Environmentalist Ravi Chopra. Photo: RGICS/YouTube.
New Delhi: A high-powered committee comprising 26 members has submitted two reports to the Union environment ministry. One has the signatures of four members and the other, of 21. They are divided over how wide the Char Dham highway in Uttarakhand should be. Kabir Agarwal spoke to Ravi Chopra, the chairperson of the committee, appointed by the Supreme Court in August 2019, for The Wire about the internal rift and attendant issues. Chopra is a noted environmentalist. The transcript is presented in full below, edited lightly for style and clarity.
Things were going reasonably well until, I would say, July 1 or July 2. On May 11, we started a series of meetings. Those of us who live in and around Dehradun physically attended the meetings, and those outside Dehradun joined via video conferencing. That wasn’t all that great. Some people couldn’t hear, some couldn’t talk. It was quite a difficult task. Things may have panned out a bit differently had members been present in a room.
Anyway, we went chapter by chapter at the drafts that I had edited. They had been prepared by different members. I had edited them, and each chapter was presented to the committee, their comments were received. Some of the drafts had been finalised during the meetings themselves, and then I would edit each of them again.
Finally, all the edited drafts were prepared. They were [shared around] for one last round of discussions. They got approved and I prepared a draft final report, which was circulated towards the end of June – maybe around June 28.
Until then, people were praising that you have worked hard and have prepared the chapters very well.
Just to back off a little bit, on May 11, I read out the entire procedure of how the report was going to be prepared. The instructions were also shared in writing. Nobody complained. No one said that you should have a drafting committee. They were happy with what I had said.
The difference between your report and the other report is on the issue of road width.
Yes, this came to the fore during our discussion of the final drafts of various chapters. The Supreme Court had instructed us that in case of differences, they should be resolved by a majority vote. This was the only issue I had to put to majority vote. I laid out a procedure and we followed the procedure on June 12, and voting took place.
On that day, 14 people voted for retaining the national standard of 2012 that was selected. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) had issued a circular in 2012, and based on that the Char Dham highway was to be constructed on the basis of double-lane plus paved shoulder. Which means there is a tarred surface of 7 metres on which the cars run. There are 1.5 metres on either side – also tarred – called paved shoulders. So in all, 10 metres of tarred surface. And then some space is left for drains and parapets on either side. So that becomes a formation width of 12 metres.
Some people said that this area of the Himalaya is extremely sensitive and therefore you should have a [highway] of only intermediate width, which is 5.5 metres of tarred surface and then there is a little bit of space for drains and parapets on either side. And they recommended that [we] keep 5.5 metres of intermediate width and between 7 and 8 metres of total formation width. At difficult places, like turning at corners and where the turning angle requires it, then you can go up to a max. of 10 metres.
These were the two options. Fourteen people voted for the national standard. Two people voted for making the entire project in intermediate width. One person abstained. And when they asked me for my view, I said it’s not going to make a practical difference, so I will not reveal my views.
Why did you refrain from voicing your views at this point?
I had refrained because the way it had been framed was that the entire project would be 5.5 metres [wide]. I believed that what has been constructed, let that be. Don’t try and change that. For approximately 800 km of the 889 km, the slopes have been cut.
Now, two days later, by chance, one of our members discovered a circular from March 23, 2018, brought out by MoRTH in which they say that “we observed some challenges during implementation of the 2012 circular in hilly and mountainous terrain and keeping that in mind we now recommend that in hilly and mountainous terrain, road width should be limited to intermediate width.”
This was never, ever revealed to the committee in all the eight or nine months of our deliberations. We had meetings with the chief engineer of MoRTH, who is in charge of the project. We have a director of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) as a member of the committee. No one spoke about this.
So I sent a letter to all members – I think it was June 17 – that this has just been brought to my notice and I would like you to read this circular carefully, and then if you want to change your vote please do so. It resulted in one person of the 14 in changing his stand. So now, it was 13 against 5 – the original two, one abstention, myself, and the person who changed his vote. At this point, I joined the intermediate width side because it was agreed that this be applied only in the remaining portion.
Why is the road width so important?
Because the greater width that you cut, the greater the amount of rock and soil you will remove. More muck will be generated. Where are you going to put it? You may not have enough space. So muck-dumping becomes a problem. They have been using heavy machines to cut this and where the slopes are sensitive, where they are fragile, the use of high energy at a particular point will then weaken the slope further. You may introduce more fractures, more cracks. So it tends to weaken the slope.
This has already happened on some parts of the highway, where construction is underway.
This has already happened and you are seeing the results now, where every day we are receiving reports of slope failure along this route.
And you put that down to the way this highway is being constructed?
Well, we have said very clearly that large stretches were cut to very steep slopes, and without adequate protection measures. You should read chapter 3.
