An artist’s imagination of the proposed Char Dham highway. Source: YouTube.
New Delhi: The Supreme Court-appointed high-powered committee (HPC) to the Char Dham highway project has submitted two different reports to the Union environment ministry, after a major difference of opinion on how wide the road should be created an internal rift.
One report, with the signatures of four members of the 26-member committee, including chairperson Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and former director of the Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute, recommends that the Supreme Court take the final call on road width while suggesting an intermediate width of 5.5 metres. It cites a circular issued by the Union road transport ministry in 2018. This would imply a total width of 7-8 metres after accounting for paved shoulders, according to Chopra.
The other report has the signatures of 21 members and suggests the government stick to the project’s present design and roads all along the highway be expanded to double lanes as planned. This would mean a total width of 12 metres — and would realise the double-lane width the government had originally imagined under the Char Dham highway project.
All the committee members belonging to the ’12 metres’ group are employees of the Centre or the Uttarakhand state government. Three of those in the ‘7-8 metres’ group are independent experts and one is a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous institution of the environment ministry.
The Supreme Court had set up the committee in August 2019 and mandated it to consider the ecological impact of the 900-km project, which the government has said will improve access to four Hindu pilgrim sites in Uttarakhand, proximate to the Himalaya, and list recommendations to the environment ministry. Crucially, the apex had also directed the committee to settle all issues by majority voting.
‘Char’ is Hindi for ‘four’ and ‘dham’ denotes a place of religious significance. The four sites are Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
The final opinion currently belongs to the ’12 metres’ group. After abstentions, 13 members of the committee voted in favour of the double-lane 12-metre wide road while five – including Chopra, the chairperson – voted in favour of the intermediate road width of 5.5 metres (and final width of 7-8 metres).
The results of this vote are mentioned in both reports, in the section on recommendations. The key difference is that in the ‘7-8 metres’ one, there is also a box entitled “chairman’s view”. In this box, Chopra writes that he stands with the minority viewpoint because the 2018 circular by the road transport ministry makes it “abundantly clear”, according to him, that a 12-metre wide road is not suitable for hilly terrains.
The circular said the ministry had encountered some “challenges” when building double-lane roads with paved shoulders. The same ministry had originally recommended the same design for the Char Dham project in 2012. According to the circular’s text, “The carriageway width shall be of intermediate lane configurations, of 5.5 m. width (18 ft), with two lane structures (23 ft).”
Chopra also noted that his and colleagues’ report states the road’s width will have a “very significant impact on the Himalayas”, and so the Supreme Court should take the final call on the road’s width. “Until then, I would suggest that any action based on the majority vote may be held in abeyance,” he wrote.
The majority report, by the ’12 metres’ group, has argued that the 2018 circular doesn’t apply to the Char Dham highway because the road transport ministry’s note came two years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had signed off on the project.
The group also recommends a 12-metre wide road from a defence perspective. “These highways are leading to international borders, which are very important from a strategic point of view, which requires uninterrupted and speedy movement of defence equipment and supplies. Hence, these [national highways] are being developed [into] two lanes with paved shoulders”.
However, in his interview to The Wire, Chopra called the argument that a wide road is required to facilitate military vehicle movement “specious” and “dangerous”. “If the road width is not adequate, how have troops and materials reached the border until today?” he asked. “When the military moves, it moves in a single column. Remember Pulwama.”
The environment ministry has received both reports with some surprise. “We have two reports from one committee which are more or less identical except for one critical issue,” an official at the ministry said. “We will have to see what can be done. This is a matter of technicality and procedure since the committee was set up on the direction of the Supreme Court.”
The ministry is currently mulling three options: to send both reports as they are to the Supreme Court for adjudication; to send the majority report to the court; or to ask the committee to reconsider the matter and arrive at a consensus on its own.