[Editorial Analysis] The road to a Himalayan blunder

Mains Paper 3: Environment
Prelims level: Char Dham road project
Mains level: Risk potentiality Himalayan ecosystem

Context:

• Rampant construction and its complex interaction with climate change has led to massive landslides and floods in the fragile Himalayan range.

About the Char Dham road project:

• It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2016.

• Aim: It is an ambitious attempt to widen nearly 900 kilometres of hill roads. It will be executed by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), aims to provide all-weather connectivity to the four major shrines of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

• Total Cost to be incurred: ₹12,000 crore.

• It is conceived as a part of a larger Bharatmala Project.

Importance of the Project:

• Boosting local economy and tourism: It will increase pilgrimage tourism from the Indian plains and provide attendant local economic dividends.

• Security: The government has argued that it is essential to back up troop and arms movement towards the India-China border. The case is in the Supreme Court. The Attorney General argues that wide roads are necessary for the sake of national security in the Garhwal region.

Problems with the project:

• Regional demands: The petitioners in current case, residents of the valleys in the Garhwal region, stress on the need for a regulated and narrower intermediate road width with a walking footpath.

• Impact on the Himalayan ecology: Uttarakhand has been a victim of several disasters in the last two decades. It is crucial to note that the terrain of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand is different from the terrain in Ladakh. Valleys in Uttarakhand are narrow and close-ended with steep slopes of 60-70 degrees. On the other hand, the valleys in Ladakh have a slope elevation of 30 degrees.

• Changing natural flow: Any human-induced change beyond the Himalayas’ carrying capacity will have an impact on stream run-offs and erosional or depositional processes.

• Increased frequency of disasters: Just this year, we saw how the floods in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers claimed over 200 lives. During the monsoons, owing to the massive hill-cutting for the Char Dham road project, several landslides have occurred in the region.

• Over-construction makes roads inoperable: Such is the condition of the State that the national highways of the Char Dham project, including ones leading to the border, were closed repeatedly and sometimes for months this monsoon season.

Timeline of the Case:

• The Judicial challenge: The Supreme Court constituted a high-powered committee (HPC) to examine the issues in 2020. The Court said that the carriageway width of the roads cannot exceed 5.5 metres. It went by March 2018 guidelines issued by the MoRTH for mountain highways, which set a standard specification of a carriageway width of 5.5m with two-lane structures (7m).

• Appeal by Defence ministry: In November 2020, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) filed an appeal in which it asked for “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7m (or 7.5m in case there is a raised kerb) with 8-10m formation width” to “meet the requirement of the Army”.

• Withdrawal of MoRTH circular: On December 15, the MoRTH amended its 2018 circular and raised the 5.5m width limit to 10m. The new circular read: “For roads in hilly and mountainous terrain which act as feeder roads to the Indo-China border or are of strategic importance for national security, the carriageway width should be 7m with 1.5m paved shoulder on either side.

Way forward:

• Preventive regulations: The rainfall this year showed that the mitigation measures are no match to nature’s fury once it takes place. However, Prevention and regulation of activities seem to be the only effective way of mitigation in these fragile mountains.

• Disaster-resilient, safe and stable infrastructure is the only solution for commuting by road in the hills.

• Minimalism: we need to keep the scale of human-induced disturbances to the minimum level possible. The Char Dham project in its current form goes against all environmental safeguards.

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Prelims Questions:

Q.1) With reference to repealing a law, consider the following statements:

1. Legislation can have a “sunset” clause, a particular date after which they cease to exist.

2. Article 245 of the Constitution gives Parliament the power to make laws for the whole or any part of India, and state legislatures the power to make laws for the state.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?
(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Answer: C

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