Pointing to “brazen” violation of forest and wildlife laws by the Char Dham Pariyojana of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), the chairperson of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) has asked the Environment Ministry to take strict action.
Underlining that laws have been violated “as if the Rule of Law does not exist”, HPC chairperson Ravi Chopra, in an August 13 letter to the Environment Secretary, said the project has caused “incalculable and long-term damage to the Himalayan ecology” by felling trees, cutting hills and dumping muck (excavated material) without valid permission on various stretches.
The project is meant to widen 889 km of hill roads connecting major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand. Mandated to examine the ecological impact of the project and recommend remedies, the HPC submitted two reports this July after members disagreed on the ideal width – 12 m against 5.5 –for hill roads.
Both reports, however, flagged a string of transgressions and recommended that “a note on the emergent issues” be sent to the Environment Ministry for “detailed enquiries and necessary action.”
The violations listed in HPC chairperson Chopra’s letter to the Environment secretary include:
* Work without valid permission: Project work and felling of trees on different stretches, adding up to over 250 km, has been continuing illegally since 2017-18. A work order issued by the state forest department in September 2018 was not only post facto but also legally untenable. Moreover, both the state and the project authorities were aware of the violations.
“Char Dham project is related to the ambitious plan of the Honourable PM… considering the importance of the project… tree felling in the stretches quoted above is almost complete even though doing so without complying with the conditions of the in-principle approval is a clear violation,” the state forest department wrote to the developer on February 8, 2018.
Under the rules, a linear project gets work permission only after satisfying the conditions in its in-principle approval for forest clearance. This permission is valid for one year and can be extended by another year subject to a satisfactory progress report. Such an order must be placed in the public domain and can be challenged legally under the Forest (Conservation) Act and the NGT Act.
* Misusing old clearances: Work started on several stretches, adding up to over 200 km, on the basis of old forest clearances issued to the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) during 2002-2012. This is illegal and defeats the regulatory purpose since the scope of work has changed drastically. The old clearances did not consider the impact of “enormous hill cutting” presently undertaken for road widening. This has resulted in massive muck dumps along NH-125, where the muck has just been pushed down the slope, posing a serious threat to the environment and local habitat.
* False declaration to dodge NBWL scrutiny: Tree felling, hill cutting and muck dumping on stretches, adding up to over 200 km, commenced after dodging the National Board for Wildlife Board (NBWL) 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. The wilful nature of the omission by the developer is evident from the certificates issued by forest officials stating that the stretches fall within 10 km of Protected Areas.
* Work without clearance: Work commenced on various stretches, adding up to at least 60 km, after withdrawing applications for forest clearance without clarifying the reasons. “Works on these projects had not started during the first visit of the HPC in October 2019,” Chopra wrote. “But on subsequent visits of HPC, tree-felling and hill cutting was observed on these stretches despite the HPC communicating to the MoRTH its view against initiating new works… This is a brazen violation, as if the Rule of Law does not exist.”
* Violation of SC directive: Work started on stretches, adding up to at least 50 km, even though Uttarakhand said in an affidavit in April 2019 that stretches where work had not already commenced would be subject to the direction of the Supreme Court, and the HPC asked the MoRTH to conduct a rapid EIA study before starting work. The MoRTH also disregarded the HPC’s unanimous view that the developer should not start new work and restore vulnerable slopes before the yatra season to avoid landslides.
Reached for comment, Environment secretary Rameshwar Prasad Gupta said he was not aware of Chopra’s letter. “I have not seen it but if the Environment Ministry has received any communication, we will naturally look into it,” he said.
Chopra said the Ministry is yet to acknowledge his letter. “I emailed it to a number of Ministry officials on August 13. Since the Ministry does not always respond immediately, I thought I would give it a couple of weeks before writing to them again,” he said.
Meanwhile, the 13-member majority group that opposed Chopra on the preferred width for hill roads remains undecided. “Yes, we wrote about sending a note to the Environment Ministry but then we realised that our term of reference was to submit our findings to the MoRTH. Anyway, the violations are in the report. Let the SC decide,” a member of the majority group said.
Chopra said he went with the minority view of five HPC members because the MoRTH itself issued a circular in 2018 stipulating that the “intermediate carriageway of 5.5 m tarred surface be adopted” for hilly terrain.