The Supreme Court has cleared the way for widening of roads as part of the Char Dham project, agreeing with the government’s arguments that wider roads in the area were of strategic importance.
Border security concerns need to be met and movement of troops and equipment is needed, given “serious challenges to national security” in the recent past, the top court said Tuesday morning.
The Defence Ministry is a specialised body and can decide its operation requirements, a three-member bench of Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Surya Kant, and Justice Vikram Nath said.
Armed forces’ infrastructure needs have to be met to safeguard borders, and highways that are of strategic importance cannot be treated the same way as those in other hilly terrains, the court said.
However, the court also acknowledged the petitioner’s environmental concerns, and said it was forming an oversight committee to be headed by a former judge of the top court – Justice AK Sikri.
This committee – which will report to the Supreme Court every four months on the project’s progress will also have representatives from the National Environmental Research Institute and the Forest Research Institute of Dehradun. Its objective is to ensure implementation of existing recommendations.
Last month the court said the issue – concern for the environment vs felling of trees to widen roads – was ‘nuanced’. The needs of the environment and that of defence have to be balanced, the court said.
The 899-km highways project in an ecologically sensitive area of Uttarakhand – which has seen a worrying number of landslides and floods – will involve the cutting of trees to widen roads that will ultimately connect the four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The road-widening was challenged by Citizens for Green Doon, a local NGO that red-flagged immeasurable destruction to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.
The government, however, had said widening of roads in the area was necessary because they were ‘feeder’ roads accessing those on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.
Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the government, said: “… our Brahmos missile is 42 feet long and (the Army) needs large vehicles to carry its launchers. If the Army cannot move its missile launchers to the northern China border, then how will it fight a war, if it breaks out?”
The petitioner, however, had argued the Army never sought widening of roads.
“Someone high up in political power wanted highways on the Char Dham yatra. And the Army then became a reluctant participant,” the petitioner told the Supreme Court, clarifying that it was not saying the needs of the environment trumped that of the defence of the nation.