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In 31 months, Modi govt has completed just 1.1 km of work on Char Dham highway project

The Char Dham road project, involving expansion of the 889-km highway into a two-lane stretch, is set to miss its second deadline of March 2020.

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New Delhi: A Modi government project to expand an 889-km highway connecting the char dhams, the four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand sacred to Hindus, is trudging along at a pace of just over 425 metres a year, ThePrint has learnt.

Since the project was launched by PM Modi in December 2016, only 1.1 km of the network has been two-laned, with government officials citing delayed tree-felling clearances from BJP-ruled Uttarakhand among the reasons.

The existing 889-km single-lane highway provides connectivity between Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. 

Map by Arindam Mukherjee | ThePrint

Under the Char Dham project, the highway will be expanded by up to 10 metres to two lanes for all-weather connectivity to the four towns. A stretch of the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage route will also be developed as part of the project.

The 889-km project has been broken up into 53 packages, of which work is underway in 34 packages spanning 589 km. The others are in different stages of initiation, but remain stalled amid a Supreme Court stay. Among these, tendering has been completed in six packages, while detailed project reports are being readied in 13. 

The first deadline to complete the Rs 11,700 crore project, which has been mired in litigation over forest and environment clearance, was March 2019. This was subsequently extended to March 2020. 

However, officials of the Union Road Transport and Highways Ministry say the date will have to be extended again given the current pace of work.

A ministry official said work had so far only been completed in two packages spanning 1.1 km, at an estimated cost of Rs 141 crore. At this pace, the official added, there was no way the project could be completed by March 2020.

“The completion date will have to be extended,” the official added.

An official of the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) involved with the project attributed the delay to the Uttarakhand forest department. 

“The Uttarakhand forest department is reluctant to give permission for felling trees and provide a muck disposal site for the ongoing projects,” the official said. “This has slowed down work.” 

However, Jai Raj, the Uttarakhand principal chief conservator of forest, defended the state forest department. 

“If there is litigation involved, we can’t do much,” Raj added. “We are all for development.” 

While the case is subjudice, the Supreme Court had this January allowed work to continue on the 34 packages where expansion had begun. The other packages remain under a stay until further orders.

Meanwhile, a 94-km stretch of the highway between Dharasu and Gangotri section, which falls under the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, is stuck because the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) has yet to approve the road transport ministry’s master plan. 

“Because the stretch falls under the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone, we had to prepare a master plan and get it approved,” a second road transport and highways ministry official said. “The ministry submitted a revised master plan to the MoEF in July 2018. It has been pending with the MoEF since then.” 

ThePrint tried to get a response from the MoEF but Union Environment Secretary C.K. Mishra was not available for comment, while Siddhanta Das, director general of forests in the ministry, did not respond to queries sent through email. 


Also read: Modi govt’s ‘Char Dham’ project in Uttarakhand gets an African facelift, except it’s not real


Locked in litigation since 2018 

The Char Dham project was first taken to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February 2018 by the Dehradun-based NGO Citizens for Green Doon, which alleged that over 25,000 trees had been felled for it in violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1970. 

The highways ministry, the NGO added, had not got an environment impact assessment (EIA) done for the project either.  

The ministry, in turn, cited a 2013 notification of its own that exempts highway expansion projects of up to 100km in length or 40 metres in width from EIAs. 

None of the 53 packages into which the expansion project had been divided, the ministry argued, exceeded this threshold. 

In September 2018, the NGT gave its go-ahead to the government on the ground that work on a project of public interest could not be stopped if appropriate safeguards are in place. 

The NGO challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which, as stated earlier, allowed ongoing work to continue even as it stayed, until further orders, packages where the expansion was yet to begin. 

“There is a lot of uncertainty as the apex court is yet to give its full order,” an Uttarakhand government official told ThePrint. 


Also read: Uttarakhand could see catastrophic floods if global warming targets are not met


 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I am so relieved to read this. These fragile hills are ecologically not designed for the autobahns Minister Nitin Gadkari is determined to endow India with.

  2. Some people are worried about infrastructure for Char Dham. Some people are worried about employment. Some are worried about economy itself. Meeting everyone’s exception is challenge indeed. Better to focus Indo-Pak issues.

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