The Central government today told the Supreme Court that there was no connection between the massive ongoing Char Dham road-widening project and the glacier burst earlier this month that resulted in the death of a number of people in Uttarakhand.
Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the Defence Ministry, today sought time to respond to an allegation by the chief of an expert committee appointed by the court drawing a link between the two.
"We received a letter from the Chairman of the High-Powered Panel saying there is a link between the road widening and the Uttarakhand disaster. But according to us, Defence Ministry, there is no such connection. We want to reply to the allegations and need time," he said.
A bench of Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, Hemant Gupta, and BR Gavai today granted two weeks to the government to come up with a response.
A glacier burst in the upper Himalayas on February 7 led to massive flash floods in the Alakananda-Dhauliganga river systems in Uttarakhand, leading to the deaths of over 50 people, with around 150 still missing. Environmentalists have sought to connect this with the massive developmental projects going on in the ecologically sensitive region over the past few years.
Ravi Chopra, one such expert, heads the Supreme Court-appointed panel that is monitoring the 900 kilometre Char Dham highway project that aims to connect four Hindu holy towns of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath in Uttarakhand. Besides being a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Rs 12,000 crore mission is also deemed strategically important.
In a letter dated February 13, Mr Chopra wrote to the court saying that an earlier report submitted by him and two other members of the panel had strongly argued that disaster resilience was more critical than simply wide highways.
"Several chronic landslide-prone locations and stretches, where the slope stability is precarious, exist on the three Char Dham highways identified by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as defence feeder roads," he wrote. "The recent disaster in the Rishi Ganga valley is located in the region north...highly prone to landslides, flash floods and earthquake. A section of the defence road to the Indo-China border and a bridge across the Rishiganga river on that road have been swept away, lending credence to our argument for disaster resilience in the region."
He emphasised against ignoring and overriding "the profound and irreversible ecological damage to the Himalayas" that will impact generations to come.
Planned as a 10-metre wide highway project, the Supreme Court last year ordered that it can only be 5.5 metres wide.
The Defence Ministry, citing security concerns, then petitioned the court to allow the widening of the road to 10 metres. Of the 26 members of the court-appointed panel, 21 are in favour of widening, which, the proponents say, will help in the movement of the armed forces along the Indo-China border and will ensure better amenities for the locals.
Mr Chopra, chief of the panel, has himself been against the widening of the roads. The Centre, meanwhile, wants the court to accept the report submitted by the panel.