Apex Court pushes for elegant approach on Char Dham project to maintain equilibrium between defence and environmental interests

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While hearing a PIL filed by the Citizens for Green Doon challenging the stage-I forest clearance and wildlife clearance granted for the expansion of roads under the Char Dham project, resulting in felling of trees in Dehradun, a three-judge Bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud sought to underline the limitations of judicial activism in such cases.

A High-Powered Committee, which was set up on the orders of the Supreme Court, is monitoring the Char Dham highway project on the widening of roads up to the Indo-China border in Uttarakhand.

In Char Dham Project While Citizens for Green Doon had opposed road-widening -- citing the felling of trees in the wildlife-rich area that's leading to increasing instances of landslides; the Centre had sought the court's approval to widen the roads to the border.

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

The Ministry of Defence has filed an application seeking recall of an earlier order where the court said the width should not be more than 5.5 metres. In September 2020, rejecting the central government’s contention, the SC had ordered that the road width in the entire ecologically fragile Himalayan region should be 5.5 metres, according to the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways’ 2018 guidelines for major roads built in mountainous terrain. Subsequently, in December 2020, the defence ministry filed its modification application, further deepening the legal imbroglio surrounding the Rs 12,000 crore highway project, at a time when the Narendra Modi government is pushing for its quick completion.

Appearing for the Centre, Attorney General K K Venugopal referred to the September 8, 2020 decision of the Supreme Court asking the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to stick to its 2018 circular fixing 5.5-metre width for roads in hilly terrain in the execution of the Char Dham road project.

He said the Army wanted 10-metre width for the roads. There are multiple projects along the stretch leading to international borders which, he said, are needed for movement of personnel and machinery.

“There is a need for armed forces vehicles, rocket launchers etc to travel on these roads and all this was not taken into account. Army was ignored in this matter and they need to be presented here before the court,” he said.

"We do not want the troops to be caught in the 1962 situation," said Attorney General KK Venugopal.

But Justice DY Chandrachud, who was part of the three-judge bench said both needs of defence and environment "have to be balanced".

Appearing for the NGO, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves said, "The Army has never said we want these wide roads. Someone high up in political power said we want highways on the Char Dham yatra. The Army reluctantly went along."

Gonsalves pointed out there had been massive landslides this year, exacerbating the damage in the mountains.

"The development of the highway was for the prestigious Char Dham project. The Army was not considered when these roads were being built. Now you can't justify the roads for the Char Dham yatra, so you use the Army as an excuse," Gonsalves said.

"Can we say that the environment will triumph over the defence of the nation? Or we say that defence concerns be taken care of so that environmental degradation does not take place," said Justice Chandrachud.

Justice Surya Kant asked Mr Gonsalves if he had any reports on the condition of the Himalayas on the other side of the border where the Chinese have allegedly constructed buildings and establishments.

"The Chinese government is not known for protecting the environment. We will try and see if we can get any reports on what is the situation there," Gonsalves said.

The case hearing will move forward tomorrow .