Future of Char Dham Highway Uncertain as SC Stays NGT Order Allowing the Project

Massive felling of trees, hillsides being cut at 'right' angles and muck being dumped into rivers are some of the major ecological concerns that the project raises.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday stayed a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order of September 26 that had given the clearance for the controversial Char Dham highway project. The petitioners had challenged the NGT order arguing that it was in violation of an earlier order of the Supreme Court, dated August 27, which directed the NGT’s original bench to hear the matter ‘over one clear day’ and ‘finally dispose off the matters before it’.

Earlier, the NGT had announced that a new bench would hear the matter afresh even after the original bench, which had heard the matter over 14 hearings, had heard final arguments and reserved its judgement on May 31.

“When the matter came up for hearing in the NGT on September 4, we brought to the attention of the bench the Supreme Court order which directed that the original bench hear the matter one final time and deliver the judgement. The NGT bench noted it but said they are of the opinion that the matter requires a rehearing by a larger bench,” said Sanjay Parikh, a senior Supreme Court advocate representing the petitioners.

Following this, the petitioners moved an application in the Supreme Court on September 14 pointing out NGT’s violation of the SC order. The matter came up for hearing only on Monday when the SC upheld the argument made by the petitioners.

Also read: Char Dham Highway Case: SC Overrules NGT, Sends Matter Back to Original Bench

During this time, a larger bench of the NGT proceeded to hear the matter even when the petitioners sought an adjournment on the grounds that an application pertaining to the matter had been made before the Supreme Court, which was yet to rule on the said petition. NGT had declined the request. On September 26, while the petitioners were yet to be heard by the Supreme Court on the specific issue of rehearing by a larger bench, the NGT issued a go-ahead for the Char Dham highway project.

“Now, when the matter was heard by the Supreme Court today, it observed that the NGT order is in violation of the Court’s order dated August 27 when it had directed that the matter be heard by the original bench of the NGT one last time and a judgement delivered,” said Parikh.

Now, the matter will be heard by the Supreme Court on November 15. “There shall be stay of the impugned judgement in the meantime,” Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and S. Abdul Nazeer noted.

Environmentalists have argued that the project, in fact, could lead to more such disasters like the devastating floods of 2013.

The 900-kilometre Char Dham highway project is a controversial project aimed at expanding and connecting highways leading to four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand  – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – considered holy by followers of Hindusim. In December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the project, which is estimated to cost Rs 12,000 crore. Modi also announced that the project was a tribute to the victims of the 2013 Kedarnath floods in which an estimated 6,000 people lost their lives.

Environmentalists have argued that the project, in fact, could lead to more such disasters like the devastating floods of 2013. They have pointed out that massive felling of trees, hillsides being cut at ‘right’ angles and muck being dumped into rivers are some of the major ecological concerns that the project raises. In July 2017, the Hindustan Times reported that more than 33,000 trees needed to be felled across Uttarakhand for the purposes of the highway project seeking to connect Hindu pilgrimage sites.

“This project is already causing major damage. We have observed, over the course of a survey, that the landslides along certain routes have already increased. More trees have been felled than was needed. Soil erosion is also a major concern because that can lead to massive damage in an ecologically fragile state like Uttarakhand. Lives of people along the highway are already being impacted,” said Soumya Prasad, a Dehradun-based tropical ecologist.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which recently released a report warning of dire consequences if the world continues on the warming path that it is currently on, warned that India will be among the countries that are worse hit.

Also read: India Revives Massive Yamuna Dam Project Despite Environmental Concerns

Recent studies have pointed out that with global warming, India faces increased risk from extreme rainfall events. Even though the total rainfall received during the monsoon season might not change drastically, the probability of heavy precipitation in a short period of time will increase. The consequences of high intensity rainfall would be particularly severe in the Himalayas ­– as was observed during the Kedarnath floods – given their topography, propensity for tectonic activity and fragile ecology.

With the ecology being at increased risk due to climate change, a project that could pose serious environmental risks would ideally be required to undergo comprehensive environmental assessments. Except that the Char Dham highway project has bypassed, using a loophole, any environment impact assessment (EIA).

The Caravan magazine reported that the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, citing a 2013 Ministry of Environment notification, argued that expansion work on existing national highways which did not exceed 100 km did not need an EIA. The ministry contended that the project was not a single 900-kilometre highway but a combination of 53 individual segments, all of which were shorter than 100 km in length.

The bypassing of EIA is a core argument that the petitioners have made to the NGT. “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, which was illegal and amounted to a fraud on the legislation,” said the petitioners’ counsel, Sanjay Parikh.