Char Dham road project should limit damage to Himalayan ecology

char dham road project and himalayan ecology
Large-scale construction by the strategically important Char Dham road project is causing irreparable damage to the fragile Himalayan ecology and could have disastrous consequences.

On May 29, 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed the world’s highest peak Mount Everest, newspapers around the globe titled the news Everest Conquest. Reading this news, the then Prime Minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, objected to this title and said it smacked of human arrogance. Perhaps, Nehru meant that it was impossible to conquer nature, but of course, you could fulfil your needs by coexisting with it. Human arrogance is at its peak in today’s development strategies. Policymakers and people think that they can conquer the nature using modern technology.

Char Dham road project  is one such project where heavy machinery has been extensively used to tame the Himalayan terrain. This is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme with a budget of Rs 12,000 crore to develop all-weather connectivity to four important pilgrim centres – Gangotri, Yamnotri, Badrinath, and Kedarnath. The same road goes towards Hemkund Sahab, the famous religious centre of Sikhs. It also serves as a border road along the Indo-Tibet border.

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Ecological impact of Char Dham road project

Geologists and scientists believe that it will be a canker on Uttarakhand for the next four decades. It will repeatedly show its impact in different ways — landslides, avalanches, flash floods, and cloud bursts. Its ill effect would continuously plague the Himalayas and its residents. Geologists, environmentalists, and social scientists have started raising their voices against the project from the day the information about this project became public. In this project, the main opposition point is the width of the project as it is proposed to widen the 887-kilometer road using the DLPS norms.

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The DLPS means double lane paved solder — two lanes of 5 meters wide and the one-meter footpath on both sides of the road. So, in total, it will be a 12-meter-wide road. Besides the width, many bridges and tunnels would be constructed to make it an easy road. With the strategic importance of the road, it is also claimed that this road will help troop movement with heavy machinery and equipment.

The road project has raised questions from day one. The first question was whether it was rational to widen the old road by spending Rs 12000 crore rather than to construct one more parallel road 40-50 kilometres away. A second road that could provide an alternate route in case of war and disaster. This road has strategic importance in addition to making travel accessible to Char Dham. The new route could bring prosperity to the state by developing new commercial centres, giving access to remote areas, creating new tourist destinations, and providing an alternative way in case of war and natural calamity.

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Supreme Court ruling on project

Environmentalists challenged the project in the Supreme Court, and one crucial question was the width of the road. The petitioner challenged the government’s claim that the army needed a 12-meter road (DLPS), whereas most border roads to other parts of the country are only seven-meter wide, single lane with one-meter paved solder on both sides. The petitioner objected that the consequences of cutting a fragile mountain like the Himalayas to 12 meters would be dangerous. It would also entail cutting a large number of trees. This fear has become reality with more than 56,000 trees axed.

Additionally, the large quantity of debris that would be generated needs proper disposal at landfill sites. In the aftermath of the Kedarnath disaster, the high-power committee constituted by the Supreme Court had highlighted the fact that debris generated during road construction and dam construction had multiplied the damage caused by the flash floods.

Experts continue to oppose the project, and the government keeps building the road, ignoring the opposition. Environmentalists counter the government’s claim that only 56,000 trees are axed, saying massive losses of vines, shrubs, and vegetation is not counted. The total loss of flora and fauna is difficult to quantify. According to a PIL filed in the Uttarakhand High Court, the debris collected during road construction has been dumped in the rivers in an unscientific manner.

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Mountains are being cut up to 90 degrees by giant machines. Nature has, to some extent, cleared the fallacy that man can master it. In 2020 August, the road was damaged by rain water at more than 100 places in Uttarakhand. Life had come to a standstill. The disaster at the Champawat district of Uttarakhand in October 2021 took 52 lives and swept away property worth millions of rupees. This year too, around 21 May, thousands of passengers were trapped due to falling stones and debris in many places on the Chardham yatra route. During such events, the government, its machinery, and technology become helpless.

