Explained | Why has the Supreme Court allowed the Union Government to widen all three main Char Dham roads?

Who challenged its development? What happened in the Supreme Court?

December 19, 2021 03:10 am | Updated 03:10 am IST

Under construction: Environmental concerns plague the Char Dham project. File

Under construction: Environmental concerns plague the Char Dham project. File

The story so far : On December 14, modifying its previous order, the Supreme Court upheld the Government’s mandate to widen three Himalayan highways — Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh — as part of the Char Dham Pariyojna of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), in the interest of national security. They will now be developed as per the double lane with paved shoulder (DLPS) system. However, the Supreme Court has also directed the Government to address the environmental concerns raised by the High Powered Committee (HPC), constituted on its order in August 2019 . The latest verdict follows a Ministry of Defence (MoD) application seeking modification of the order dated September 8, 2020.

What is the Char Dham project?

The ₹12,000 crore project was announced on December 23, 2016. It aims at broadening the roads of about 900 km of national highways for safer, smoother and faster traffic movement. They connect the holy shrines in Uttarakhand: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The project also includes the Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route.


Who challenged its development?

Environmentalist groups led by Dehradun-based Citizens for Green Doon filed an application on February 27, 2018, in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), challenging construction of the project on the ground that the development activity would have a negative impact on the Himalayan ecosystem. The applicants submitted that the project would result in deforestation, excavation of hills and dumping of muck, which would lead to further landslides and soil erosion, in an already fragile environment.

The NGT, on September 26, 2018, observed that the length of each of these projects was less than 100 km and therefore, they did not require environmental clearance. However, it directed constitution of an ‘Oversight Committee’ to monitor environmental safeguards. The order was challenged in the Supreme Court.

What happened in the Supreme Court?

On August 8, 2019, the Supreme Court modified the NGT order and constituted the HPC with certain terms of reference, including the responsibility to consider the project’s cumulative and independent impact on the entire Himalayan valley.


Taking note of an HPC report, the Supreme Court on September 8, 2020, directed the Government to adhere to an MoRTH circular of March 2018 that advised against building full-fledged roads in hilly areas. It allowed 5.5 metres width with two-lane structures. That circular was later amended by MoRTH on December 15, 2020, based on MoD views, given that the stretches in question acted as feeder roads to the India-China border. This enabled 7 metres width with 1.5 metres paved shoulder on either side.

The Government, through MoD, moved an application in the Supreme Court seeking modification of the September 2020 order and direction that the three stretches be developed to a two-lane configuration in the interest of the security of the nation and for the defence of its borders.

What did respondents argue?

They argued that the HPC was not allowed to function independently and was given inadequate assistance by the Government; that no concrete action was taken on concerns related to slope stabilisation, muck disposal, restoration of damaged slopes and hill-cutting activities; that MoRTH violated its 2018 circular and the Supreme Court’s September 2020 directive; and that the fragile environment of the Himalayas would be severely damaged if the DLPS standard was adopted.

Also read | Balance between defence, environmental concerns a better goal, says Supreme Court

The Government submitted that the stretches acted as feeder roads to the India-China border and were of strategic importance; that with the increase in defence capability, the nature of weapons, tanks and machinery, and the conditions at the border, wider roads were required; and that the Court’s directive was complied with. It also listed a series of mitigation steps taken to ensure that the project caused the least environmental and ecological damage.

The Supreme Court’s approval is conditional upon MoRTH and MoD implementing the HPC recommendations. An Oversight Committee, which will assess their implementation, has been set up by the Supreme Court.


As directed, the Government will issue a formal notification in terms of the Supreme Court’s directions within two weeks and thereafter, MoRTH and MoD will place before the Committee the steps taken to adhere to the recommendations, along with a projected timeline for complying with the remaining suggestions. Monthly reports of this nature have to be submitted to the Committee. The Committee will report on the progress undertaken to the Supreme Court every four months. In case of any issues with the implementation of recommendations, its chairperson can approach the Court.

The HPC will continue with its work on overseeing the implementation of its recommendations for the project, except for the National Highways from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh, which will now fall under the purview of the Oversight Committee.

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