SC asks Char Dham panel to discuss Defence Ministry plea

The Ministry had said that narrowing the feeder roads along the Indo-China border in Uttarakhand will cause ‘serious repercussions’ to national security and urgent troop mobilisations.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Char Dham High-Powered Committee (HPC) to meet “immediately” and discuss a plea made by the Ministry of Defence that narrowing the feeder roads along the Indo-China border in Uttarakhand will cause “serious repercussions” to national security and urgent troop mobilisations.

A Bench led by Justice Rohinton Nariman asked the HPC to meet within two weeks and submit a report on the minutes of their meeting to the Supreme Court and supply copies to the Ministries of Defence and Roads and Highways.

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The Centre asked the court to modify its September 8 order to reduce the width of Char Dham roads to 5.5 m from 12 m to protect the ecologically fragile Himalayan slopes. The court had ordered the Centre to plant trees in “right earnest” to recover the green cover “devastated” by construction. The roads’ project includes the developing highways in Uttarakhand to improve access to the Char Dham (four shrines) — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

‘Wilful non-compliance’

Recently, HPC chairman Ravi Chopra had written to the court about the Centre’s “wilful non-compliance” to comply with the September 8 order against building full-fledged roads cutting across the fragile Himalayan slopes.

On November 27, the Centre filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, saying the “situation on the ground has changed significantly” since September 8. It urged the court to modify the order. It asked the court to allow feeder national highways from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tarakpur to Pithoragarh, which leads up to the northern border with China, to be developed as two-lane configurations for the sake of “defence of the country”.

The Centre said hill-cutting of 12 m formation has to be done to accommodate double laning of these feeder roads to gain a width of seven metres’ width.

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In its affidavit, the Centre said a double lane road with a width of 7 to 7.5 metre was necessary to meet the Army’s requirement. Heavy trucks carrying troops, equipment and armaments could not be stuck on blocked feeder roads leading to a border which ran to 385 km in Uttarakhand.

The terrain was hilly, mountainous. Quick mobilisation would need motorable and all-weather roads. There was an absolute necessity to be not “overtaken” by enemy movements, the Ministry of Defence explained.

Bottlenecks would delay deployment in emergency situations if feeder roads are not developed to requisite standards. The Army has been using these roads post the war with China in 1962.

The affidavit referred to a “recent face-off” with Nepal in Lipulekh side in 2020, saying all these sectors were “highly sensitive”.

Prior to the September 8 order of the Supreme Court, the Defence Ministry said, work was on to upgrade the double laning of the three feeder roads.

The Bench has scheduled the next hearing in the third week of January 2021.


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