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The Char Dham highway project to connect four Hindu shrines has become contentious, with local residents and environmentalists saying that it endangers the fragile mountain ecosystem

Suraj Singh Ramola stared at his ruined farmland at the gateway to four important Hindu pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The damaged crop is symbolic of a disaster that’s now echoing across the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. A resident of Jangleath village in Tehri district, Ramola still cannot believe that the debris generated by flattening hills completely buried his land.

Hills are being flattened to construct the 900 km ambitious Char Dham project, an all-weather road that will connect the four shrines. Twenty months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the highway project in December 2016, it has become contentious, facing allegations of several illegalities and violation of environment norms that has led to local protest.

The 900 km Char Dham Yatra Marg project was launched by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi. The government is keen to complete the project before the 2019 parliamentary elections (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

“We had trees of banana, guava, apple and peach. We also grew vegetables. It’s been totally ruined as they (project workers) have thrown and dumped the muck in our fields,” he said. In the nearby village of Tibli, 35-year-old Phooldas says, “We face a disaster-like situation in our villages. All link roads to our village have caved in.”

The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) is executing the project worth INR 120 billion (USD 1.6 billion). The Prime Minister has said that it would bring employment and prosperity to Uttarakhand, but large tracts of farmlands have already been destroyed by the carelessness of construction workers.

The project hit its hurdles at the first step when Citizens for Green Doon, a Dehradun-based NGO, filed a petition in National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February 2018, alleging violation of several environmental norms by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and MoRTH.

The NGT heard the arguments for almost four months and reserved its decision on May 31 this year. In a development on September 4, the NGT referred the case to a larger bench.

Local communities affected

Launching the project, Modi had promised to reverse an old saying of the mountains: “Pahad Ka Pani and Pahad Ki Jawani (water and youth of hills) don’t stay in the hills.” Local youth will get employment through the building of the highway, he had said.

However, villagers say jobs have not come their way. “During the last assembly elections (early 2017) also, every leader told us that the Char Dham project will provide employment,” said Harish, 30, a resident of Srinagar town in Garhwal.

Many link roads in several villages of Garhwal have been swept away and the debris deposited in the agricultural fields after the construction of all-weather highway started (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Many link roads in several villages of Garhwal have been swept away and the debris deposited in farms after the construction of all-weather highways started (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Villagers living along the proposed highway said that the constructing company hires outsiders. “We have lost all employment as our fields have been totally ruined. Initially, more than 35 people were hired from this area by the contractors for building roads, but the company doesn’t recruit locals any more,” Ramola says.

Cabinet minister in Uttarakhand government Madan Kaushik denies the charge. “It’s a very big project. We are trying to accommodate maximum workforce from Uttarakhand, but if there is no manpower available in a particular place then naturally it will come from outside,” Kaushik told Villagers in Chamba say that several people who were hired haven’t been paid their dues by contractors.

Parvati Devi, 35, of Chamba, says that even grasslands for grazing have been buried under the debris. “Where do we graze our cows now?” She asked. “We have no money and they have snatched whatever we had.”

Former Chief Minister and Congress leader Harish Rawat points at faulty planning. “The DPR (detailed project report) we had prepared during our tenure for the Char Dham Yatra Marg was very clear that there would be minimum cutting of hills while ensuring maximum width of roads. Our plan was to widen the bridges and find alternative routes in areas of chronic landslides. However, their focus is only on cutting. They are cutting hills even where there is no need. The project has been converted into a contractor’s paradise. They are dumping debris into rivers.”

Citing an instance, Rawat said, “Between Narendra Nagar and Rishikesh, the road they have cut is so wide at some places that it seems to be the parking place of aeroplanes.”

Kaushik counters: “Is it possible that someone can cut the hill according to one’s wishes? Whenever a project begins, a lot of clearances are taken. A lot of planning goes into deciding even how many inches (of hill) you will cut, how you will cut it.”

Joblessness is widespread in Uttrakhand and villagers say not much hope has been provided by the Char Dham highway construction project (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Joblessness is widespread in Uttarakhand and villagers say not much hope has been provided by the Char Dham highway construction project (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Despite several government agencies including Geological Survey of India and Garhwal University identifying the landslide-prone zones, the new construction has ignored the mandatory required safeguards. Consequently, many landslides have already been recorded in places that had not seen a single landslide in the last century.

On the Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway, at least 13 people died recently in an accident caused by a landslide. Villagers in Chamba say thousands of tons of debris have been dumped carelessly along the roads, making the roads slushy and dangerous.

“Our pathways and link roads have been washed out. It never happened earlier, even during monsoons. One of our relatives who was visiting us died on her way back as she was buried under the debris,” said Falguni Devi of Chamba.

Irreversible loss

During the hearing in NGT, the petitioner presented video evidence about the violation of norms and debris being dumped in rivers. Geologists and earth scientists warned that these violations might be disastrous, causing “irreversible losses” to the Himalayas.

The petitioner argued that NHAI and MoRTH circumvented necessary conditions of obtaining environmental clearances. “Since any road project beyond 100 km needs environmental clearance and an environment impact assessment, they divided the 900 km project into more than 53 segments,” said Himanshu Arora of Citizen for Green Doon. “As a result, thousands of trees are being cut for this project that has triggered the falling of several other trees. That loss is never counted.”

Significantly, when NHAI and MoRTH countered by saying that they have built retaining walls along the roads to contain the debris, the NGT did not buy the argument. The tribunal observed that the retaining wall isn’t enough, as was visible in the video. “When it rains, the entire muck goes down to the river. This (wall) doesn’t work,” commented the NGT.

