NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday asked the parties to file their replies or objections, if any, on the report filed by the high-powered committee, monitoring the Chardham highway project on the widening of the roads up to Indo-China border in Uttarakhand.
The strategic 900-km Chardham highway project aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four holy towns -- Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath -- in Uttarakhand.
The Centre has urged the top court to accept the majority report of 21-members of the high powered committee recommending the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders (10 metre wide carriageway) considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.
A bench of Justices R F Nariman, K M Joseph and Ajay Rastogi posted the matter for further hearing on January 27, after senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for an NGO, said that he needs to file reply/additional documents with regard to the report.
The Centre in its affidavit has said that pursuant to the direction of the court on December 2, last year, the High Powered Committee (HPC) met on December 15-16, 2020, and deliberated on the issue of width of the road.
It said that the report was submitted to the top court on December 31.
"That the report of HPC is again split primarily on the issue of the width of the road, with 21 members (16 members plus co-opted members) recommending the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders (10 metre wide carriageway) considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs, as per the provisions of Indian Road Congress: 52-2019 as well as the modified circular dated December 15, 2020 issued by MoRTH, with proper safeguards for landslides control measures.," the affidavit said.
It said that three members including the chairman Ravi Chopra (minority report) is still impressing upon the width of 5.5 metres as provided under the earlier circular dated March 23, 2018 issued by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), notwithstanding the security needs of the country and the need of the defence forces to resist external aggression, if any, as the Indo-China border.
"It is respectfully submitted that the majority report has taken a holistic view of the matter keeping in mind the social, economic and strategic needs of the country on the one hand and protecting the environment on the other," the Centre said.
It added that the project proponent is duty bound to minimize the adverse impact of the Chardham project on environment as well as the social life and bring the project in conformity with the steep valley terrain, carrying capacity and avoiding any triggering of new landslides, ensuring conservation and protection of sensitive Himalayan valleys.
"It is therefore respectfully prayed that the recommendation as contained in the 'majority report' of the high powered committee, may be accepted by this court. The project proponent/MoRTH is further duty bound to implement any orders/directions that may be passed by this court in this regard," the Centre said.
The government said that the majority report has accepted the circular dated December 15, 2020, issued by MoRTH in modification of its earlier circular dated March 23, 2018.
It said that the March 23, 2018 circular, which provides for Standards for lane width of National Highways and roads developed under Central Sector Schemes in Hilly and Mountainous Terrains, was general in nature and applicable to all the hilly areas of the country.
"The same did not have in mind the strategic requirement for movement of military vehicles with heavy equipment especially in the Himalayan region leading to international borders (IBs) and Line of Actual Control (LAC) as well as for roads identified as economic corridors," the affidavit said.
It said that considering the peculiarities of the Himalayan region in Uttarakhand and the strategic importance of roads/Highways in the region from the perspective of defence and national security, the MoRTH modified the 2018 circular vide a circular dated December 15, 2020 with some additional guidelines.
It added that the majority report has said, "Therefore, the modified circular dated December 15, 2020 to ensure wider roads to ease movement of our military forces and local communities is recommended to be adopted."
On December 2, last year, the top court had asked its high-powered committee, monitoring the Chardham highway project, to consider within two weeks the applications including that of the Ministry of Defence seeking widening of roads up to 7 metres in the Indo-China Border area.
Earlier, the Ministry of Defence has sought modification of the top court's September 8, last year order which asked the MoRTH to follow the 2018 circular stipulating carriageway width of 5.5 metre, citing the prevailing situation on Indo-China border points.
The top court had noted in its September 8, last year order that the majority of 13 members of the high-powered committee was in favour of applying MoRTH circular of 2012 which had laid down a certain standard.
In August, 2019, the apex court had cleared the decks for the Chardham highway project by modifying an National Green Tribunal order to constitute a high-powered committee to look into environmental concerns.
It had said that the high-powered committee shall consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the entire Himalayan valley, besides other things.