The road to a Himalayan blunder

News: The Char Dham road expansion project, to be executed by Min of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), was inaugurated in 2016.

In 2018, it was challenged by an NGO for its potential impact on the Himalayan ecology.

The Supreme Court (SC), in 2020, after consultation with the high-powered committee (HPC) and on the basis of MoRTH guidelines, said that the width of the roads cannot exceed 5.5 m.

Must Read: Green and secure: Char Dham Highway project must see government and environmentalists work together

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) filed an appeal for a double-lane road with an even higher road width to meet the requirement of the army.

Subsequently, Min of Road Transport and highways (MoRTH) amended its 2018 circular and raised the 5.5m width limit to 10m.

The case is in SC.

If the government does not desist from widening the roads under this project, it will be a Himalayan blunder.

What are the stances taken by the govt and the petitioners in this case?

Govt argues that wide roads are necessary for the sake of national security in the Garhwal region.

The petitioners, residents of the valleys in the Garhwal region, stress on the need for a regulated and narrower intermediate road width with a walking footpath.

What is the purpose of Char dham project?

Char Dham road project aims to provide all-weather connectivity to the four major shrines of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

It was envisioned that providing infrastructural support will increase pilgrimage tourism from the Indian plains and provide local economic dividends.

However, in the process to boost economy, the government has ignored the ill effects of rampant construction on the fragile Himalayan range.

Why broader roads are not safe in Uttarakhand Himalayas?

Terrain of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand is different from the terrain in Ladakh: Valleys in Uttarakhand are narrow and close-ended with steep slopes of 60-70 degrees. On the other hand, the valleys in Ladakh have a slope elevation of 30 degrees.

Uttarakhand Himalayas is prone to frequent disasters. For instance, recent floods in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda rivers claimed over 200 lives.

Will increase man-made disasters: It will significantly reinforce mass wasting processes and erosion rates given the steepness of the slopes, earthquake activity and erosivity of increased monsoonal precipitation. For instance, during the monsoons, owing to the massive hill-cutting for the Char Dham road project, several landslides have occurred in the region.

Hence, the unique Himalayan landscape with steep slopes and sharp gradients is not amenable to human engineering.

What is the way forward?

– Disaster-resilient, safe and stable infrastructure is the only solution for commuting by road in the hills.

– Minimum human-induced disturbances: Any human-induced change beyond the Himalayas’ carrying capacity will have an impact on stream run-offs and erosional or depositional processes. Considering such vulnerabilities, we need to keep the scale of human-induced disturbances to the minimum level possible.

Source: This post is based on the article “The road to a Himalayan blunder” published in The Hindu on 24th November 2021.

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