Responding to allegations before the NGT that no environmental clearance was taken, and many rules were flouted, Minister Kaushik said: “There are two cases in NGT. One is about the number of trees to be cut and the other is about dumping. They (petitioners) said that you take the dump a little away, that matter is in the court and will be settled soon.”

The adverse remarks of the tribunal have brought no change on the ground. Almost 50,000 trees are to be felled for the project, including slow-growing high-altitude trees like deodar (Himalayan cedar), birch and oak. The rich forests in Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini valleys are the catchments of major rivers, including the Ganga.

As many as 50,000 trees are being felled for the project. Several trees are also falling due to soil erosion and that loss is not even considered (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

As many as 50,000 trees are being felled for the project. Several trees are also falling due to soil erosion and that loss is not even considered (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

Since the National Democratic Alliance government wants to showcase the highway project as a model before the 2019 parliamentary elections, the work is taking place at a frenetic pace.

Earth scientist Pradeep Srivastava, who works with Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, terms the project “unsustainable”. Such projects, he says, won’t work in these mountains because the roads are built on “fragile rocks” and “subsided landslides”.

“An all-weather road is a misconception. Nowhere is it written that it will withstand landslides and steep slopes. We don’t need such broad highways in the mountains. We need good roads that meet the needs of locals,” said Srivastava, who has written several reports on Himalayan geology.

Road experts and scientists warn that the hill slope is critical while building a road in the mountains but for the Char Dham project, the hills are being cut vertically (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Road experts and scientists warn that the hill slope is critical while building a road in the mountains but for the Char Dham project, the hills are being cut vertically (Photo by Viral Bug Films)

Experts believe that road planners have not considered the sensitivity of fragile slopes. “You can’t cut the hill vertically at 90 degree as they are doing now. If the base is removed, the mountain will fall, landslides will naturally happen, and we are already watching this happening,” said R.C. Sharma, who heads the department of environment science in H.N. Bahuguna University in Srinagar, Garhwal. “There are places in the hills where we never saw landslides earlier, but since this construction started, numerous landslides are happening.”

Kaushik, however, claims, “Landslides are not happening because of this project. Landslides have actually stopped.”

Kishore Kumar, chief scientist at Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), said, “There are guidelines about the width of roads in Indian Road Congress manuals and should have been followed while widening the highway.” Under the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, the erstwhile Planning Commission had prepared detailed guidelines on how to build roads in the mountains. But that is not being followed either.

Kumar advocates the need for a robust slope management system. He warned, “We do not have a proper slope management system in place while building and maintaining the roads. Only building highways won’t suffice. There should be a highway slope management system in place as well. If you don’t care about slope, the highway will not withstand landslides.”

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra of the Dehradun-based Peoples’ Science Institute said that the muck dumping might seriously impact the local vegetation and riverine ecology. “Since muck settles at the base of watercourse, the river may change its course, which can be very destructive as we saw during the 2013 (Uttarakhand) floods. The debris and muck also increase the turbidity of water.”

“Increased turbidity affects the sunlight reaching the bottom of water bodies and reduces oxygen levels. This can endanger aquatic species,” said Chopra, who was a member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee to assess the role of big dams in the 2013 floods that had claimed more than 5,000 lives.

Strategic point

One argument in favour of the construction of Char Dham project is its strategic importance.  Good roads are required considering the Chinese deployment on India’s borders along Uttarakhand. While China has constructed extremely good roads on its side of the border, India is yet to match its bigger neighbour in this regard.

Contractors did not plan any debris dumping yards before the project started. It is deposited all over beside the road. The rains carry the debris down to the river (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

Contractors did not plan any debri dumping yards before the project started. It is deposited beside the road. The rains carry the debris down to the river (Photo by Hridayesh Joshi)

Border Roads Organisation (BRO), a branch of the army, told NGT in July that the roads are “extremely important from strategic point of view” and needed to be upgraded. Locals, however, say that it doesn’t mean hasty widening of roads and there should be a focus on sustainability as well. Environmentalists warn that breaking the mountain without heeding geologists may prove disastrous even for defence preparedness.

Defence experts, while maintaining the need for good roads in this area for “national security”, also emphasise on ecology. “A holistic approach has to be adopted to ensure that an ecological balance is maintained and the sanctity of biodiversity to the attainable degree of supremacy is kept,” said M.C. Bhandari, a retired army general.

Not mountain-centric

Migration is a major issue in Uttarakhand. The government has identified over 1,000 villages as ghost villages, indicating that just a couple of families are left in them. Lack of employment, poor health and education facilities prompt the exodus. The government’s attempts to showcase the road project as a ticket to employment has however found few takers.

The objective of the Char Dham highway is to make pilgrimage easier and quicker. However, does it contribute to the local economy? Anthropologist and cultural activist Lokesh Ohri said the government seems to be “highly confused” between tourism and pilgrimage.

“If pilgrimage is completed in less time, people would have fewer stops en route. They won’t stay at chattis (halting points), won’t eat at dhabas (eateries). The common man will feel short-changed. It will only help big projects like resorts and tour operators, but I do not think it is going to contribute anything to the local economy other than a [higher] carbon footprint for the communities,” said Ohri.

As shadows fall over a muddied lane along the highway, it is clear that the pilgrimage will no longer be the same. One can only anticipate it — it’s difficult to imagine how the Garhwal range will respond to the barren and flattened hills a decade later.

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