Q What is the context ?
A The needs of defence and environment have to be balanced and a “nuanced” approach is required, said the Supreme Court while hearing an appeal against the widening of roads in Uttarakhand hills for the “Char Dham project”.
Q What is Char Dham?
- The Char Dham is a set of four pilgrimage sites in India.
- It is believed that visiting these sites helps achieve moksha (salvation).
- The four Dhams are, Badrinath, Dwaraka, Puri and Rameswaram.
The highway project
- The Char Dham highway project connects the four himalayan shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in Garhwal Himalayas.
- It has 899-km road which the Centre wants to broaden near Dehradun.
Q What is the controversy?
A The Supreme Court formed a high-powered committee (HPC) to examine the issues. In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members disagreed on the ideal width for hill roads.
- Deforestation: In 2018, the road-expansion project was challenged by an NGO for its potential impact on the Himalayan ecology due to felling trees, cutting hills and dumping muck (excavated material).
- Terrain damage: It was observed that a wider road requires additional slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, dumping and deforestation.
- Increasing vulnerability: All of this will further destabilise the Himalayan terrain, and increase vulnerability to landslides and flash floods.
Q Why is there criticism of the Project ?
- Work without clearance: Project work and felling of trees on different stretches, adding up to over 250 km, has been continuing illegally since 2017-18.
- Misusing old clearance: Work started on stretches adding up to over 200 km on the basis of old forest clearances issued to the Border Roads Organisation during 2002-2012.
- False declaration: The work began by falsely declaring that these stretches did not fall in the Eco Sensitive Zones of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajaji National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park etc.
Q What is the defence angle ?
- Even as the project grappled to come clean, it garnered support from the MoD seeking a double-lane road to meet the requirement of the Army.
- The project always had a strategic angle to it as the highways would facilitate troop movement to areas closer to the China border.
- Suddenly, this became the sole justification for building wider roads.