The hearing in the matter remained inconclusive. (File)

New Delhi:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre and an NGO to suggest additional safeguards which it could impose on implementing agencies of ambitious Chardham project if it allows the multi-thousand crore project to go on considering the huge ramification of the country’s defence needs.

The top court said that instead of saying additional safeguards should be put, it would like it to put in the court’s order the conditions, which the implementing agencies of the project would have to follow.

The Centre said that it has already done various studies, including geological surveys of the areas and has taken various steps to reduce incidents of landslides but it would not mind, if the court put additional safeguards.

The strategic 900-km-long project worth Rs 12,000 crore aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four holy towns — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — in Uttarakhand.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath clarified that it has not made up its mind on the dispute but the questions it is asking is just to elicit better response from the parties on the issue.

“We want to clarify that we have not made up our mind. We are open to the arguments. Whatever questions we are asking from the counsels is just to elicit better response,” it said at the outset.

The court is hearing the Centre’s plea seeking modification of the September 8, 2020 order, which had asked the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to follow the 2018 circular stipulating carriageway width of 5.5 metre on the ambitious Chardham highway project, which goes up to the China border.

The bench asked Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing the Centre and senior advocate Collin Gonsalves, appearing for an NGO “Citizens for Green Doon” to suggest what kind of additional safeguards the court can put, if it allows the Chardham project to go on with wider roads.

“We can put some restrictions in a limited manner. You should also reflect on what additional safeguards we can put on the implementing agencies like Border Road Organisation and Public Works Department (PWD). These agencies will ensure compliance of the safeguards which will take care of the concerns mentioned in the majority report of the High Powered Committee,” the bench told the Attorney General.

It said that the Centre should also suggest alternatives, safeguards or steps to be taken in the areas of Himalayan region in Uttarakhand, which are landslide-prone areas or sectors.

The bench told Mr Gonsalves, “Though it’s a tentative view that considering the huge ramification of the country’s huge defence needs, if the court allows the project to go on what safeguards it can put or what restrictions it can put.”

The bench said that the NGO could suggest steps like monitoring of air quality, disposal of muck in a scientific manner, reduced blasting and other measures which would mitigate the concerns in the reports of the High Powered Committee.

Mr Gonsalves said that all steps taken to mitigate concerns by the Centre have failed and it is high time that they should leave the mountains alone and halt the project immediately to avoid any further degradation of the environment and endangering the lives of people.

The bench said that Mr Gonsalves should not get an impression that the issue is between defence versus environment or the Army versus civilians but the issue is how to balance the need for sustainable development of the society with the protection of environment.

“We have been to higher areas in these mountains and have seen how the lives of Army men and women are bonded with the lives of civilians living there. Sometimes when anyone falls sick and roads are cut off due to snowfall, the Army comes to help and airlift those people to nearby hospitals. When there is shortage of food or fuel supplies, the Army trucks come and restore these supplies. They live in those conditions,” Justice Chandrachud said.

Mr Gonsalves said that double-laning of the road cannot go on as it is not in the welfare of the people or the Army as it will risk the lives of the people due to the landslides.

On Tuesday, the top court referred to the India-China border standoff and wondered whether a constitutional court can override the need of the Army to defend the country and say that the protection of the environment will triumph over defence needs.

It had said that the court cannot ignore the fact that there is an adversary who has developed infrastructure on the border up to the hilt and the Army needs better roads up to the border, which has not seen any radical changes since the 1962 war.

It said that sustainable development has to take place and it should be balanced with the environment as the court cannot be oblivious of the fact that these roads need to be upgraded.

The hearing in the matter remained inconclusive and would continue on Thursday.

The Centre, in its affidavit filed earlier in the matter, had urged the top court to accept the majority report of 21-members of the HPC recommending the road to be developed to two-lane with paved shoulders (10 metre wide carriageway) considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs.

In its application, the MoD had said it seeks modification of the order and directions that the national highways from Rishikesh to Mana, from Rishikesh to Gangotri, and from Tanakpur to Pithoragarh may be developed to two-lane configuration.



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