After you sent the 2018 circular to everyone, some people still didn’t change their mind. Did they give a reason?
No. See, the whole thing has been driven by the engineering representative from the BRO – which is one of the implementing agencies – and he has insisted that we need a 12-metre width.
He has two arguments: 1) That this is the guideline we have been given and we have to follow it, and 2) that we need it for defence purposes.
Whenever he was asked to explain what is the width of defence vehicles, he never gave an answer. And if the road width is not adequate, how have troops and materials reached the border until today? When the military moves, it moves in a single column; remember Pulwama. It’s a single column that moves and all other traffic is suspended.
So to me, it’s a very specious argument. In fact, I would rate it as a dangerous argument because, in the process of making double-lane with paved shoulder roads, you are making your roads disaster-prone, as we are seeing in this monsoon. And what we were arguing for is – don’t touch the roads, let them be as they are. If you need to do a little bit of cutting, if there is a sharp corner, then do that. If you need to do something for some special reason, then first try to go on the valley side. Do a retaining wall on the valley side, fill it and [then] widen the road. You can widen the road another metre and a half that way and the BRO has done it. It’s not that it is impossible for them.
So we were arguing for a disaster-resilient approach and what they are going in for is a disaster-prone approach.
In the other report – the majority report – they have accused you of unilaterally modifying contents of certain chapters to undermine the majority view. How do you respond to that?
In the draft final report which I circulated on June 28, I did not include the chairmen’s view. So that was the new material that was added.
Second, on May 11, I had made it very clear that I would include every single dissent, every objection, every alternate view point. I would try and place it in the text of the chapter. Should the alternate view point or dissent be very large, I will put it at the end of the chapter. And if somebody wrote 20, 30 or 40 pages, I would put it in the appendix, and that is exactly what I did.
I got a small box of about eight points, called the minority dissent. So it’s about half a page. I stuck it in the chapter. I stuck my chairman’s view in the chapter. I got a 14-15-page note from [Hemant] Dhyani and [geologist Navin] Juyal and put it at the end of the chapter.
I don’t see what’s wrong with that. They say that ‘you are undermining the majority view point’. Bhai, you are yourself saying that my narration is absolutely correct. They praised my narration. And what have I said in chairman’s view? I have said this is too important a matter, where the future of the valley is concerned. It is too important and delicate a matter to be decided by a majority vote and therefore it requires a judicious mind, and I am handing it back to the Supreme Court to take a final decision.
Now, tell me what I did wrong.
Can you explain why you think this is an important and delicate matter? A lot has been said about the Char Dham project over the last few years. Why is it so controversial?
Now, remember what the difference is. Let me clarify it again. We are saying that you have around 100 km left and you use intermediate width for that. That area is from the main central thrust upwards towards the end of the valley. It lies in the inner Himalaya, in the higher Himalaya, zone which is the most fragile and sensitive area. It is prone to earthquakes, landslides and avalanches every year.
Take the case of Lambagarh. Avalanche debris is hanging on the slope. Every year, that debris comes down and every year the road is damaged. Then you have to cut the mountain some more. They have been going inside and inside into the mountain and destabilising it. Now, what has happened is that the village on that mountain has lost its agricultural land. Their houses remain and they are now pleading that ‘at least let our houses remain’.
So there are these types of slopes. In the last stretch, before you get to Badrinath, there is an 8 km stretch where there are five hanging glaciers above the road. Every year, these glaciers tend to come down in the form of an avalanche and they block the road. Now the wider your road, there will be that much more snow to remove.
We are saying – go for good technology. There is something called a snow gallery, a very short tunnel. The hanging glacier has a limited width. We know every year that there is an avalanche in this width. So construct a 50-metre tunnel, make a snow gallery like in Rohtang. Again, it’s not something that we can’t do. It’s going to involve additional spending.
This is a very sensitive area. When you travel from Guptkashi towards Kedarnath, towards Sonprayag – that whole slope is so unstable that, every year, you have landslides over there. Same thing with the last Yamnotri valley.
And cutting more of these mountains would increase the risk of these landslides?
And also, most of the last stretch includes areas of the Gangotri National Park, Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary and Nandadevi National Park. There are some of the rarest Indian animals in that stretch – musk deer, snow leopards. In the winter, when the upper reaches of the mountains have snow, they come down for water, food, etc.
Now, if more cutting has to happen in this area to open the highway around the year, you need to do an environment impact assessment (EIA).
The member secretary H.S. Chugh has said he asked you to hold a meeting after he received two reports, to iron out the differences within the committee. But you refused to hold the meeting.
Yes. See, I was under intense pressure from around June 25 or 26 to finish the report and hand it in by June 30. Every day I would get phone calls from the [environment] ministry officials. So I had to put an end to this whole process of meeting after meeting. Now the term of the committee doesn’t end with the submission of the report. We are now supposed to have quarterly meetings to review the progress on the project and to submit our monitoring reports. So we still exist.
