The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would hear on May 14 a case relating to the widening of roads of Char Dham highway in Uttarakhand. A Bench comprising Justice Vineet Saran and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari posted the matter for Friday while observing that issue of widening of roads leading to the China border is of national importance. Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for Centre, contended that the government has said that the roads have to be constructed at a width of 7 meters.
The top court had in September 2020 had ordered that the road width on the entire Char Dham route cannot be more than 5.5 meters in view of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) own circular in 2018.
During the hearing, Attorney General told the apex court that Justice Rohinton F Nariman’s Bench had allowed 5.5 meters, but the MoRTH amended it, saying that the roads are being used for different purposes, going right up to the Chinese borders.
Asking the counsels in the case to give it all the relevant orders by today evening or by tomorrow morning, the Bench posted the plea of Centre for widening of roads for hearing on Friday. The case is related to the 900-km Char Dham highway project, which the government has said will improve access to four Hindu pilgrim sites in Uttarakhand.
NGO Citizens for Green Doon had approached the top court and raised environmental concerns regarding the Char Dham highway project. Citizens for Green Doon had approached the top court of the devastation caused to mountains as a result of violations of directions by authorities.
Earlier, the Central government while filing an affidavit in the case had urged the top court to accept the majority view of the High-Powered Committee, which has favored a 10-meter road width for the Rs.12,000-crore Char Dham highway project.
However, last year the top court had ordered that the road width on the entire Char Dham route cannot be more than 5.5 meters in view of MoRTH’s own circular in 2018. Subsequently, the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) had moved the apex court and sought modification of its order and sought widening of the road in the border areas and completion of Char Dham road project in Uttarakhand with originally specified width of the road.
The Chairman of the High-Power Committee had in a minority report flagged widening of roads under the Char Dham project, which touches sensitive borders with China. Ministry of Defence had said given the present situation, quick movement of men and machinery would be of paramount importance and require wide roads.
The top court by its September 2020 order had directed the Centre to comply with the 2018 circular of MoRTH on the aspect of the width of the road while constructing Char Dham national highway and also asked the Centre to do plantation activity to compensate for the loss of forest area due to construction.
Char Dham Project is a project to widen nearly 900 kilometers of hill roads to improve access to pilgrimage spots in Uttarakhand. As per MoRTH 2018 circular, the intermediate carriageway of a 5.5-meter tarred surface is adopted for hilly terrain. The Centre had sought top court permission to make it 7 meters but the court had refused to say that the government can’t violate its circular.
Later, one report with the signatures of four members of the 26-member committee, including chairperson Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and former director of the Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute, recommends that the Supreme Court take the final call on road width while suggesting an intermediate width of 5.5 meters. It cited a circular issued by the Union road transport ministry in 2018.
The other report has the signatures of 21 members and suggests the government stick to the project’s present design and roads all along the highway be expanded to double lanes as planned. The government’s own MoRTH, had in March 2018, recommended against ‘double laning and paved shoulders’ in hilly terrain and recommended a narrower intermediate road width.