Submitted by- Nashrah Fatma
The Supreme Court upheld the government's mandate on Tuesday, December 14, to widen three Himalayan roadways, which the Ministry of Defense (MoD) considers critical for rapid soldier build-up near the Indo-China border.
The three national highways- Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh, act as feeder roads to the northern border with China. They are part of the Char Dham project. The decision is based on the MoD’s motion to alter the court’s September 8, 2020 judgement, which required that mountain routes for the Char Dham Highway project be 5.5 metres wide in accordance with a 2018 circular from the Ministry of Roads and Highways.
Modifying the September order, the judgment on Tuesday said “we allow the Ministry of Defence’s application for DLPS configuration for three strategic highways… At the same time take note of the environmental concerns raised for the entirety of the project and the unanimous recommendation of the High Powered Committee (HPC) for taking remedial measures and directing that they have to be implemented by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the Ministry of Defence going forward”.
The Bench appointed an oversight committee, chaired by Justice A.K. Sikri, a former Supreme Court judge, to ensure that the government implements the environmental remedial measures suggested by the court’s HPC. The court underlined that the Justice Sikri Committee should not conduct “a new environmental examination of the project” and should instead focus on the three highways to avoid clashing with the HPC’s jurisdiction. The Road and Defense Ministries must submit monthly reports to the committee, which will report to the court every four months.
Environmentalists argued in court that employing DLPS to widen highways would be catastrophic to the Himalayan environment, which is already vulnerable. Citizens of Green Doon, the petitioner, had called the Himalayas the “greatest defence for our country.” It had contested the Road Ministry’s December 2020 circular, claiming that the government had implemented DLPS without application of mind.
The government argued in court that the armed services cannot compromise the nation's defence to threats of landslides to be caused by the widening of Himalayan highways in order to move military hardware to the “extremely vulnerable” Indo-China border.
Attorney General K.K. Venugopal said that critical defence equipment like the BrahMos or Vajra missile launchers and Smerch rocket vehicles require space to traverse across the difficult terrain and reach the border.
According to the judgment, a “delicate balance” must be maintained between environmental concerns and infrastructure development so that the former does not obstruct the latter, particularly in areas of critical importance to the nation’s security.
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