Roads are the convection mechanism for the development of any country or region. This is why welfare governments have been emphasizing on road construction and strengthening in the country. In the first term of the Modi government, it was decided to widen a total of 889 km of national highways falling in the mountainous districts of the strategically important and environmentally sensitive Uttarakhand region. The name of this project was first declared as ‘All Weather Road’, which was later changed to ‘Char Dham Project’.
Road widening work was started in the year 2017. As the work progressed, controversy erupted over environmental degradation resulting from the project. About 35,000 trees were estimated to be cut from this project, while experts believed that more trees would be cut. Not only this, but there was also a growing controversy over the project on various social aspects, including the possibility of developing large landslides, a large-scale loss of biodiversity, and erosion of existing water bodies in the mountains.
Some social organizations petitioned the National Green Tribunal, which was later referred to the Supreme Court. Keeping in view the sensitivity of the issue, the apex court constituted a High Powered Committee under the chairmanship of environmentalist Ravi Chopra. Ravi Chopra has previously been the chairman of a committee constituted on the directions of the Supreme Court to assess the hydroelectric projects under construction in Uttarakhand during the 2013 Kedarnath disaster.
Based on the recommendation of this committee, the work of half a dozen under-construction projects of Uttarakhand has been stopped by the Supreme Court. There is a provision to increase the width of the road to 12 meters in the Chardham project. This will lead to the total land acquisition of 24 meters horizontal width on the slope above the road, which is called the ‘right of way’. The higher the road width on the sensitive Himalayan mountains, the greater the possibility of landslides on the hillside on the hillside. As the road work has been going on for the last three years, the incidence of landslides has increased in the rainy season.
Even though the width of the road has been determined on the basis of the 2012 guideline, the Indian Road Congress has revised it completely and issued a new guideline in 2018, looking at the possible destruction due to the Himalayan roads constructed according to this provision. In which the width of the paved road will be 5.5 meters and there will be a raw footpath of one and a half meters on both sides. There is also controversy as to why the widening of roads in the Chardham project was kept as per the provision of 2012 when a new guideline of the Indian Road Congress was released in 2018.
Although the slopes of the entire Himalayas are sensitive, however, the slopes of the higher Himalayas are more brittle than in other parts. So if the road was also widened to 12 meters in the central Himalayan region, it would have been reasonable to reduce it in the higher Himalayan region. The argument is being made that wide roads are necessary for a view of the increasing activities of Chinese troops along the border. However, while speaking to journalists about a year ago, Chief of Army Staff General Vipin Rawat said that to reach the border, we need only the road and not the wide road. Anyway, in the event of war, the wide road can also be harmful at times.
Questions are also being raised about the disposal of debris. The DPR of the project provides for debris disposal sites, but due to lack of walls for proper containment from the underside of the pile of debris, debris flows in rivers in the rain and causes widespread destruction. One kilometer of road construction in the mountains produces 30 to 60 thousand cubic meters of debris. Its proper disposal is also a challenge. As such, it will be interesting to see what report the High Power Committee constituted by the Supreme Court submits to the court.
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