From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Char Dham Project
Mains level : Environmental issues with the project
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”.
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.
What is the controversy?
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.
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.
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.