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Chardham project: Supreme Court panel split on width of access roads

The Badrinath temple is one of the Char Dham sites. File  

The Centre’s exemption to road-widening norms undergirding the Chardham Project (CP), an ambitious attempt to widen nearly 900 kilometres of hill roads to improve access to pilgrimage spots in Uttarakhand, has led to a split in a Supreme Court-appointed committee that was to advise on the project's execution as well as the ecological implications of the CP.

The High Powered Committee (HPC), as it is called, was chaired by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, former director of the People's Science Institute and was directed by the SC to submit a report by December 30, 2019, which was extended to June 30 this year.

Importantly the Court had directed that while independent experts could be roped in by the committee for technical assistance, all matters would have to be adjudicated by a ‘majority vote’.

What emerged from the exercise were two reports — one by Mr. Chopra and three other members, called the ‘Main’ report, and another by 16 members — a majority — of the 19-member core committee.

Mr. Chopra has denounced the report sent by the other members, and, in a letter to the Union Environment Ministry Secretary, said he was “pressured and harrased to submit a one-sided view,” by certain committee members. Most of the members of the 'majority' group are affiliated to the Uttarakhand government or Central Ministries, whereas as three of four members who have signed on the ‘main’ report are independent experts.

Both reports were submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the Supreme Court last week. The reports, both of which have been viewed by The Hindu, are largely similar except for the issue of road widening.

Given the Himalayan terrain, the potential damage that massive earth-moving equipment can wreck on hills, surrounding villages, a key deliverable of the HPC was to deliberate on what measures could be undertaken to widen roads with minimum ecological impact.

An important consideration when designing roads in the hills is the appropriate width, whether it should be double-lane and have buffers on the side, called shoulders. These parameters are decided on the basis of the existing traffic and future projections and a general principle is that roads must be designed to last at least 20-25 years.

The Indian Roads Congress (IRC) manual, in its 2012 edition and which the HPC weighed on to arrive at their recommendations, prescribed that in general all roads ought to be double-laned, have a minimum width of 12 m, accounting for the space it takes two vehicles to simultaneously pass as well as provisions for paved buffers on the sides that could aid pedestrians and slower vehicles without impeding traffic flow.

The IRC while underlining that standards must be uniformly adhered to, also says that only when unavoidable, the width could be reduced by 0.8 metres.

However, one set of members argued that given that the purpose of the committee was to recommend ways to minimise ecological damage, an ‘intermediate road width’ of 5.5 metres ought to be adopted on the entire Chardham stretch. This is the width the IRC recommends for mountain roads. However, when the matter was put to vote, a majority of members voted for having wider roads with adjustments in inhospitable terrain.

It later emerged that the government’s own Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), had in March 2018, recommended against ‘double laning and paved shoulders’ in hilly terrain and recommended a narrower intermediate road width.

This directive, all committee members claimed, wasn’t presented to them.

The Chairman had asked the Chief Engineer at the MoRTH why the committee was not apprised of the 2018 circular. The official responded that the 2018 provisions did not apply to the Chardham project.

“The programme for development of road connectivity to Chardham was launched by Hon’ble Prime Minister on 27th December, 2016. Further, most of the ongoing works connecting Chardham were sanctioned before the issuance of Ministry’s circular dt 23.03.2018 referred by HPC,” the reply notes.

Differences on these matters and the “undemocratic attitude” of the Chairman, the ‘majority group’ alleges, stoked a worry that a final report was being readied that didn't take on board the majority view.

However Mr. Chopra’s report does factor in the majority view on road width. Mr. Chopra’s own view — and vote — was in favour of an intermediate width and he recommended that the Supreme Court take a decision. However, majority group says leaving it to the Court undermines the apex body’s direction that empowers the HPC to take a final view on the road width and ecological considerations.

However, both reports are unanimous that the MoRTH, the ultimate implementer of the project, had broken the entire CD project into 53 different projects, all less that 100 km long, to avoid the need for an Environment Impact Assessment.

“The division of the HPC, on a vital issue that should have been clear and uncontested, is unfortunate for the Himalayas. The allegation that my referral to the Hon’ble Supreme Court for adjudication undermines the majority vote, is quite unfortunate, to say the least. If the majority chooses to tread a path which contradicts the court’s directions and even ignores MoRTH’s own 2018 Circular, I believe that the most judicious way is to leave it to the court,” Mr. Chopra notes in his report.

He adds, “Compromising the Himalayas further, especially in the closely set Char Dham valleys, over and above all the existing cumulative pressures would be a grievous mistake with far reaching consequences.”

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 11:57:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/chardham-project-supreme-court-panel-split-on-width-of-access-roads/article32142588.ece

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