Char Dham Pariyojana: HPC report says socio-cultural concern, innovative thought 'largely missing'

The report which was submitted to various union ministries and the apex court last week pointed out lack of efforts to minimize the loss of forests, trees and green cover.
A tractor trolley dumping road construction material into the river Mandakini near Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand | Express Photo Services
A tractor trolley dumping road construction material into the river Mandakini near Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand | Express Photo Services

DEHRADUN: Final Report of High Powered Committee appointed by Supreme Court of India has concluded that socio-cultural concerns are not integrated and innovative thought and practice 'largely missing' in the Char Dham Pariyojana.

The report which was submitted to various union ministries and the apex court last week pointing out lack of efforts to minimize the loss of forests, trees and green cover stated, "Though the Char Dham tourism circuit is promoted as religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the widened highways have no footpaths for the devout padyatris, who undertake the devotional form of the yatra, as well as for the local pedestrians."

The committee was constituted by the Supreme Court in August 2019 under the chairmanship of eminent environmentalist Ravi Chopra. 

Interestingly, the HPC was devided on some issues including road widening leading to submission of two different reports to union ministry of environment, forest and climate change. 

One was lead by Chairman Ravi Chopra, the minority group of four including geologist Navin Juyal, social expert Hemant Dhyani and wildlife scientist S Sathyakumar had submitted a separate report to the ministry while 21 other members of the committee had submitted their own report.

The findings of the minority has lashed out at the project pointing out various short comings. 

The 889 km road widening project worth Rs 12,000 Crore connecting four revered shrines- Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri is a dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Outlining the fact that the transportation and communications revolution of the 21st century has brought mass tourism to the Char Dham yatra which generates variety of employment for different sections of the society, the report observed that mass tourism can also overwhelm sacred pilgrimages, undermine the sanctity of the region and seriously damage the environment. 

Urging that lessons need to be learnt from major disasters in 2004, 2010 and 2013 that affected the operation of the Char Dham highways, the report said that there is an urgent need for a comprehensive study of the carrying capacities of the Char Dham locales. 

Recognizing the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic could completely alter the nature of worship at the Char Dhams, the report asserts that disaster management plans are required for all the Char Dham locales, particularly marking safe mass evacuation routes in the last stretches. 

"All the four shrines are located in the high seismic risk Zone V and in the paraglacial region. These terrain boundary conditions constrain infrastructure development around the shrines," the report said. 

The report pointed out that a major impact of the Char Dham Pariyojana is the decrease in forest resources and green cover in Uttarakhand. Stating that so far permission has been granted for diverting 689.23 hectare of forest land for 30 projects, 10,21,737 saplings have also been planted on 679.11 hectare which is almost double the required number.

Uttarakhand state forest department has already prepared a draft action plan for afforestation and soil conservation works as a mitigation exercise, the report revealed. 

The report lashed out at ignorance of agencies involved in the project mentioning that in the process other aspects like the use of valley side filling, adequate slope protection, provisioning of tunnels, viaducts and snow galleries taking due cognizance of terrain fragility, especially slope vulnerability, ecological sensitivity and social concerns have received little attention. 

"The CD Pariyojana is being implemented primarily as an engineering exercise with little concern for the air, water and noise pollution. The environmental quality monitoring data gathering procedures lack a systematic approach. Since the protocols for gathering the data have not been cited, its scientific validity is limited. Without any pre-project environmental quality data, it is not possible to assess the level of environmental degradation caused by the Pariyojana. Overall, the presentation of the data also creates doubts about its credibility. The entire exercise reflects a casual approach to environmental quality monitoring by  the concerned agencies, including MoRTH (union ministry of road transport and highways)," the report added. 

The report by the committee further stated that the fact that the entire project routes lie in close proximity to areas with high biodiversity and wildlife conservation values which has not been recognized while planning the Pariyojana. 

Pointing out the need to monitor traffic pollution impacts in the 'Higher Himalayan', the committee advocates setting up of continuous ambient air quality monitoring stations at the Char Dham locales and develop as well as maintain diversion routes at known landslides-prone stretches using innovative technologies like snow galleries that smoothen traffic flow, rather than just relying on snow removal. 

Warning that the the CD Pariyojana routes lie in the state’s most geologically fragile, seismically active and ecologically sensitive regions, the report said that changing weather patterns due to global warming may exacerbate these vulnerabilities in the near future.

The committee in its final report also revealed that muck dumping at unauthorized sites has severely degraded riverine vegetation that cannot be regenerated at any other type of habitats. This has affected the biota of mountain streams and rivers and may force resident small fauna, primates, wild pigs, porcupines and snakes into the nearby trees and human settlements contributing to human-animal conflict.

The net result of the faulty present approach is that many MDSs are likely to become hazards for the nearby society and ecology in the coming monsoon season unless immediate remedial action is taken. 

Advising that there is a need for flexibility in deciding road geometrics in fragile terrains or vulnerable stretches, or in response to conserving sensitive and precious ecologies and social conditions while road widening, the report pointed out that the focus of the road widening work has been on hill cutting to the neglect of adequate protection of the fresh cut slopes. 

"Insufficient prior geological, geohydrological and geotechnical investigations of weak slopes/zones led to ineffective protection measures," said the report while adding that this practice has led to a large number of slope failures while cutting and later, causing a number of deaths and injuries to road users and labourers, besides the usual attendant consequences of serious landslide mishaps. 

Suggestions by the committee in the report includes detailed and comprehensive geological, geophysical and geotechnical investigations and to consider ways of minimizing the anticipated economic impacts on the affected communities.

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