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What is the Char Dham project?
- The Char Dham Project is a Rs 12,000-crore flagship initiative of the central government.
- It is a highway expansion project that seeks to widen 889 km of roads in Uttarakhand.
- It was envisaged in 2016 to provide all-weather connectivity in the upper Himalayas. It focuses on the Char Dham circuit composed of the 4 key shrines: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
- It also includes the Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route.
Why was it challenged?
- In 2018, this project was challenged by an NGO, Citizens for Green Doon (based in Dehradun) at the NGT.
- The NGO challenged the project’s construction on grounds that it would negatively impact the sensitive Himalayan ecosystem.
- Some of the possible consequences of the project listed by the applicants include:
- Excavation of hills and dumping of the mud leading to weakening of the topography
- Soil erosion
- The NGT observed that the projects were each less than 100 km long and hence don’t require environmental clearance.
- The tribunal directed the formation of an oversight committee to ensure the environmental safeguards.
What did the Supreme Court say?
- The NGT’s order was challenged in the apex court.
- The Supreme Court, in 2019, modified this order and set up a High Powered Committee. The committee was charged with considering the project’s impact– cumulative and independent- on the Himalayan valley.
- Based on the committee’s report, the Supreme Court directed the government to adhere to a 2018 circular from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
- This circular advised against laying full-fledged roads in hilly terrains.
- It allowed roads with a width of 5.5 m and 2-lane structures. This was later amended in 2020, based on the defence ministry’s views. This was because these roads act as feeders to the Sino-Indian border. The amended circular allowed for roads with 7 m width and 1.5 m paved shoulder on both sides.
- In the name of national security and border defence, the government had moved an application in the court to seek a modification of the 2020 order that 3 stretches be developed with 2-lane configuration:
- Rishikesh to Mana
- Rishikesh to Gangotri
- Tanakpur to Pithoragarh
- Recently, on December 14th, the Supreme Court allowed the widening of the 3 highways. These are to be developed according to the DLPS system (double lane with paved shoulder).
- However, the court has required the government to address the environmental concerns raised by the 2019 committee.
What is the way ahead?
- These roads function as feeder roads to the tense Sino-Indian border and hence acquires significant strategic importance. Wider roads are essential given the nature of tanks, machinery and other weapons and the current conditions at the border region.
- The government has listed the mitigation steps adopted to reduce the damage caused by the project to the environment.
- On the other hand, there are concerns about the lack of action with regards to slope stabilization, restoration of damaged slopes and cut hills. Given the fragile nature of the Himalayan ecosystem, the adoption of DLPS system could cause severe damage.
- The apex court’s approval of the road expansion is conditional upon the government implementing recommendations of the 2019 committee.
- The court has also set up an oversight committee to assess the implementation.
The Char Dham project holds significance for its location near the India-China border, but also for its situation in the fragile Himalayan environment. It is key to note that landslides and other natural hazards that come with large constructions in the Himalayas are as much a threat to the nation as the tense situation at the national borders.