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27 Nov, 2023

You can play with Religion not with NATURE :Investigating the Himalayan Char Dham Plan: Uncovering Deception and Breach of Law

At the lofty height of 3,500 metres, the Himalayan glaciers are responsible for the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, which provide sustenance to over 600 million Indians. The Char Dham Pariyojana, a 900-km highway construction project, is now being carried out in the ecologically-sensitive state of Uttarakhand.

This endeavor hopes to enhance the access to four religious places of Hindu worship, namely Gangotri and Yamunotri close to the source of the rivers, and Badrinath and Kedarnath, two temple towns. In 2013, a cloudburst occurring above Kedarnath resulted in a disastrous flash flood in the area, resulting in more than 5,000 fatalities.

In December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi devoted the Char Dham Pariyojana to the flood victims, disregarding the agreement among environmentalists that too much construction in the hills had exacerbated the 2013 disaster.

On Tuesday, an important victory was gained by environmentalists who are against the project, as the Supreme Court announced an order in favour of a restricted width for the highways that are part of the project. This was based on the suggestion of a committee of notable members appointed in 2019.

The harm inflicted upon the Himalayan ecology has already been extensive. The committee's report makes this evident, detailing that 700 hectares of forest have been wiped out, 47,043 trees chopped down, and the flow of streams and springs has been obstructed by debris disposal. By cutting the hills vertically, even without gaining clearance, 11 landslides have occurred in a mere four months of 2020 that have caused fatalities and injuries.

Environmentalists argue that even though the Supreme Court's ruling could help limit additional damage, it is not addressing the illegality of the Char Dham project. This project encompasses 900 km of highways being constructed in one of India's most essential and delicate ecosystems without any study evaluating the environmental effects.

The high-powered committee's reports display a map of Uttarakhand and the Char Dham pathways.

Circumventing the Environmental Impact Assessment

Rather than going through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, one can opt to circumvent it.

The Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, announced in December 2016 that its goal was to build 900 km of national highways, estimated to cost Rs 12,000 crore. In normal circumstances, this type of highway construction would necessitate an environmental impact assessment as per the laws of India. This assessment must be submitted to the environment ministry, who will then decide if the project should be given an environmental clearance in order to proceed.

The Modi administration found a way to avoid environmental review of the Char Dham project: the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways asserted the 889-km-long project was composed of 53 civil works, each under 100 km in length, with 16 bypasses interspersed between them. Since 2013, Indian highway projects with a length of less than 100 km have been exempt from needing an environmental impact assessment.

In 2018, Citizens for Green Doon, an environmental non-profit organisation based in Uttarakhand, took their case to the National Green Tribunal, a court for environmental disputes. The tribunal appointed a former High Court judge to lead a committee to assess the issue. Nevertheless, the non-profit chose to appeal to the Supreme Court which, in August 2019, revised the tribunal’s decision and instructed the environment ministry to set up a high-powered committee.

The Supreme Court appointed a committee to undertake an investigation into the consequences of the Char Dham project and to come up with solutions to reduce the harm done to the Himalayan region's environment. Additionally, they were given the duty to create the groundwork for an ecological impact analysis of the project.

This implied that the road ministry had intentionally misled people about the scope of the project in order to avoid any environmental assessments.

Ravi Chopra, director of the People's Science Institute in Uttarakhand and chairperson of the high-powered committee set up by the Supreme Court, stated that it has been an ongoing project from the start.

On Tuesday, he bluntly stated to Scroll.in that the government had done "incalculable harm" by not creating an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This was in response to the Supreme Court's approval of his suggestion to reduce the size of the highways.

The two committee reports demonstrated an outline of the paths taken.

A single committee, two distinct reports

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No agreement was reached by the powerful committee in regards to the size of the road.

Apart from Chopra and some autonomous professionals, the committee of 26 was mainly comprised of people employed by the government: eight district magistrates, the secretary of forestry and environment in Uttarakhand, officers from the Union environment and defence ministries, and scientists from government-run organizations.

On the fourteenth of July, prior to Chopra furnishing the environmental ministry with the last report from the committee, other members, mainly government officials, submitted a report that they claimed represented the majority opinion.

Two days after, Chopra submitted a notification to the environment ministry claiming that the main report had been sent without his consent. He argued that the "scheme" was likely enacted by the committee's member secretary, who was also the forest and environment secretary of Uttarakhand, a state controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which also currently holds the majority in the Centre. "I was utterly astonished and appalled to learn this and to ascertain this dismal conspiracy," Chopra wrote in the notification which was accompanied by his version of the final report.

