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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Char Dham road development: Why SC legitimizing such PILs by NGOs is dangerous

PIL (Public Interest Litigation) has become a tool to block development and the SC admitting them for hearing thereby legitimizing them is emboldening NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) to file PILs even in issues of strategic importance like the one on Chardham road development.

What is the PIL about?

A PIL by the NGO Citizens for Green Doon questions the widening of roads connecting the four pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath that would also provide an all-weather road to both the pilgrims and the army.

The Char Dham highway project is a road-widening project currently underway in the state of Uttarakhand. Under this project, roads are to be widened up to the Indo-China border and it is being done under the supervision of a high-powered committee that has been set up under the directions of the apex court. Despite this, NGOs have been raising objections to the project citing the fragile ecosystem.

Advocate Colin Gonsalves who appeared on behalf of the NGO told the SC bench “The Army has never said we want these wide roads. Someone high up in political power said we want highways on the Char Dham yatra. The Army reluctantly went along”. Gonsalves was countering the Centre’s contention that widening of the Char Dham road was essential for the army in view of the Chinese threat at the Indo-China border.

Gonsalves cited massive landslides and added that the central government was using the army as an excuse as the highway was actually for the prestigious Char Dham project. Interestingly, when Justice Surya Kant brought up the issue of Chinese developmental activities across the border and raised questions regarding the condition of the Himalayas there, Gonsalves simply said that the Chinese government has never been known for protecting the environment.

The Wire has downplayed the Chinese threat and says in its opening argument that the project is all about scoring political brownie points. It reads:

The argument made in the Supreme Court this week is not really about the defence of India’s borders, but the government’s ability to score political points by enlarging the existing roads to the four holy towns of the region – Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, all in Uttarakhand. In other words, the government is invoking the holy mantra of “national security” to overcome the apex court’s September 2020 order limiting the width of the carriageway to 5.5 metres.

It must be pointed out that the high-powered committee is said to have submitted a majority and minority report in the matter. “In its report to the SC, the high-powered committee presented a divided opinion with the majority in favor of the wider roads on the Char Dham route, considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs. The minority group comprised high-powered committee chairman Ravi Chopra, who is a noted environmentalist, and two other members, however, expressed their dissent and maintained that the road width should be restricted to 5.5 m”, says Live Law.

The project

The nomenclature of the Char Dham project is misleading, to say the least. It is a 900 km all-weather road of which the Char Dham constitutes only 150 km. The project is not just about providing motorable roads to the pilgrims but also about ensuring connectivity all through the year right up to the border so that the army can travel easily. Environmental concerns need to be taken care of but the country’s security should never be compromised.

To be fair, the apex court appears to have taken cognizance of the Chinese threat as Justice Chandrachud questioned Gonsalves “but you have an adversary (China) who has developed infrastructure up to that hilt on the other side of the border”? However, there is an urgent need to get rid of the PIL culture that often tends to hamper rather than help.

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