New Delhi: The controversy surrounding the Rs 12,000-crore Char Dham project, aimed at improving road connectivity to the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, refuses to die, with the Supreme Court now taking a suo moto (on its own) cognisance in the matter.
This threatens to delay the implementation of the highway project further at a time the government is focussing on bolstering border infrastructure.
The apex court has on 14 October taken suo moto cognisance of a letter written by Ravi Chopra, chairman of an SC-appointed high-powered committee (HPC), to the registrar general on 5 October in which he cited flouting of the apex court’s 8 September order by the Union highways ministry.
A bench led by Justice R.F. Nariman is expected to hold a hearing on Chopra’s letter on 26 October.
The SC had on 8 September ordered that the road width on the entire Char Dham route, which falls in the ecologically fragile Himalayan region, should be 5.5 metres, according to the standards laid down by the highway ministry’s March 2018 circular. This was also recommended by the high-powered committee.
The highways ministry had earlier followed its 2012 order, according to which, the road width of a two-lane road with paved shoulder was fixed at 10 metres.
The court had also directed that on stretches where excess hill-cutting has been done, the ministry will have to take mitigation measures like planting trees to protect the Himalayan terrain and provide a footpath for padyatris and local people as per the recommendation of the court-appointed committee.
The first deadline to complete the Char Dham project was March 2019. This was subsequently extended to March 2020, which the ministry has missed.
Dilemma of highways ministry
The highways ministry is, however, facing a dilemma.
Of the total 816-km stretch of the Char Dham route that is being expanded, the ministry has already done hill-cutting for building 10 metres wide road for 537-km stretch. It has already completed construction on a 365-km stretch.
Ministry sources told ThePrint that it will now be unfeasible to undo the construction of the tarred surface to reduce its width from 10 metres to 5.5 metres.
“Tell us if it’s practical? So much money has already been spent to lay the bituminous road,” said an official, who did not want to be quoted as the matter is sub-judice.
The official, however, added that in the remaining stretch where work has not started as yet, the road width will be limited to 5.5 metres.
In his 5 October letter to the registrar general, Chopra has said that the chief engineer in-charge of the Char Dham Pariyojana had informed him over phone that the highways ministry was adhering to the 2012 circular of 10 metres road width on stretches where hill-cutting had been done already.
The high-powered committee had also directed that no new hill-cutting should be done in the ongoing/proposed projects until the panel reviews the Rapid Environment Impact Assessment report.
But Chopra in his letter, a copy which has been accessed by ThePrint, said he has received an email from Char Dham project’s chief engineer stating that “suspending the hill-cutting could lead to contractual disputes in the absence of directions from a fully-functional HPC”.
The 18-member HPC did not have a member secretary until last week. It also does not have any office yet.
‘Will abide by the Supreme Court order’
Chopra’s letter further stated that the HPC should be made functional at the earliest possible and all assistance be provided to it with fullest cooperation from all the government agencies to comply with the Supreme Court’s orders.
Giridhar Aramane, Union highways secretary, told ThePrint: “We will abide by the Supreme Court order. We are requesting the HPC to convene its meeting so that we can proceed with the work.”
Chopra told ThePrint: “We can only convene a meeting once the highways ministry sends us a detailed work plan on how they intend to bring the entire project in conformity with the intermediate lane standard of 5.5 metre width, as per the ministry’s 2018 circular. Without a detailed plan what is the HPC going to review?”.
He said the SC’s order is very clear. “The road ministry will have to adhere to the 5.5 metre width on the entire route of the project. There is no room for any doubt.”
The HPC chairman also said he had asked for a complete list of vulnerable slopes and muck dumps with work plans for their sustainable rehabilitation. “The ministry has submitted an incomplete list,” he added.