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Char Dham Project In Uttarakhand: Connecting Shrines But At What Cost

Development and preservation of nature can not be in contradiction with each other. Outlook presents a brief overview of the under-construction project and controversy around it.

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Workers at the Helang bypass road, part of the Char Dham highway project in Uttarakhand. (File Photo) Photo: Getty's Images
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Infrastructure projects in hill states are important for development but they need to be given a green flag with utmost caution. Uttarakhand’s Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana or the Char Dham Project has been in news for many reasons, be it for the ease of transportation it will bring to the state or the environmental impact it will have on the region.

Outlook presents a brief overview of the under-construction project and controversy around it.

What is the Char Dham Project?

The Char Dham project is a road widening project to ensure all weather connectivity among the four shrines – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath -- in the hilly state. The Rs 12,000 crore worth project was inaugurated by Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in 2016.

This 889 kilometre-long project will widen highway roads to 10 metre width to turn them into two-lanes for improved. The project is being developed as 53 separate smaller projects including flyovers, many small bridges, two tunnels and culverts. The under construction project will be aligned with the Char Dham railway project to further integrate connectivity among the major shrines.

Char Dham project will ease the travel of thousands of pilgrims who travel to Uttarakhand every year. It will also improve the tourism in the state which is a major contributor to its economy.

Apart from tourism and pilgrimage, the centre also attached ‘strategic importance’ to widening these roads. In 2021, the government informed the Supreme Court that the China was building up troops on the other end of the border and it was essential that the roads are widened to make way for the trucks carrying artillery, rocket launchers etc.

Unbridled Intervention Harms Environment

The ambitious project was originally slated to be finished by 2020 but in 2018 an NGO filed against it based on the environmental impact it will have on the region. The petition alleged that there will be large scale tree felling, cutting of mountains and muck dumping under the project.

The Supreme Court set up a high-powered committee (HPC) to review the project, the committee was headed by environmentalist Ravi Chopra. In 2020, the HPC submitted two separate reports because the members could not agree on the best possible width of the roads; however, the court accepted the report by four HPC members. This report recommended that the width of the carriageway be limited to 5.5 metre. The other report, which was a majority report and was endorsed by mainly government officials, suggested that the width of the roads should be expanded to 12 meters.

However, Ministry of Defence filed a plea against the 5.5 metre limit and in 2021 SC allowed the widening of the roads. SC stated the double lane roads have security and strategic concerns. The court also constituted an Oversite Committee to ensure that the HPC recommendations are implemented.

Wider roads mean more tree felling and cutting more mountains. The Himalayan region is ecologically sensitive area and unbridled intervention will render it prone to landslides and floods. In 2021, it was reported that 56,000 tress will be chopped off for the project.

According to a new report of 2022, villagers and activists of the Uttarkashi protested against cutting down of 6,000 deodar tress. They alleged that the move can cause ‘Kedarnath like’ disaster, referring to the disastrous flash floods of 2013. Notably, while inaugurating the project, PM Modi had dedicated this project to the people who lost their lives in 2013 floods.

Bypassing Environmental Assessment

In 2013, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified that any national highway project exceeding 100 kms which needed to acquire additional land acquisition for the expansion of existing roads etc. require environmental clearance before the work can begin.

However, in 2023 the centre informed the parliament that because the project is divided into 53 separate projects and none of them exceed the 100 kms limit, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was not required. It was also mentioned that EIA was conducted under the HPC formed after SC guidelines. It is to be noted that the HPC was formed after the project had started and the 2013 ministry notification required prior EIA.

Silkyara Tunnel Collapse

This information was given after the partial collapse of Silkyara Bendno–Barkot tunnel in Uttarkashi. The tunnel is one of the 53 separate projects under the Char Dham project. On 12 November 2023, a part of this under construction tunnel collapsed and 41 workers got trapped inside.

It took 17 days to rescue the workers. The five agencies were involved in the rescue Operation Life (official name given by the Uttarakhand government); these agencies were assigned separate responsibilities. The rescue operation included everything from advance machinery to foreign experts. But eventually, 12 specialised workers from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh manually dug out the way to rescue the 41 workers trapped inside. These specialised workers are ‘rat-hole miners’, a technique banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014.

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The road transport and highways minister ordered a probe in the incident in December 2023. It was found that the tunnel did not have an escape route or alarm system among other shortcomings, and monitoring was also not ‘proper’. The report also flagged that the tunnel’s design report was lacking in ‘geotechnical and geophysical investigations’.

Development and preservation of nature can not be in contradiction with each other. The uncontrolled intervention, especially in geologically sensitive areas like the Himalayas, can become a roadmap for disaster.

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