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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Char Dham: Supreme Court panel head protests MoD remarks

On Wednesday, Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the government in the case, denied any link between the Char Dham project and the recent flash floods in Rishi Ganga.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | New Delhi |
Updated: February 18, 2021 9:51:15 am
A muck disposal site in Chamoli. (Source: HPC report)

Warning against the cumulative impact of excessive construction on nearby glaciers and underlining that “disaster resilience is more critical than simply wide highways,” Ravi Chopra, chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee (HPC) on the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand, has urged the apex court to ask the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to “withdraw imputations” of “insincerity of motive” against him and two other members of the HPC.

In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court on January 15, the MoD had stated that “unfortunately, notwithstanding the security of the country and the need of the defence forces to resist external aggression, if any, at the Indo-China Border,” the HPC chairman and two members had recommended that “no credence should be given to the needs of the armed forces”.

“It is rather surprising that when the Ministry of Defence, through an officer who is partly in-charge of the defence of the northern borders during the past months when the possibility of aggression at the northern border existed, has made an assessment of the needs of the Armed Forces for defending the nation, the minority in the HPC should be prepared to reject the need of the armed forces for defending the country,” the MoD said in its affidavit.

The “minority in the HPC” is a reference to Chopra and two members who opposed the MoD’s stand on increasing the road width last December.

On Wednesday, Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the government in the case, denied any link between the Char Dham project and the recent flash floods in Rishi Ganga. He was commenting on the letter Chopra wrote to the Supreme Court on February 13. The court asked the government to file its response in two weeks.

In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members disagreed on the ideal width for hill roads. In September, the Supreme Court upheld the recommendation of four HPC members, including Chopra, to limit the carriageway width to 5.5 m, based on a March 2018 guideline issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) for mountain highways. The majority report by 21 HPC members, 14 of them government officials, sought a 12-m road width.

The minority recommendation 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”. It, therefore, concluded that an intermediate width for Himalayan highways was more judicious even for the country’s defence needs.

Between September and November 2020, both MoRTH and MoD maintained that “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7 m (or 7.5 m in case there is a raised kerb)” with 8-10 m formation width would “meet the requirement of the Army”.

While Chopra and two HPC members opposed the demand to increase the carriageway width from 5.5 m to 7 m, the MoRTH on December 15 amended the specifications of its 2018 circular to a 10-m tarred surface. Subsequently, the MoD also changed its position in its affidavit on January 15, seeking a 10-m carriageway with 12-14 m formation width.

In his letter to the Supreme Court, Chopra wrote: “A section of the defense road to the Indo-China border and a bridge across the Rishiganga river on that road have been swept away, lending credence to our argument for disaster resilience in the region. Vulnerability and disaster proneness of this region is bound to increase with extensive disturbances like deforestation, slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, damming of rivers, excessive tourism, etc. The cumulative impact of such activities on the nearby glaciers cannot be ignored.”

Emphasising that “no convincing argument exists in the recent affidavit of the MoD to ignore and override the profound and irreversible ecological damage to the Himalayas that will impact each and every one of us and generations to come,” Chopra pointed out that the MoD affidavit “imputed insincerity of motive” and urged that the court to “ask the MoD” to withdraw such imputations.

The HPC was set up with Chopra as chairman under an August 2019 order of the Supreme Court to assess the cumulative impact of the 899-km Char Dham highway project connecting the four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in the upper Himalayas.

Chopra also chaired the Expert Body (EB) appointed by the Supreme Court to assess the impact of hydel projects and their role during the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. These hydel projects are located in the valleys of the Char Dham project.

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