Is the upcoming Char Dham highway speeding towards environmental disaster?

The upcoming 900 kilometre-long Char Dham highway project, is being seen as a strategic attempt to bolster preparation of India’s security forces at the India-China border, apart from increasing tourist volume.

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But while it will facilitate the smooth movement of pilgrims and defence forces, it could be at the cost of the environment in the fragile hill state. According to experts, unchecked construction of the all-weather Char Dham highway may end up triggering disasters in the ecologically sensitive Uttarakhand region.

The famous Char Dham pilgrimage in Uttarakhand comprises four holy sites for Hindus – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – and is visited by millions of tourists every year.

Following the 2013 Uttarakhand floods the Char Dham National Highway (NH) connectivity programme was launched launched by Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government amidst much fanfare.

According to the government, it involves improvement and development of 889 km length of national highways at an estimated cost of approximately Rs. 117 billion (Rs. 11,700 crore). The government has been pushing to complete the project by March 2019 as their eyes are set on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections scheduled for May 2019.

Experts believe that these infrastructure projects are not mountain-centric and will cause more harm than good in the future. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

However, in March 2018, the Minister of State in India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Mansukh L Mandaviya told Lok Sabha that the “project is targeted to be completed by March 2020.”

To ensure speedy and smooth completion of the strategically important project, it is being monitored at the level of the Prime Minister’s Office in the NDA government, where it is looked over by the immediate staff of the country’s prime minister.

Prime Minister Modi, in a series of tweets, while laying the foundation stone of the project in December 2016, had said that the “Char Dham highway project will lead to creation of over 900 km of roads. Connectivity and tourism will get a strong boost through the project. Adding of bypasses, tunnels, bridges and flyovers will ease travel. Proper slope stabilisation will ensure protection against landslides.”

But environmentalists working in the region feel that what the government is doing to the fragile region is nothing but criminal. They point out that trees are being cut in an unaccounted manner, hillsides are being cut and the muck is being dumped in the rivers in an unaccounted manner.

Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The activists point out  the irony of this: the Char Dham project was touted as a tribute to the victims of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. In 2013, the hill state was struck by one of the most devastating disasters in its recent times when widespread heavy rains resulted in floods across the state, claiming nearly 6,000 lives and inflicted damage worth billions of rupees. Unchecked infrastructure projects were one of the main reasons for aggravating the floods.

“When the 2013 disaster happened, everyone agreed that this was developmental activities overburdening the Himalayas and there is a need to regulate developmental agenda and protect the fragile areas. When they are just such porous mountains why should such a project be conceived?” questioned Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO working towards protection of the Ganga river.

She stated that the government worked on all the four valleys simultaneously showing an absolute lack of empathy of the government towards the security of pilgrims travelling to those shrines and towards the residents of those valleys, while also bypassing environmental norms.

Muck dumping continues along the highway despite the threats it poses. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The project is facing several legal issues

As a result of this severe opposition by environmentalists, the project is facing several legal cases as well. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been hearing a case against it but in May 2018 it reserved its judgement in the case. The case is scheduled for hearing later this month.

One of the main arguments before the NGT is that the project is without due environment clearance and that muck is being openly dumped into the river. The tribunal was also informed by India’s environment ministry that the nearly 900 km-long project doesn’t require any clearance as none of its 53 stretches are longer than 100 km. As per the rules, only those projects, which are longer than 100 km, require clearance.

Though NGT had reserved its judgement in the case, it had pulled up the authorities for improper muck disposal.

Meanwhile, in June 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court, in another case, ordered a halt on all construction activities along river banks, construction of hydropower projects and road construction projects in Uttarakhand, until authorities develop proper muck disposal sites.

Muck dumping in the river continues despite the NGT’s order to halt it. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay

Is nature already warning us?

During a recent visit to the state, Mongabay-India witnessed rampant construction, a violation of the June 2018 court order, along the Char Dham highway project route. Meanwhile, incessant rains for a few days at the start of August threw life out of gear in the hill state of Uttarakhand. Several rivers were flowing close to the danger mark, families living near river banks were evacuated and in some cases, plans were even made to change the direction of rivers when their water started moving towards the residential areas.

Experts believe events like this are nature’s warning and a glimpse into the scary future of the ecologically sensitive Uttarakhand area.

“From Chamba to Rishikesh, there was no sliding zone leaving aside maybe one or two places. But now the area  has become an active sliding zone. This project is basically a preposterous and an unthoughtful scheme. The government is violating all official rules regarding the maximum width of the roads in hill states and it is nothing but taking citizens on a ride in the name of the development,” added Bhanot while stating that the project is an agenda for the ruling party for the 2019 elections.

Environmentalists fear the adverse effects of the Char Dham Highway Project on the fragile Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“The Himalayas in Uttarakhand are weak. They are making them hollow with all the tunnels. These will be irreparable wounds to our mountains,” she said.

According to activists, the project is being carried out in an unsustainable manner even when numerous reports after the 2013 disaster have warned against such projects. For instance, a report by the National Institute of Disaster Management called for avoiding “blasting for developmental activities as it may destabilize the weak rocks in mountainous regions”.

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra said that “in the rush to meet ambitious targets we have seen a poor quality of construction and in mountain areas, it means putting people’s’ lives at risk.”

Is China driving the pace of the highway construction?

A huge increase in tourists to Char Dham is expected once the highway is constructed but another reason for the high-level push this project is receiving is that it is important for India’s security forces in terms of connectivity to the India-China border.

The poor condition of roads in areas close to the Indian side of the India-China border has been discussed at length over the past decade. Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government has taken series of steps to address the issue.

In July 2018, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) of the Indian government told NGT that the project is extremely important from a strategic point of view as it is close to the China border and claimed that they are taking all precautions to ensure that stability of the mountains is not affected.

It had cautioned that country’s defence preparedness will be adversely affected because if roads are not improved, movement of heavy weapons, equipment, artillery guns would not be possible.

While the journey to Char Dham will become smoother, the long term effect of the constructions might be damaging to the people and ecology. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“In terms of the use of roads for security purposes too, the strength of the road is more important than the widening of the roads. Roads are already good and two vehicles can easily pass through. There is no requirement of widening apart from their idea to take swanky traffic to these fragile areas,” said Ganga Ahvaan’s Bhanot.

She stated that instead of regulating traffic that already exists in these areas which get a huge influx of tourists,  the government is going all out for this project.

Ravi Chopra also warned against the haste.

“The planning and construction of roads is not being done in a wise manner. Safer alternatives have not been considered even if those roads are needed for defence purposes,” added Chopra.

The side effects of the project

Local communities, environmentalists and activists believe that the project would be a big mess. One such issue is regarding the displacement of those being affected by the project.

Basanthi Lingwal, a 75-year-old  from the Banswada area of Uttarakhand said the project will make her family homeless. “We started living in this house decades ago but this will now be taken away for the highway project. Though compensation will be offered where will I go at this age?” asked Lingwal, whose husband died years ago.

A line diagram of the 900km Char Dham Highway. Image from Government of India.

“There are so many impacts of the Char Dham project that are not into focus as yet – like displacement, impact on wildlife or affect on biodiversity. New landslide zones are being formed due to this project which never took into account the fragile ecology of the area. Money is spent on construction of roads at places where it is not even required,” said Himanshu Arora of a group called Citizens for Green Doon, which is fighting the case against the project in the NGT.

(This article was originally published on Mongabay India – an environmental science and conservation news and information site. You can read the original article here.)

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