Widening Char Dham road: Can we ignore defence needs for environment, asks SC

Underlining its “predicament” while alluding to incursions by China on the Line of Actual Control, the Supreme Court Tuesday asked if it can “override defence needs” on environmental grounds.

With the Centre pushing for increasing the width of the Char Dham road in Uttarakhand to allow the Army quicker access to areas along the boundary with China, Justice D Y Chandrachud, heading a three-judge bench, referred to “recent events” and said: “We cannot deny the fact that at such a height, the security of the nation is at stake. Can the highest constitutional court say that we will override defence needs particularly in the face of recent events? Can we say that environment will triumph over the defence of the nation? Or we say that defence concerns be taken care of so that environmental degradation does not take place?”

The bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Vikram Nath, posed these questions to Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves who was representing Citizens for Green Doon. The NGO has challenged the Stage-I forest and wildlife clearance granted for improvement and expansion of roads by felling trees.

Appearing for the Centre, Attorney General K K Venugopal referred to the September 8, 2020 decision of the Supreme Court asking the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to stick to its 2018 circular fixing 5.5-metre width for roads in hilly terrain in the execution of the Char Dham road project.

He said the Army wanted 10-metre width for the roads. There are multiple projects along the stretch leading to international borders which, he said, are needed for movement of personnel and machinery.

“There is a need for armed forces vehicles, rocket launchers etc to travel on these roads and all this was not taken into account. Army was ignored in this matter and they need to be presented here before the court,” he said.

Gonsalves, however, contended that the road widening was only to facilitate the Char Dham Yatra conceived in 2016 so that SUVs can race up and down the mountains. He said pilgrims travelled on foot earlier, but it was felt that it was not good enough and, hence, highways and helipads were required.

“This will come at a terrible cost and this needs to be weighed in,” he said. The experts, he said, were of the opinion that such vehicle movements were impacting glaciers, resulting in catastrophes.

Gonsalves contended that the Army was happy with existing roads but was only following the dictates of the political establishment.

“Defence ministry’s stand and our stand is almost the same and that is why we call them a reluctant participant in this issue,” he said.

The bench said while travelling from Leh to Kargil to Zanskar, if an Army vehicle and civilian vehicle coming from two directions meet at one point, the descending vehicle is at greater danger of falling down and “so we cannot say that this need can be ignored. We agree that Himalayas are young mountains… but can the need highlighted be disregarded”.

Gonsalves sought to point out environmental hazards due to developmental projects being carried out in the mountains.

“Around 17 hydroelectric projects went bumper-to-bumper in the Himalayas and now we are facing an issue. In 2013, there was a cloudburst… The court took cognizance of this and stayed 24 projects on recommendation of the High Powered Committee,” he said. In 2021, there was glacier melt and an avalanche because of black carbon, he said.

He also contended that Ladakh may not be a correct example as there is a difference between the Himalayan terrain and the Ladakh terrain.

The bench said “in security parameters, you cannot deny that the border areas they share is similar”. It wondered if courts should have a more nuanced approach in such matters. “We realise the glacier melt aspect but it’s also happening due to other rampant developmental projects… Can we say that environment will triumph over the defence of the nation? Or we say that defence concerns be taken care of so that environmental degradation does not take place?”.

“We must tell you our predicament in this… if the Centre says they are doing it for tourism, then we understand and we can impose more stringent conditions. But when it is needed to defend the borders, then it is a serious predicament the court has to encounter in cases like this,” the bench said.

The project meant to widen 889 km of hill roads to provide all-weather connectivity between major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand has led to a heated debate with members of a Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee divided on the width of the road.
While the majority favoured increasing the width to 12 metre, the minority, including the committee chairman, backed 5.5 m for the carriageway and additional paved shoulder — taking the total width to about 7 to 7.5 metre — for use by pedestrians/pilgrims who take the trek to the holy sites.

Gonsalves claimed the interim report of the HPC, dated March 2020, was unanimous and there was some change only when the political directive came. “The chapters are well written… they did a somersault and it was because of political influence,” he contended.

The hearing remained inconclusive and will resume Wednesday.

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