Harbans Singh Chugh, the member secretary of the committee who was in office until July, refused to answer Scroll.in's inquiries regarding the issue. Singh declared: "Everything is documented."

In an astonishing similarity, both the reports - the majority report and the one provided by Chopra - have the same conclusions, which depict an alarming image of the effects of the Char Dham project in an area considered by the committee as "geographically frail" and "seismically alive". However, there is one major divergence.

In Chopra's report, it was proposed that the highways be limited to a width of 5.5 metres, yet the majority report recommended a 12 metre width - corresponding to a two-lane road with paved shoulders, referred to as DL+PS in engineering terms.

A circular from the roads ministry in 2012 was shared with the committee, which then outlined this design standard. In June, 14 members of the committee voted for 12 metre-wide highways, two members chose 5.5 metres, one abstained from voting and the chairman did not share his opinion, both reports say.

Two days after the voting was over, a revised circular became available. Issued in 2018, the circular specified that the hill roads should have a two-lane structure with a width of 5.5 metres.

The chief engineer of the road ministry's regional office was asked by the committee why the 2018 circular was not brought to its attention. He provided three explanations for why the revised circular would not be applicable to the Char Dham Pariyojana. According to him, a "conscious decision" was taken after the 2013 floods to widen all the access roads to the Char Dham to ensure "prompt relief and evacuation" in future catastrophes. Additionally, the Char Dham projects had been authorised prior to the amendment of the 2012 circular in 2018. Lastly, the routes were highways that led to international borders "which are very important from [a] strategic point of view, which requires uninterrupted and speedy movement of defence equipment and supplies".

A vote was conducted once more regarding the proposed width of the road, and 13 members of the committee reaffirmed their support for 12 metres.

Chopra, however, asserted that this style of construction is not suitable for areas of elevated terrain due to its tendency to "erode away the green cover, cause landslides, and lead to the destabilization of slopes".

In the preface to the report, he expressed that it is essential to minimize the massive destruction that is occurring in this delicate Himalayan area. He added that it is not possible to do so after the fact, so some suggested that the only sensible solution would be to reduce the width of the road so it would serve the expected traffic but also minimize further destruction.

Given the division among the committee members, he expressed that the issue concerning the road width should be left to the Supreme Court. He then proposed that any action that was dependent on the majority decision "could be withheld" until then.

The significance of the size of roads

The Solicitor General for the Central government, Tushar Mehta, claimed that the 2018 circular was "prospective in nature" in court. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court rejected this argument. In their order, the court claimed that, "given the current state of affairs and the delicateness of the mountain ecosystem, we do not believe this argument holds any weight."

Chopra shared with Scroll.in his opinion after the order was declared, stating that most of the people who voted for a larger road were government employees. "For instance, the district magistrates were simply instructed to vote as such," he explained. "Even the scientists and experts from institutions principally funded by the government did not take a stand of their own. They simply followed the government's decision."

He articulated the importance of road width, noting that "with a narrow road, you don't need to cut as much of the mountain...What's more, you can also opt for valley-side filling."

He noted that even if a 5.5 metre tarred road surface were to be made, it would still need to have a drain constructed on the hillside and a crash barrier installed on the valley side. The width of the formation - which would be the size of the excavation needed - would be at least 7 metres wide.

He stated that in the configuration having a width of 12 metres, more cutting would be necessary due to the fact that a support wall would have to be built up along the mountain slope. Moreover, the bigger the base of the protection wall, the steeper the cut of the slope would be. Additionally, the more cutting that is done, the more soil will be generated, which needs to be put somewhere - usually this means taking up forest land.

JC Kuniyal, an expert from the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, partook in the voting process and was in the majority that voted for the expansion of roads. He emphasized the importance of considering the future requirements of the region as well.

He emphasized the importance of planning for the next half century, noting that the number of pilgrims, the population, and the demand are all rising. He suggested that widening the road would help decrease the amount of emissions, as well as the travel time of tourists and the traffic congestion.

Kuniyal contested the notion that the majority report was biased in favor of the government, saying "I am from an autonomous institute, and I am a scientist. It is unfair to suggest that my allegiance lies with the government."

