RUDRAPRAYAG (UTTARAKHAND): A tractor trolley laden with debris and sludge slowly reverses towards the edge of the under-construction highway from Rudraprayag to Kedarnath, before stopping to unload into the Mandakini river, about 10 feet below.
Further ahead, a dumper truck does the same, unloading construction material into the azure river in clear violation of the Uttarakhand High Court order of June 12 and a National Green Tribunal observation on May 29 to not dump debris from the construction of the Char Dham National Highway project.
The High Court had, in fact, ordered that all construction activity of road and dams be stopped at once until suitable disposal sites are identified and made operational.
“The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Uttarakhand Environment Protection & Pollution Control Board and Revenue Agencies, are directed to identify suitable muck disposal sites 500 meters away from the river banks for disposal of muck and excavated material,” the order stated.
“Till the disposal sites are identified and become operational, all construction activities or widening of roads on the river banks in the state shall remain stayed,” the court said. But all along the road from
Rudraprayag to Kedarnath, frenetic highway construction continues daily.
The court passed the order after several environmentalists, civil society groups and NGOs approached the court and the NGT expressing fear that the dumping of debris into the rivers could change their course, causing floods during the monsoon.
The 889-km Char Dham Highway, connecting Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, is part of the route leading to Kailash Mansarovar in China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of the project in December 2016 and construction started soon after. Modi himself is reportedly monitoring the progress of the project, signifying the importance the Centre is giving to it.
The target to complete the project is March 2020, but the government is pushing to finish a major portion before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, villagers and environmentalists are far from thrilled at this rapid development, given the debris from the work being dumped into the river.
“The Char Dham project is being carried out without studying the carrying capacity of the region which according to the disaster management authority falls in a zone that is highly seismic activity and landslide prone. According to estimates, just between Rishikesh and Srinagar (in Uttarakhand), about 19 million tonnes of waste will be generated. Keeping in mind terrain limitations and the fact that monsoon will begin soon, this muck is bound to reach the rivers,” said Hemant Dhyani, an environmentalist who works with a campaign called Ganga Avahan in Uttarakhand.
The project is also expected to result in cutting of over 30,000 trees, many of them hundreds of year old and revered by locals. Locals are also angry as they are losing their homes due to the project and complain that the number of trees being cut for the project is far higher than the official figures.
“The house that my family built and maintained over decades is being taken over for the highway project. Even if we get compensation where is the land available for us to buy? What happens to my family and our livelihood?” asked Basanti Lingwal, a villager at Banswada.
What bothers activists is that the project has been divided in 68 smaller projects, each less than 100 km and separated by 16 bypasses, in order to avoid the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for studying the impact of the project on the environment. Under the law, road projects below 100 km do not need EIA.