We can have meetings at any other time, I thought, but let me hand in a report now. And I knew that nothing would change. We were not going to bend. They were not going to bend.
They have also called your attitude rigid and undemocratic. You have accused them of conspiracy to undermine your report and of subterfuge. And like you said, the committee still exists and can work together in the future as well. But given what has happened and the kind of words that have been exchanged, do you think that is possible?
Well, ‘subterfuge’ I had to use because I had said to the member secretary that the report is complete, and you please send it to the ministry. The member secretary said, ‘Sir, I am not able to do that and you please send it yourself.’
Why did he say he is not able to do that? Did he give a reason?
Well, you can guess. He has a principal secretary above him and above that is a chief secretary. They had had day-long meetings and I could tell he was under a lot of stress.
When he said ‘you send it’, I sent the report to the ministry. Next day, I get a call from the ministry: ‘Sir, we have two reports. Yesterday you sent one report. And they also sent a report.’
The member secretary did not have the courage or the courtesy to tell me that he has submitted their report and [said] ‘you submit your report yourself’.
He didn’t mention the second report?
No, and I knew that there was a second report. They had circulated it. In fact, I said to the member secretary – circulate my two volumes and if you want also circulate their report. I didn’t say no. This is not my habit. I am a very open and transparent person. I said that you include it. He did not say that he has already sent it. That I found out only later.
And it’s a funny thing because the guy from the ministry in Delhi calls me up and he says we have these two reports – one is the majority view and yours is the final report of the committee. But we can’t find any difference. What is the difference? [Laughs]
Because the difference is only limited to the road width issue. And even there, if I had left it at just stating that majority was of this view and minority is of that view and therefore majority wins – if I had left it there, would have been no objection. But I put in my chairman’s view saying that this is a matter that should be resolved by the court. All their anger is about that.
On that, they are saying that the job the court had asked you to do – the committee to do – you are now asking the court to do.
Yes, and I am asking that knowing fully well that I may end up getting scolded by the Supreme Court, [which] may turn around and say ‘we gave you this job and we told you to come up with your recommendations to the ministry. Why have you come back to us?’
I know they could say that. But for the well-being of the Himalaya, I am willing to take that risk.
Because you feel it is that important an issue…
Absolutely, critical! Those of us who travel in these areas regularly – we are aware of the dangers and so are the engineers over there.
In your preface to the report, you have suggested that we are making it a contest between the Himalaya and ourselves. Why did you say that?
Because, you know, if you remember your physics – every action has a reaction. The more energy you use to strike the rocks, to break them, to cut them, the rocks weaken – and the reaction is in the form of a slope failure. So each time you injure them, they will react like wounded animals.
Are you hopeful that there could be some resolution and somehow something can still be salvaged here? Is that possible?
Well, a lot will depend on what the Supreme Court says. Let us wait and see what they say. The court may just say, ‘Look, we didn’t appoint you as chairman for this and so we are removing you as chairman.’ They could say that, so I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
What kind of support have you received from the ministries involved? You have said certain information that you had asked for was not made available.
Yeah. There has been an absolutely systematic attempt to deny us and withhold information, no matter how many times it has been solicited. The letters, the meetings, the oral warnings given to the MoRTH – to ‘Please be careful, don’t do more hill-cutting, protect what you have cut… Otherwise, during monsoons, these mountains are going to come down.’ We have several letters. We have met to discuss this issue. And there has been no response to this.
What about the response from the Union environment ministry?
No response has come from them. We had sent an interim report in February. No comment on that. After some months, I think in April, when they said ‘Can you please summarise your recommendations and send it to us’ – I mean, you can’t read it and photocopy the recommendations that are sitting with you?
These are the two key ministries involved in the project?
No – also the entire administration of the government of Uttarakhand. I wrote to all district magistrates saying, ‘Please give me the following information.’ I followed up with phone calls, followed up with another letter. How many times do I ask?
They have not responded or provided the information?
I think two [district magistrates] sent me something. A third one also did towards the end.
Would you say that there was a systematic attempt to not let the committee function?
See, I can’t say whether there was a systematic attempt. But I can say that our requests for information were not responded to. I have said so in the report: ‘The response has been tardy and inadequate.’
You have also written that, in the beginning, you were reluctant to become the committee’s chairperson. How do you look back at your decision?
I took a difficult decision knowing fully well that this sort of thing could happen and it did happen. But I am happy that I took the decision because at least it is making people think of what we are doing to the Himalaya.
If you could go back in time, you would still make the decision?
Probably, yes. That decision was made with great thought. It wasn’t an overnight decision.