He furthered his point by noting that, for development to occur, some sacrifices must be made and people must be willing to adjust.

Vikram Gupta, a scientist at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Uttarakhand, from the majority group, claimed that the committee had not had extensive conversations about the issue. He stated that the subject was only brought up in the last meeting when a vote was taken and the chairman had not declared his opinion. Gupta further noted that, suddenly, they came across the chairman's belief in the letter dated July 16, which mentioned that he wanted the Supreme Court to make the decision.

Gupta continued, "It was suggested that if the objective is to alter the road width, then it would be best to bring in chief engineers from the road ministry."

In reaction to the critiques, Chopra questioned: "What is your main concern? Is it preserving an environmentally delicate area? Or is it generating money?"

The four Char Dham shrines, he noted, are situated within a 50 km radius. "The last section of the roads, from 30 km to 40 km, are incredibly slim valleys," he added. "What takes place in one valley affects the other valleys. There are therefore collective influences."

The speaker highlighted that wider roads could result in an increase of vehicles on the road, thus producing more carbon dioxide. "The more individuals that travel by automobile, the more carbon dioxide will be emitted," he added.

He outlined that during the most active 60-day period, the Badrinath route increases the carbon dioxide concentration by 0.5 micrograms per day, resulting in 30 micrograms per cubic metre over that two-month span. Currently, the worldwide average of carbon dioxide concentration is 400 micrograms per cubic metre. Thus, these emissions add up to a 7.5% spike in the concentrated carbon dioxide levels. Are we alright with this?

The high-powered committee reports display wider measurements for roads, with the left carriageway measuring 7 m and the right roadway ranging from 8 m to 10 m.

Result of the project

Both reports agree with Chopra's pessimistic outlook, noting that increased emission of carbon due to building projects and more vehicles on the roads as a consequence of the Char Dham project could lead to "regional climate warming" in the vicinity of the holy sites, which has a radius of 50 km.

The two reports agree in their conclusions regarding the effect of the project, except for the discrepancy on the matter of the desired road width.

The reports indicate that the Char Dham Pariyojana has been initiated mainly as an engineering task with little worry for the reduction of vegetation or effects on people's lives.

In order to expand the roads, the Pariyojana authorities have been cutting into the hillsides instead of utilizing the space available on the valley side. They have been using heavy earth excavators instead of more harmless machinery which could reduce the environmental harm caused. This strategy has been labeled as a "high risk approach" in the reports.

More attention had not been paid to the newly-formed hill inclines and no safety precautions had been taken. According to reports, there had been 40 instances of landslides or incline collapses, leading to several fatalities and injuries among commuters and workers. "From this, we can infer that the project heads are more concerned with meeting deadlines than the lives of people," the reports say.

Investigations through remote sensing imagery and field visits revealed the presence of "muck piles at unauthorized spots, such as forests". This has hindered the natural flow of streams and springs and "seriously damaged riverbank vegetation that cannot be restored in any other type of habitats".

It is reported that roughly 700 hectares of woodland have been set aside for 30 projects, leading to the felling of 47,043 trees and the potential felling of another 8,888. Furthermore, the ministry of roads has been accused of having an "inadequate understanding" of various forests, perceiving them as merely "trees".

The Char Dham project goes through areas near fragile ecosystems like the Rajaji National Park, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Valley of Flowers, and Govind National Park, reports state. The chopping down of trees is causing a loss of habitat which can force wildlife to enter populated regions, leading to a possible danger to human safety and agricultural yields.

Himanshu Arora from Citizens for Green Doon, who started the case, declared that the effects of the project could be perceived by the people living in the area. He stated: "It is evident that accidents and the falling of boulders occur frequently here. We are in a way resurrecting 2013 with this, which is when the flash floods took place in the state."

The reports of the high-powered committee have presented evidence of muck dumping in forests.

'As if legal regulations had no bearing'

The Forest Conservation Act requires that all the individual projects that make up the Char Dham Pariyojana must undergo an environmental impact assessment, even though the Pariyojana as a whole has evaded one.

Chopra highlighted the disregarding of forest and wildlife regulations in a comprehensive letter to the Ministry of Environment on August 13.

The committee discovered that work had commenced on four ventures situated in eco-sensitive zones. While applying for a forest authorization, the individuals associated with the projects had incorrectly answered "No" to the inquiry of whether the project was located in an eco-sensitive zone. In addition, one of the projects had disregarded obtaining a clearance from the National Wildlife Board.

