reduced the width of the road. to 5.5 meters without paved shoulders compared to the 10 meters proposed in September 2020. The applicants in the case, Citizens for Green Doon, told the Supreme Court in November 2021 that the increase in width would result in the imposition of the toll on the highway, which was traditionally a toll-free road. They also said that a road with an actual width of 6.5 meters with paved shoulders was sufficient to carry missile defense vehicles along the highway.
The change of the Centre’s stand should be considered with regard to the ecological cost of the project to date. In its submission this year, NHAI informed the Supreme Court that it was dealing with around 100 slopes as part of the Char Dham project, where landslides were observed due to road construction this monsoon. According to Ravi Chopra, who headed the Supreme Court-appointed high-level committee on the Char Dham project, 102 of the 172 freshly cut slopes on the number 125 national road in Uttarakhand were prone to landslides, with 44 landslides. terrain reported until mid-December 2019. “A similar situation prevails on all of the Char Dham highways,” he said.
According to the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Department, the number of landslides rose to 972 in 2020 from just 33 in 2015 and experts said most of them were on road construction sites. triggered by extreme precipitation. Certainly, the substantial increase in the number of landslides could be due to better registration.
Hindustan times on September 13, weather-related calamities have increased over the years, with the state recording 7,750 extreme precipitation events and cloud bursts since 2015, most in the past three years, which have killed 230 people. In February this year, more than 200 people were killed after a glacier burst in Tapovan caused a sudden rise in the water level of the Dhauliganga River in Chamoli district, which damaged two projects of ‘hydel. On May 3, several houses were damaged after heavy rains triggered landslides and flooding in Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag districts. A few days later, a downpour in the town of Devprayag in Tehri Garhwal washed away two buildings of the local municipality. On July 19, three people, including a three-year-old girl, died as a result of torrential rains in Uttarkashi district. In October, 46 people died due to extreme rainfall in the districts of Nainital and Chamoli, with part of a hill slipping into the famous Lake Nainital causing it to overflow for the first time in over 50 years .
Explaining the reasons for the increase in such incidents, geologist CC Pant, a retired professor from Kumaon University, said the hill traversing Uttarakhand for constructions, development projects or activities such as Construction of the Char Dham road causes instability of slopes, making them more vulnerable to landslides. “Building roads on slopes with a weak foundation in times of extreme rainfall is a modern ecological disaster,” Chopra said. Pradeep Kumar, geologist from Pithoragarh district, who investigated the village of Dhar, said the village started to sink due to the road widening works as it distributed underground water channels and rock formations. . And this is happening in several places on the roads of the Char Dham project, but the NHAI, which implements the project, has overlooked most, as the full treatment of these sites could lead to a substantial cost overrun.
As the Supreme Court itself has underlined, it must “qualify” the ecological balance with strategic needs and could soon announce a new approach. The court should look at another important aspect: the people who live in the hills, because no one seems to be talking about it. They need development and economic opportunities like the citizens of the rest of the country while protecting the environment, which is their source of livelihood. Most of the hill dwellers derive their income from horticulture, which is emerging as a major source of income for the locals, and the Uttarkhandis have the potential to match the Himachal in horticultural products. For this, they need both the Char Dham project which offers better connectivity to the market, that is to say the plains of India, and a healthy environment which ensures high quality products. Poor road connectivity has been the biggest scourge for the people of the Himalayan hills and a reason for the strong migration of Uttarkhandis from the hills to the plains. The Char Dham Highway can redress this historical injustice by improving the connectivity of villages through smaller roads. And finally, the project will provide enormous economic activity as tourists will easily reach new places, making locals important players in tourism through homestays and other ancillary services.
In view of all this, the Supreme Court must issue full guidelines on ecological safeguards given the increase in extreme rainfall and deal with an increased influx of people in the upper parts of Uttarakhand. The guideline should clearly define the width of mountain roads as NHAI has published confusing standards and they should be applicable to all road construction projects across the Himalayas. The court should allow the NHAI to collect a toll on Char Dham, as it is a tourism project, on the condition that the revenues collected are only used for ecological restoration, including the restoration of traditional river systems. There should be an incentive for the use of emission-free electric vehicles and a specialized agency to collect and treat waste. The court should view Char Dham as an ecological project, with value for the movement of defense troops.
Opinions expressed are personal