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Char Dham: SC Allows Road Widening Despite Centre's 'Tardy' Remedial Measures

While the apex court slammed the Union government's 'piecemeal' approach to environmental measures, it cited national security as a reason for allowing the road widening.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday said the Centre’s measures to deal with environmental issues related to the widening of the strategic Chard Dham highway in Uttarakhand were inadequate, but allowed for construction of wide-lane roads as part of the project, citing national security.

The court said that the Union government had only begun to “scratch the surface” with environmental issues and did not address crucial aspects such as muck disposal which also affect wildlife and availability of water resources.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said even the remedial measures in relation to hill-cutting and landslides have been “tardy and limited” and called for significant alteration in the approach to this project by adopting sustainable measures.

However, the apex court allowed for a double lane paved shoulder (DLPS) configuration. The 83-page judgement came on a plea of the Defence Ministry to modify its earlier order and plea of an NGO Citizens for Green Doon against the widening of the road.

“Piecemeal implementation of some mitigation measures for the protection of the environment, without any concrete strategy in place, cannot pass muster,” the apex court said, pulling up the Centre.

In a recent article for The Wire, Manoj Joshi had noted that the Union government’s claim that the widened roads will “fend off another 1962 disaster is disingenuous to say the least.”

Other projects

The bench said the Union government steps seem to have been limited only to the roads that are the subject matter of the application filed by the Ministry of Defence which only concerns the roads that are of strategic importance to India’s national security.

“However, it is important to remember that the Project consists of 53 individual projects, not all of which are such roads. However, that does not mean that the environmental effect on these roads and their surroundings will be any less important and does not need to be remedied.

“The State has tried to justify the efficacy of its current measures solely by noting their benefits directly to the Armed Forces. Indeed, while that is a crucial factor, it is not the only thing at stake in a project of this scale, which was conceived to provide a more efficient route for those undertaking the Char Dham pilgrimage,” it said

What is at stake in this project is also the health of the environment, and its effects on all individuals who inhabit the area,” the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Vikram Nath, said.

The apex court said in line with the high-powered committee (HPC) recommendations, there has to be an assessment of the nature of the problem by obtaining actual data through relevant studies for all individual projects.

“Specific mitigation measures should then be implemented for all projects, keeping in mind their unique concerns. In doing so, the general recommendations issued by the HPC should form the baseline, i.e., they should be implemented at the very least, along with anything over and above that is deemed necessary based on the studies so conducted,” the bench said.

The apex court said that making the project environmentally compliant should not be seen as a checkbox to be obtained on the path to development, but rather as the path to sustained development itself.

“Thus, the measures adopted have to be well thought out and should actually address the specific concerns associated with the Project. Understandably, this may make the Project costlier, but that cannot be a valid justification to not operate within the framework of the environmental rule of law and sustainable development,” it said.

‘Oversight committee’

Taking note of the environmental concerns which have been raised by the HPC, the top court set up an ‘Oversight Committee’, which shall report directly to this Court, and will be headed by former apex court judge Justice A.K. Sikri.

The oversight committee will also have representatives from the National Environmental Research Institute and the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun.

The final notification in this regard shall be issued by the Centre within two weeks.

“The Oversight Committee shall receive all logistical and administrative assistance from the UOI, the Government of Uttarakhand, MoRTH, MoD and MoEF&CC. The Secretary of the Environment and Forest Department, Uttarakhand shall ensure that logistical assistance is provided to the Committee.

“MoRTH, MoD and MoEF&CC shall also nominate nodal officers for rendering assistance to the Committee, providing information and cooperating with the work of the Committee. The District Magistrates for the Districts forming a part of the Project shall also provide facilitation and assistance to the Committee,” the bench said.

Also read: It Doesn’t Make Sense for Char Dham Project Case to Be Heard By a New Bench

The objective of this Oversight Committee is not to undertake an environmental analysis of the Project afresh but to assess the implementation of the recommendations already provided by the HPC, it said.

“A formal notification in terms of these directions shall be issued by the UOI within two weeks. Within four weeks thereafter, MoRTH and MoD shall place before the Committee the steps taken by them to adhere to the HPC’s recommendations, along with a projected timeline for complying with the remaining recommendations. Monthly reports of this nature shall be placed before the Oversight Committee by MoRTH and MoD.

The Oversight Committee shall then report on the progress undertaken to this court every four months.

In case of any issues with the implementation of the recommendations, the Chairperson of the Committee shall be at liberty to approach this Court. The honorarium for the Chairperson and members of the Oversight Committee shall be determined by the Chairperson and the payment shall be disbursed by MoRTH, the bench said.

(With PTI inputs)