Kathmandu: The controversial 900-km Char Dham highway project in the ecologically fragile mountains of Uttarakhand bypassed an environment impact assessment (EIA). The government has insisted that only projects exceeding 100 km in length require an EIA. It has argued that the Char Dham project is not one project but a series of 53 individual projects all less than 100 km in length and which happen to be connected.
However, in a conversation with The Wire, V.K. Saraswat, veteran scientist and member of the NITI Aayog, has contradicted the government’s stance. “It should have gone through a proper assessment. I understand that this project has a spiritual and religious value. But we have to make sure that it has got involvement of the people, it has equity, it does not displace people unnecessarily. It should not cut trees,” he said.
Environmentalists have argued that the project could prove disastrous for the state’s fragile ecology. “This project could lead to some major disasters,” Soumya Prasad, a Dehradun-based tropical ecologist, had told The Wire in August. “The width of roads that they are talking about is simply not sustainable with the ecology of Uttarakhand.”
Hillsides being cut at right angles, muck being dumped into rivers, and massive felling of tress have been some of the other concerns that have been raised. Per one report, the Char Dham highway will require the felling of 33,000 trees.
Saraswat, who was speaking to The Wire on the sidelines of an intergovernmental event in Kathmandu where he was representing India, also said that deforestation in the mountains is a major cause for concern. “We have seen that springs are drying in the mountains. There is not enough water for people. Because of deforestation many springs and catchment areas have completely disappeared,” he said.
“Look, I am not against these infrastructure projects. But every infrastructure project, particularly in the mountains, before you implement it, must pass through the filter of sustainability. And … if it does not pass through these filters, it is detrimental to the mountains,” Saraswat added.
The highway project is also caught in a legal tussle. A Dehradun based NGO, Citizens for Green Doon, had filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking a stay on the project. One of their key contentions was that the project shouldn’t have bypassed the EIA.
“The 53 segments constituted one unbroken, continuous stretch of the Char Dham highway, and the division into individual projects was done only to bypass the requirement of environmental clearances,” the petitioners’ counsel, Sanjay Parikh, had said.
While the NGT later okayed the project, its ruling has been stayed by the Supreme Court as a previous order was violated. The apex court is expected to hear the matter again in a few weeks.
The foundation stone for the project had been laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2016. It seeks to connect four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – considered holy by Hindus. The whole project is expected to cost Rs 12,000 crore.