Ecologically conscious people have barely recovered from premature death of Professor GD Agrawal aka Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, who gave up his life after 112 days of fasting on October 11, 2018, in Rishikesh demanding an end to the destructive practises taking place in the Himalayas in the form of the building of a number of dams on the numerous streams that merge to become Ganga, drilling in its bed and deforestation in its valley, is now witnessing another disaster unfolding. The Himalayas have an immense geological, ethnic and spiritual importance for the people of India. But, over the past few decades, the region’s rich natural resources have been depleted and its habitats ruined in the name of development. Now, the ambitious 900-kilometer Chardham Highways scheme, which started in 2018, seems likely to drive the Himalayas into an unparalleled environmental catastrophe.
The purpose of the project is to broaden the roads that lead to the four Hindu pilgrimage sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. According to the government, this is meant to boost ‘connectivity to the Chardham pilgrimage centres in the Himalayas, enabling the journey to these centres smoother, quicker and more convenient.’ It is ironic, then, that the project has been pushed forward by the authorities in utter violation of the country’s environmental protection laws. Such a large-scale plan should’ve just mandated a comprehensive and rigorous environmental impact assessment ( EIA), including public hearings and proceedings before the green light is provided, as it is compulsory by law for road projects over 100 km in length. However, the government has sneakily ignored this condition by splitting the 900 km stretch of road into 53 segments, each of which is less than 100 km, and naming the work to be performed on each segment as a separate initiative. Not only does the appraisal process put the climate and the citizens of the area at huge risk, but this also risks, by extension, the welfare of tourists for whose convenience these roads are being developed.
The whole Himalayan region is geologically vulnerable and catastrophe-prone. The Himalayas are young mountains that have been in the process of being established. They grow up to around 6 cm in height per year. They lie in earthquake zones 4 and 5 owing to recurrent ground tremors and other geological phenomena. They always get extremely high rainfall. Large-scale deforestation and unjustified development, refining and mining operations also lead to the geological insecurity of the area. Chardham sites are situated in locations that are especially vulnerable to landslides and landscape sedimentation. They are among the places who have the most top soil-loss experience in the country.
According to a report prepared by the Geological Survey of India in the aftermath of the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013, road building in the area has altered the natural terrain of the mountains over the years, which has contributed to their instability in the region and the triggering of landslides. However, this already fragile existence of the ecosystem has been utterly ignored in the design of this initiative. The minimum width of the highways has been set at 10 m, which many environmentalists have denounced for being far wider given the scale of the slope cutting and soil displacement which would be expected. It has been noted that due to the mountains being cut at a hazardous 90 degree angle in many places, numerous landslides have already taken place at varying locations all along the route. There have been many allegations of fatal accidents among construction workers as well as travellers and local residents. Environmental damage and farmland have indeed been reported. The filth created by the slicing of the slopes is poured directly into the waterways, causing significant damage to their quality of water and marine life. When the scale of the damage caused by the project began to become evident, some concerned residents lodged a lawsuit in court.
Eventually, the case went to the Supreme Court, which formed a High Powered Committee to investigate the matter, nominating the renowned environmentalist Ravi Chopra as its chairman. The court ordered the committee to ensure that the Chardham project complied with the conditions for resilient and secure infrastructure in the shallow valley of the region. After a comprehensive and thorough analysis of the issues, Ravi Chopra and a couple of his committee members recommended a 5.5-metre intermediate road width configuration as compared to a 10-metre double-lane paved shoulder model. By means of a circular released in 2018 by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, it initially proposed a 5.5-metre width for roads in the Himalayas. However, a majority of 22 of the 26 members of the committee, primarily government officials and workers, rejected Dr Chopra’s suggestion. They sent a different official draft to the Union Environment Ministry, which favours the creation of a double-lane paved shoulder.
However, Dr Chopra and the other three members who where independent experts and scientist stood up to their suggestion and oppose double lane project. They claim that this is the only feasible choice for the safety of the Himalayas. They demanded that this project be suspended until the ultimate decision on the lane width, which is now rendered to the Supreme Court, is taken. One of it’s excuses described in defence of the broader path is to encourage the quicker movement of troops, considering the potential Chinese threat at the border. However, landslides, as they often follow ecological disruptions triggered by the scheme, which create traffic jams for hours and days on such a stretch, can prove to be spoilers. The manner in which members of the High Powered Committee, who use their own entrenched interests, abuse their powers to follow a policy that is utterly contrary to the public interest, is reprehensible and threatens the authority of the Supreme Court. The Court must understand the flawed existence of the parallel study submitted by them as well as order the implementation of the Chairman’s suggestions so that the harm caused to the Himalayan ecosystem by the Chardham project can be alleviated.
Looking at the bigger framework, with the current Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the climate crisis — both considered to have a great impact on the local economy in the coming years. It seems reckless and unwise to privilege the needs of visitors and pilgrims over local economies and societies.
Development in the Himalayas is important to raise the standard of living and autonomy of its inhabitants, but in order to do so, the government should follow a collective strategy that also takes into account the traditional knowledge and methodologies and innovations of the people of the region. For instance, the improvement and enhancement of existing forms of transportation and transport by social transformation may be considered to enhance connectivity to various remote parts of the Himalayas. This could help to boost local economies by promoting and supporting regional economic development, while at the same time facilitating environmental protection.