The committee discovered that five projects had continued to be worked on even after the lapse of their Stage-I forest clearance. As per the Forest Conservation Act, Stage-I clearance is only valid for one year and can be extended if the state government provides an update to the Centre. It was noticed that several of these projects were still waiting for their progress report.

Before any orders were given by the divisional forest officer, the cutting down of trees for the five projects had already begun. The note explains that the building of the projects, including cutting thousands of trees, was initiated unlawfully.

Highlighting that these projects were permitted to avoid procedures, the note mentions a letter sent by state forest department leaders to the project administrators in February 2018: "Considering the Chardham project is associated with the significant plan of Hon'ble PM, and in light of the project's significance, the tree felling of matters 1 to 6 has been done without a compliance report. Nevertheless, performing such an act without obtaining in-principle approval is in clear breach of the conditions of the Government of India."

The memo highlights that two other initiatives were initiated because of clearances of forests given to Border Roads Organisation ranging from 2002 to 2012, "even though the work was of a different nature".

In October 2019, the committee discovered that three projects had not received any new forest clearances. As a result, work had not started on these sites when the committee visited. The committee subsequently suggested to the roads ministry that they should not proceed with the projects, however it was found that the project initiators had already begun tree felling and hill cutting, despite lacking forest clearances.

The note expresses that this is a blatant disregard for the Rule of Law, as if it has no bearing.

In April 2019, the road ministry submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court that identified 19 projects that had yet to start. The court assigned the committee with the job of examining these projects and determining measures that would reduce the effects on the environment and social life. Nevertheless, the note notes, work commenced at these sites even before the committee could give its opinion.

The primary record details a single occurrence - the Kund bypass - where personnel from the project guaranteed visitors in the committee in October 2019 that "no forests would be disturbed until the HPC had given the go-ahead".

The HPC members were taken aback during their revisit to the Kund forest in December 2019, as they saw heavy machinery within the region and observed a considerable amount of destruction to the vegetation, trees, and the terrain. This was mentioned in the report.

The report goes on to say that the committee had urged the road ministry to observe the Supreme Court's order and desist from initiating new work sites until the environmental impact of the project had been determined. Nevertheless, these requests went disregarded. The report emphasizes that such "willful non-compliance" has left the members of the HPC "feeling helpless and disappointed" over their inability to fulfill their duties.

Mallika Bhanot, from the Ganga Avhaan non-profit organisation, which is dedicated to the preservation of the Ganga river, highlighted the fact that the Uttarakhand government was complicit in allowing the work to progress despite the violations. According to Bhanot, "The state government is just as responsible and working in tandem with the roads ministry."

Chopra expressed that as the court has established strength, they will be much more rigorous in addressing infractions.

What can be said about the Energy Information Administration?

Environmental organizations have received the Supreme Court's decision with enthusiasm. According to Himanshu Arora, of Citizens for Green Doon, the petitioner in the case, the plan had been separated into 53 sections with the intention to deceive. He is delighted that the truth has come out and that the court has ruled that there is no requirement for such a wide road.

Yet, queries still linger with regards to the Char Dham project's conformity with the law. On numerous occasions, the courts have invalidated projects carried out without undertaking an environmental assessment. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has not commented on this point during the Char Dham Pariyojana legal proceedings.

The influential committee refrained from making any remarks regarding the road ministry's bypassing of the environmental clearance process, except for a brief rebuttal to the ministry's assertion that an EIA was unnecessary due to each individual stretch of the project being less than 100 km in length.

The committee stated that in this region of the Himalayas, which is both geologically and ecologically delicate, the length of the road should not have been the main factor to consider, since ecological variability is regulated by the altitude.

The statement went on to assert that "pre-feasibility studies must be done for these projects, encompassing ecological protection, the capacity of the Char Dham valleys to handle it, disaster management strategies, and a pilgrim/tourism plan that would provide for decentralization to reduce the ecological strain and lessen the risk of landslides and other calamities."

The Supreme Court had assigned the committee the job of devising a framework for a speedy environmental impact assessment of the Char Dham venture. This terms of reference were communicated to the roads ministry in October 2019. Nevertheless, till date, the ministry has not supplied the EIA report. Scroll.in tried reaching out to the ministry officials to ask if an environmental impact evaluation had been done; however, they did not answer the inquiry.

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