SC allows Centre to reply to panel chief's letter linking Chardham project to Uttarakhand disaster

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New Delhi, Feb 17 (PTI) The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the Centre to respond to the 'allegations' of the Chairman of committee on Chardham project linking broadening of the road to the recent flash floods on Dhauliganga river, which damaged Tapovan hydro project and loss of lives in Uttarakahnd.

Attorney General K K Venugopal told the apex court that he would like to file a response to a letter of the chairman of a top court appointed high-powered committee in which several 'allegations' have been made with regard to broadening of the road and the recent disaster in the state.

The High-Powered Committee (HPC) is monitoring the Chardham highway project on the widening of the roads up to Indo-China border in Uttarakhand.

Venugopal said that the high powered committee chairperson Ravi Chopra has on his own written a letter to the government linking the disaster with the Chardham project.

Taking note of his submission, a bench comprising Justices R F Nariman, Hemant Gupta and B R Gavai, said 'You file response to it' and listed the matter for hearing after two weeks.

The strategic 900-km Chardham highway project aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four holy towns -- Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath -- in Uttarakhand.

Ravi Chopra, Chairman of the HPC has told the top court that irreversible damage has been caused to the Himalayan ecology due to the construction of hydroelectric projects and the road widening which has resulted in recent disaster of flash flood in Chamoli district.

In a letter to the apex court, Chopra said that post the Kedarnath tragedy in 2013, an expert body submitted a report highlighting impact of hydroelectric projects and “had these concerns and recommendations been adopted, the massive loss of lives and property could have been avoided in the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad projects”.

He said the HPC is seriously concerned about protecting the Himalayan ecology but instead of appreciating panel's report which is based on scientific analysis of the available evidence and the tragedy which took place in 2013, 'it is highly regrettable that in its affidavit of January 15, 2021, the MOD has imputed insincerity of motive'.

'This Court may ask the MOD to withdraw such imputations. We may emphasize that no convincing argument exists in the recent affidavit of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ignore and override the profound and irreversible ecological damage to the Himalayas that will impact each and every one of us and generations to come,' Chopra said.

He added that several chronic landslide-prone locations and stretches, where the slope stability is precarious, exist on the three Char Dham highways identified by the MoD as defence feeder roads.

'Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) data submitted to the HPC have identified 161 sensitive locations in 574 km (on NH-94 Rishikesh to Uttarkashi, NH-58 Rishikesh to Mana and NH-125 Tanakpur to Pithoragarh), about one location every 3.5 km. 'The three members’ report, including myself, included in the HPC report of December 31, 2020 to the Supreme Court, listed 42 locations on these three highways where frequent blockages were witnessed in just the monsoon months of 2020. There were many others during the remaining months of 2020,' the letter said.

Chopra said that disaster resilience is more critical than simply wide highways and slope stabilization works so far have been most inadequate as evident from the frequent failures and road closures.

Excessive tree-felling, indiscriminate disposal of road construction and landslides debris have endangered downhill slopes and polluted rivers, he said and added that instead of recognizing the sensitive nature of the area which is prone to disaster, the Union Ministries-MoRTH and MoD have been shifting their positions.

'The recent disaster in the Rishi Ganga valley is located in the region north of the Main Central Thrust (MCT), which is highly prone to landslides, flash floods and earthquakes. A section of the defence road to the Indo-China border and a bridge across the Rishiganga river on that road have been swept away, lending credence to our argument for disaster resilience in the region.

'Vulnerability and disaster proneness of this region is bound to increase with extensive disturbances like deforestation, slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, damming of rivers, excessive tourism, etc. The cumulative impact of such activities on the nearby glaciers cannot be ignored,' the letter claimed.

The Centre in its affidavit filed earlier in the matter had urged the top court to accept the majority report of 21-members of the HPC recommending the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders (10 metre wide carriageway) considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.

Earlier, the Ministry of Defence has sought modification of the top court's September 8, last year order which asked the MoRTH to follow the 2018 circular stipulating carriageway width of 5.5 metre, citing the prevailing situation on Indo-China border points.

In August, 2019, the apex court had cleared the decks for the Chardham highway project by modifying an National Green Tribunal order to constitute a high-powered committee to look into environmental concerns.

It had said that the HPC shall consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the entire Himalayan valley, besides other things. PTI MNL PKS MNL RKS RKS