Environmentalist and Chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) to oversee the execution of the marquee Char Dham road-widening project Ravi Chopra has resigned from his post, stating the panel to protect the Himalayas “has been shattered.”
The Supreme Court on December 14 allowed double-lane widening of roads for the project in view of “security concerns.”
Mr. Chopra and some members of the HPC had previously argued against such widening on the grounds that it was detrimental to the Himalayan terrain and in violation of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways stated position on the appropriate road width.
The appropriate road width for the two-lane highway has been a controversial aspect. The HPC itself saw a division, with one set of members saying it would only be 5.5 m wide and another plumbing for a higher road width.
The SC ruled in September that a 5.5 m width be enforced as it was in conformity with a 2018 circular by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) for mountain roads. The MoRTH is also the key coordinator of the Char Dham project and in December 2020 updated the circular, relying on a position by the Ministry of Defence that some of these roads connected to India’s border roads along China and were critical to movement of armoured vehicles.
A Bench headed by Justice D. Y. Chandrachud, while permitting the wider roads, also set up an oversight committee headed by former Justice A. K. Sikri to report to it directly on the project.
The oversight committee would get support from the Defence Ministry, Ministry of Road Transport, Uttarakhand government and all District Magistrates.
The judgment, said Mr. Chopra, confined the role of the HPC to overseeing the implementation of its recommendations for the project on two “non-defence” roads. Previous directions and recommendations made by the HPC in the past have either been ignored or tardily responded to by MoRTH and it was therefore unlikely that the response of MoRTH would be very different even in relation to the non-defence roads.
“In the circumstances, I do not see any purpose in continuing to head the HPC or indeed, even to be a part of it,” he stated.
The strategic 900-km-long Char Dham project worth ₹12,000 crore aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four holy towns – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – in Uttarakhand.
Mr. Chopra’s letter dated January 27, only just made public and viewed by The Hindu , says that as a member of the HPC, he saw “the desecration” of the Himalayas.
“I have seen engineers armed with modern technological weapons assaulting the Himalayas. They have slashed through pristine forests, wounding vulnerable Himalayan slopes to widen highways. Ever-increasing numbers of tourists speed along them, their vehicles spewing noxious gases that cover the towering peaks ahead in an unsightly haze. The engineers exult and circulate photographs proving their conquest of Nature, little realising that they too are a part of Nature and cannot survive if their own natural environment is destroyed,” he wrote.