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What is Char Dham Project?

  • IAS NEXT, Lucknow
  • 16, Dec 2021
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The Supreme Court has allowed carriageways of three highways to be widened to 10m as part of the Char Dham roads project after modifying its earlier order limiting the width to 5.5m.

What Has The Supreme Court Said?

  • A three-judge Supreme Court bench modified an earlier, September 2020 order by another three-judge bench directing that three highways being laid as part of a 899-km road network in Uttarakhand should stick to a width of 5.5 metres for the carriageway.
  • Following a review sought by the Defence Ministry, the Supreme Court has now decreed that the width of the roads can be of 10m as sought by the Centre, paving the way for their double-laning.
  • Acknowledging the strategic importance of the three highways — which act as feeder roads for connecting with the China border — the top court also noted the need for balancing such priorities with environmental concerns.
  • It also ordered the setting up of an oversight committee led by former Supreme Court judge AK Sikri to ensure that the works were executed in an environmentally conscious manner, incorporating the recommendations of a high-powered committee in this regard.

Developments so far wrt the Chardham Project:

  1. The foundation stone for the Char Dham road project was laid by PM Narendra Modi in December 2016.
  2. But the project was challenged on environmental grounds in courts with petitioners alleging irregularities vis-a-vis environmental clearances for the project and that it was being pursued in violation of existing norms.
  3. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) cleared the project in September 2018, but its order was challenged for being passed by a bench different from the one that had heard the matter. Supreme Court stayed the NGT order in October 2018.
  4. In September 2020, it passed an order on a writ petition stating that highways for the Char Dham project should not exceed 5.5m in width as prescribed in a 2018 circular of the Union Road Transport Ministry. But the Defence Ministry had in December that year sought a modification in the order to allow the width to be of 10m.
  5. The top court then asked its high-powered committee (HPC) to look into the contentions raised by the Centre on the width of the highways.

What did the HPC say?

  • The width should be allowed to be of 10m in view of the strategic importance of these highways.
  • It would not be “feasible” to revisit those stretches where work has been already initiated on 10m width to reduce the same to 5.5m.
  • It would not be possible to grow trees on the patches that had cleared to pave the way for road-building.

What Were The Arguments For Seeking 10m Width?

These are inhospitable terrains where Army needs to move heavy vehicles, machineries, weapons, missiles, tanks, troops and food supplies.

What Are The Environmental Concerns That Were Flagged?

  1. Large-scale construction works in hilly terrain is a recipe for disaster as it leads to a heightened risk of landslides given the felling of trees and loosening of rocks.
  2. The project was being executed bypassing mandatory environment clearances and environment impact assessment (EIA) procedures.
  3. Over 25,000 trees that have reportedly been felled to make way for the project as a grave worry for the ecologically sensitive zone.
  4. Since wider carriageways would require more excavation and blasting, the purpose of having an all-weather highway may be compromised since the topography would become that much more sensitive to slippage and landslides.

About Chardham project:

  • The project involves developing and widening 900-km of national highways connecting the holy Hindu pilgrimage sites of; Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri at an estimated cost of Rs.12,000 crores.
  • The highway will be called Char Dham Mahamarg(Char Dham Highway) and the highway construction project will be called Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana(Char Dham Highway Development Project).