Road construction is not the only cause of concern. Today, human arrogance is at its peak. The heavy construction in Kedarnath Dham is another cause of concern that the environmentalists and experts have raised for many years, especially after the Kedarnath disaster of 2013. Moreover, the construction of massive dams in the glacier-fed rivers like Ganga-Yamuna- Kali Ganga (Panchaeshwar Dam) could become a flashpoint for trouble.

The disaster of February 2021 that swept away more than 300 people and property worth millions of rupees resulted from the hydroelectric dam in the Dhauli Ganga, the upper stream of the Alaknanda River. According to the official statement of the Central Water Commission (CWC), the water level in the Dhauli Ganga river in Joshimath broke all records on 7 February 2021. The glacial outburst triggered an avalanche and deluge in the Alaknanda River system. The intensity of the river’s flow in such a short time was such that it swallowed everything that stood in its way. It should serve as a warning for policy makers.

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Fragile ecosystems in danger

These are policy-related issues where the government must take decisions. There are also behavioural issues such as irresponsible tourist travel through the Himalayas on big vehicles. This creates problems and damage flora and fauna on the route. It doesn’t need any in-depth investigation but is visible for naked eyes. The massive rush to Mount Everest and jamming the peak is a big cause of concern. Most mountaineers climb Mount Everest using technology to satisfy their ego. Excessive use of helicopters in Kedarnath, Hemkund Sahab, Mount Everest, and many other fragile ecosystems is a big problem now.

The government has started building a helipad at the Hemkund Sahab, which is about 4,632.96 m (15,200.00 ft) above sea level. Helipad at the Hemkund Shahab is the third in this area – there is one at Govind Ghat 5,997 ft, and another at Ghangaria (3,049 m). This area comes under Nandadevi BioSphere which is a world heritage site.

The world-famous Valley of Flowers is next to the Ghangaria and Hemkund Sahab. The area identified for making the helipad is where the blue poppy grows. This is where other than pilgrims, thousands of bird watchers, researchers, and nature lovers visit every year. It is home to some of the rarest flora and fauna. Environmentalists say even the sound of helicopters would disturb the ecology, nesting, hatching, and mating processes, affecting the regeneration of the flora and fauna.

According to media reports, 7 lakh people visited Kedarnath within 40 days of the opening of the Dham. In the last few years, the number of pilgrims has been increasing yearly in Kedarnath due to the interest shown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As a result, there were 5 km long jams on the roads. The pilgrims often had to stop at Gaurikund; more than 100 passengers died of heart attacks and other diseases. During May-June weekends, it became difficult for the authority to handle passenger arrangements. As the Char Dham yatra is open for almost six months, there is no reason for making a rush.

This is the height of human arrogance and ignorance. The destruction of nature has become synonymous with progress. It is worth noting that the destruction of nature is being done with the help of technology. The real reason for the destruction of nature and environment is man’s greed. The river has the first rights over its water. Still, most hydro projects, including a run of the river project, suck all the water and do not allow the flow of the minimum water in the river system which is mandatory.

As we cannot create water and soil, we need to protect and preserve them in whatever ways we can. The scorching heat wave in the northern part of the country is not a purely natural event, but is also the result of human greed. In Delhi, (the wire-May 24, 2022) the forest department of the Delhi government granted permission to cut 60,443 trees between 2015 and 2021.

The supreme court of India permitted to cut 11,000 trees from Ganeshpur in UP to Asharodi in Uttarakhand to make way for the Delhi-Dehradun expressway. It has a 20-kilometre stretch that goes through Rajaji national park. Many individuals and organizations like Friends of Himalaya, Citizens for Green Doon, and Student Federation of India (SFI) opposed it, but in vain. There is apathy towards such causes among the authorities as well as citizens.

Protecting the environment and nature is the duty of individuals and the society. Of course, people should put pressure on the authorities, but at the same time should also become responsible citizens to take care of the environment. Humans have destroyed nature by using technology. We must strive to protect it with the help of science and technology.

(Prem Bahukhandi is a Dehradun-based environmental researcher in Himalayan ecology.)

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Dr Prem Bahukhandi is a researcher with experience in varied fields such as environment, economy, and society. He is a trustee of Friends of Himalaya, a non-profit organisation based in Dehradun.