It Doesn't Make Sense for Char Dham Project Case to Be Heard By a New Bench

We can’t twist procedures to suit us.

The entire process of the controversial Char Dham pariyojana is an expert lesson in manipulation. It demonstrates how a few can take the law into their hands and manipulate it.

First, project proponents broke up the linear and continuous Char Dham route of 900 km into 53 projects, each with a length of under 100 km, thus evading the need for an environmental impact assessment (EIA). As a result, the government ensured that a project that needed over 53,000 trees in the Himalaya to be felled and multiple slopes in the river valley to be cut required no closer check. Next, the proponents manipulated forest clearances, illegally cut through narrow valleys, triggered 161 landslides and illegally dumped hundreds of tonnes of muck.

Today, we confront the latest attempt at manipulation.

The Char Dham project has been the subject of four reports by a high powered committee (HPC) and more than a thousand pages of documents examined by the same Supreme Court bench.

The case could not be heard from January 2021 to April 2021 because the project proponents requested three adjournments. But in May 2021, the bench changed to a vacation bench, and suddenly the attorney general and the solicitor general argued that the matter dealt with border roads and so was urgent. That is, the matter wasn’t urgent when tensions between India and China were at a high, but became urgent even though the tension had eased and India was in the grip of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

As it happens, the Char Dham project doesn’t include any border roads. The three feeder roads leading to the border – Rishikesh-Gangotri, Tanakpur-Pithoragarh and Rishikesh-Mana – in the project’s ambit have existed since 1962 and are well-functioning. The Char Dham project is only a road-widening exercise.

The extent of deception becomes more appalling when we consider the deplorable state of our border roads. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence reported in the Lok Sabha in 2019:

“The Committee noted that the Government has identified 73 roads of length 3,812 km, for development along the Indo-China Border. The initial target date for completion of these roads was 2012. Out of this, 61 roads of length 3417.50 km have been entrusted to BRO. Out of these, 28 roads of length of 981 km are completed and works on the balance roads are under progress and are in different stages of completion” (emphasis added).

In 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reported to Parliament:

“Out of 61 Indo China Border Roads (ICBRs) planned to be completed by 2012, only 15 roads had been completed by 2012. Out of the balance 46 roads, only 07 roads were completed by March, 2016 extending the Probable Date of Completion (PDC) of balance roads upto the year 2021. Thus 22 roads (36%) had only been completed upto March 2016, despite incurring an expenditure of Rs 4,536 Crore (98%) against the estimated cost of Rs 4,644 Crores for 61 ICBRs” (emphasis added).

The new apex court bench was perhaps unaware of these facts and was misled by the proponents’ claims. To arbitrarily shift a case that involves voluminous reports, details and intricacies – that too when it is at its culmination – to a new bench based on a false excuse is not acceptable to logic, fairness or the true process of justice. We can’t twist procedures to suit us. When a few take the law in their hands and twist it to their advantage, the rest of us become puppets.

Priyadarshini Patel is a head member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum working to conserve the Ganga and the Himalaya.