The National Green Tribunal has directed the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to file a detailed statement on the status of the Chardham highway project which aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four holy towns of Uttarakhand.
A bench headed by Acting Chairperson Justice Jawad Rahim asked the ministry to file an affidavit by May 28 giving details of the ongoing work and inform it about the areas where the work has not commenced yet. The project aims to connect Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri in Uttarakhand.
The green panel also directed the ministry to clarify its stand on the issue of obtaining environment clearance under the Environmental Impact Assessment notification along with other approvals. During the hearing, Additional Solicitor General A N S Nadkarni said the Chardham highway project was of national importance having regard to the fact that these are border areas.
"Expansion of roads is required in larger national interest and there cannot be any compromise on this. The project also involves greater public interest of facilitating the Chardham yatra," the ASG said.
The submission was opposed by advocate Sanjay Parikh, representing the petitioners Citizens of Green Doon, saying environment clearance was must for the project and the ongoing work was "blatantly illegal". He said the trees and mountains are also of national importance and it is the government's duty to protect and preserve them.
The Environment Ministry had earlier informed the NGT that it has received no proposal for environmental clearance of the project and hence the question of an environment impact assessment (EIA) study of such a project does not arise.
The ministry also said that under the 2006 EIA notification, only new national highways and expansion of highways over 100 kms need to get prior environmental clearance. The submission was made in response to a plea which said that the 900 km project in the hilly state was being carried out without any environment impact assessment.
The petition also contended that the Centre has allegedly deliberately broken it into small stretches to do away the requirement for obtaining environment clearance. The tribunal had earlier rapped the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for failing to submit a plan for disposal of muck from the highway project. The NGO had sought a stay on the Chardham project and directions to identify stretches of highways where landslides were likely to occur due to recent cutting of trees. It had alleged that the road widening work to connect Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri in Uttarakhand was being carried out in violation of environmental laws.
"The Chardham project involves excavating and cutting away the base of the steep mountain slopes, cutting. of thousands of valuable trees and thus further destabilising the mountains and in fact turning the entire area into an active landslide zone.
"It is pertinent to mention that not only will this block traffic and disrupt local life and tourist inflow greatly but in every monsoon, people will lose their lives when the landslides fall with even greater force," the plea had said, adding that the area fell in a highly seismic zone with a history of earthquakes.
The plea had claimed that there was no information published for any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regarding this project and it was nowhere found in the public domain whether the EIA of this 900-km massive project, costing around Rs 12,000 crore, was conducted or not.
"The applicants came to know about the execution of this project after massive cutting of trees on the different segments of this Chardham route (Rishikesh to Gangotri, Dharasu to Yamunotri, Rishikesh to Kedarnath and Badrinath) which recently started in the month of December, 2017," the plea had said.
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It has been claimed in the petition that these Stage I and II forest clearance approvals were granted segment-wise and the number of trees in the forests to be cut were not declared for the entire project. Instead, the project has been divided into numbers of segments for granting of approvals.
The tribunal had last year disposed a similar plea challenging the project after Border Roads Organisation (BRO) assured the NGT that they would carry out the project after due compliance with the laws, especially the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone notification of December 18, 2012.