Dr C.P. Rajendran
The writer is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and author of a forthcoming book, Earthquakes of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Char Dham road project is a fundamental violation of all environmental norms and conservation strategies that need to be followed in the Himalayan mountain terrains for any constructional activities. It is ironic that this 'autobahn' project in a fragile mountainous area was initiated after the Uttaranchal floods of 2013 when the Prime Minister laid the foundation for the Char Dham Pariyojana in December 2016, dedicating it to the flood victims. This current project ignores the fact that over-construction in the hills had exacerbated the 2013 tragedy. In my opinion, the Supreme Court should have looked into the scientific objections more carefully and conducted a technically sound environmental impact assessment using the services of the independent experts.
The Court went back on its earlier judgment of September 2020 favouring a narrow width for the road, based on the recommendation of a high-powered scientific committee appointed in 2019, limiting carriageway to 5.5 metres. Now the Court believes that widening the road is important for the Indian Army. The Garhwal-Kumaun Himalaya is the most fragile part of the Himalaya and inherently most vulnerable to landslides because of the geological characteristics. For example, on the Chinese side, the Himalayas are made of harder rock but on the Indian side, it is largely shale, which is a weak sedimentary rock. The widening of the road to 10 metres involves further destabilising the slopes leading to increased incidences of landslides. This situation will further complicate the army movement and work against the efficiency to combat the enemies. Massive effort would be required on clearing or reconstructing the damaged road that could happen at a most critical time. This is probably the reason why the late General Bipin Rawat, who hailed from the Garhwal Himalaya, had said that the existing roads were fine with the army as it had the capability of air-lifting its troops and heavy artillery. Considering the difficult part of the Himalaya on our side, as commented by experts like Manoj Joshi, India could overcome this disadvantage by having more forward deployments than the Chinese who are able to move quickly forward because of the flatter Himalaya terrain on their side.
We all know that defence requirements are paramount, but this Char Dham project is being constructed in violation of basic environmental norms that are a must, given the composition of the Himalayan terrain. How can this be overlooked especially since the construction of this road has already resulted in one landslide every day during the rainy season as documented by NGOs working in this region? The future will testify that this is going to be an unmitigated disaster, which will make the life of the local people even more miserable. The facts are all there to see. It is a scientific fact that the Himalayas are an extremely fragile zone given to a great deal of anthropogenic activity. With hill cutting being done in a vertical manner, basic norms of road construction have not been followed, thereby only serving to worsen the situation. Destabilising these slopes is only going to cause irreversible damage. The process of construction requires tens of thousands of fully grown trees being cut, cutting into mountain sides, blasting, and immense quantities of debris being dumped into rivers. There have been so many destructive landslides, floods and avalanches, resulting in the destruction of power stations and dams being knocked out. After the four-lane highway is completed, it will lead to a tenfold increase in the flow of tourists and pilgrims. The increased number of temporary visitors will place its own demands for construction of hotels, guest houses, other construction, increased requirements for water, waste disposal, and sanitation. From environmental impact assessment to forest clearances, this has turned out to be an unscientific road-widening project with catastrophic consequences.
A mission document released by the ministry of science and technology in June 2010 has highlighted a few caveats under the heading 'Green Road Construction'. It says that construction of roads must fully consider the region's environmental fragility. Thus, the government ignores its own policy framework that recommends 'best practice' norms for infrastructural expansion in mountain regions to minimise the impact on the mountain ecosystems and landscapes. The high-power committee headed by a highly respected environmental scientist Dr Ravi Chopra recommended a 5.5-metre-wide road, after conducting much work on the ground collecting data. It is not clear why it was ignored and what was the necessity of creating a different committee. Besides, there are reports after reports prepared by various groups of scientists regarding the vulnerability of the mountain slopes to landslides. The steep gradients of the Uttarakhand Himalaya make it dynamically heterogeneous, in terms of climatic variables, hydrological processes and biodiversity and any unsustainable human interferences will only make the conditions worse. Scientists have pointed out that the ecology around these roads including the tree cover and the grasses and shrubs that bind the soil will take 30 years to recover. And on mountain slopes where two roads have been built, the slope may never recover. It appears that profiteering could be a motivating force. It is, after all, a question of priority. Our priority should be to save a fragile ecosystem, not to make money.
India is extremely susceptible to climate change. The Himalayas have played a key role in helping stabilise our climate and also provide us with water and other natural resources. We are willing to jeopardise this to facilitate the military at a time when as General Rawat had pointed out that the existing roads would suffice. Wider roads and more tourists could also lead to more vehicular traffic, and emission of more carbon dioxide. The Himalaya, with its vast green cover is an eco-service provider, is the home of the largest volume of snow and ice outside the polar regions, and the source of some of Asia's major rivers. A key driver in regulating the Asian climate. India has set forth an ambitious long-term climate policy in the recent COP26 meeting, proclaiming that we will reach net zero carbon emission by 2070. To reach this long-term goal, the country must formulate short-term goals to strengthen the sustainability of ecosystems. The Char Dham project challenges all those well-intentioned aspirations.
The Supreme Court has insisted remedial measures must be monitored, but when the damage has been done at the root, then that appears to be a fig leaf covering to mask the enormity of damage that is going to be wreaked on the environment. Substantial damage has already been done to the Himalayan ecology during the initial phase before the Court's order of September 2020. The committee's report submitted to the Court documents that nearly 700 hectares of forest land have already been lost to the project, 47,043 trees felled, and the natural drainage of streams and springs blocked by muck dumping. With the hills being cut vertically, often times without forest clearances, 11 landslides have occurred in just four months of 2020, causing deaths and injuries. No committee would be able to stop such destruction in the future as the work progresses, which will have to be justified as part of the human engineering required to implement the project. Given the steepness of slopes, the mass wasting processes will significantly reinforce even after the duration of the project and tenure of the monitoring committee.