The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Centre to widen three strategic roads, part of the Chardham project in Uttarakhand, saying that need for its development was proportionate to the object of fulfilling the security concerns of the nation.
The three national highways — Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh — act as feeder roads to the northern border with China. The Char Dham project is a massive 889 km-construction in Uttarakhand, linking the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri. The project includes construction of new roads as well as widening the already existing roads.
Allowing construction of 10-m wide in accordance with the Double Lane with Paved Shoulder (DLPS) system in the border state, a bench led by Justice D Y Chandrachud said that “this court in judicial review cannot second-guess the infrastructural needs of the armed forces.”
The Centre had amended its 2018 notification in December last year to increase road width limit from 5.5 m to 10 m.
The top court modified its September 2020 earlier order passed by another Bench presided over by Justice R F Nariman (now retired) to the extent that the three national highways be developed according to the double-lane carriageway width with paved shoulder standard as provided in the 2020 Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) circular.
“We must arrive at a delicate balance of environmental considerations such that they do not impede infrastructural development, specifically in areas of strategic importance crucial to the security of the nation,” it said.
The apex court, however, formed an oversight committee headed by former SC judge, A K Sikri to ensure implementation of High Powered Committee (HPC) to address environmental concerns of the project. The committee will oversee implementation of environmental safeguards for the strategic roads without going for a fresh environmental assessment.
The judges said that that the need for roads and highways to transport troops and material is different for plains and mountains, pointing out that it was best for armed forces to decide the same.
In August 2019, the court had ordered the constitution of the High-Powered Committee (HPC) to assess the impact of the Chardham project on the Himalayan region. In July 2020, the HPC delivered a report, where a majority of the members recommended the adoption of a double lane-paved shoulder standard road-width for the project. While stating that a majority of the HPC had recommended DLPS-standard road width for the highways, the court said the panel had also unanimously suggested “best practices” and remedial measures to protect the ecology from harm, especially in “areas of concern”.
The top court judgment came on a plea by NGO Citizen for Green Doon and others citing environmental hazards associated with widening of the roads in the Himalayan region. It had argued that the Himalayas may not be able to withstand widening of the roads by 10 mtr and mishaps like landslides tend to occur more frequently in mountainous regions with broader roads.