Suraj Singh Ramola stares at his ruined farmland beyond which lie the four Hindu pilgrimages. The damaged crops convey a disaster that's now echoing across the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. A resident of Jangleath village in Tehri district, Ramola cannot believe that the debris generated by flattening several hills of the Himalayas submerged his agriculture land in a blink. Hills are being flattened to construct the 900-km the ambitious Char Dham project, an all-weather road that will connect the four shrines. Within eighteen months after it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2016, the project is facing several illegalities, violation of environment norms, besides generating local protest.
Char Dham Project Was Inaugurated By PM MODI. Photo Credit: Hridayesh Joshi
"We had trees of banana, guava, apple and peach. We also grow vegetables. It's been totally ruined as they (project workers) have thrown and dumped the muck in our fields," he says.
In a nearby village of Tibli, 35-year-old Phooldas says, "Hamare gaon main aapda jaisi sthiti hai. Saari link road bah gayi hain. (We face a disaster-like situation in our villages. All link roads to our village have caved in)."
The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) is executing the Rs 12000 crore project. Modi had claimed that it would bring employment and prosperity in Uttarakhand, but large tracts of farmlands have already been destroyed by the carelessness of construction workers.
The project hit its hurdles at the first step when Citizens for Green Doon, a Dehradun-based NGO, filed a petition in National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February 2018 about the violation of several environmental norms by National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and MoRTH.
The NGT heard the arguments for almost four months and reserved its decision on May 31 this year. In a curious development on September 4, the NGT referred the case to a larger bench.
Local Communities Hit Badly
Inaugurating the project, Modi had promised to reverse an old saying of the mountains: "Pahad Ka Pani and Pahad Ki Jawani (Water and Youth of hills) don't stay in the hills." "We will make this state into one where the water of the hills and the youth both are utilised for the development of the hills. The Chardham Highway project will be built with the sweat of thousands of youngsters of Uttarakhand who will get employment through this initiative" he had said.
However, villagers say that the PM has failed in his promise to provide employment to locals. "During the last assembly elections (early 2017) every leader told us that the char dham will give employment to you," says Harish, 30, who lives in Srinagar (Garhwal).
Contrarily, the project has caused loss of employment.
Villages along the proposed highway point that the constructing company hires outsiders. "We have lost all employment as our fields have been totally ruined. Initially, more than 35 people were hired from this area by the contractors for road construction, but the company doesn't recruit locals anymore. They are now sitting at home jobless," Ramola say.
Cabinet minister in Uttarakhand government Madan Kaushik denies the charge. "It's a very big project. We are trying to accommodate maximum workforce from Uttarakhand, but if there is no manpower available in a particular place then naturally it will come from outside," Kaushik told India Climate Dialogue.
Villagers in Chamba say that several people who were hired haven't been even paid their dues by contractors. Parvati Devi, 35, of Chamba, says that even grasslands for cow grazing have been buried under the muck. "Where do we graze our cows now? She asks. "We have no money and they have snatched whatever we had from us."
Former Chief Minister and Congress leader Harish Rawat points at the faulty planning and says: "The DPR (Detailed Project Report) we had prepared during our tenure for the Char Dham Yatra Marg was very clear that there would be minimum cutting of hills with ensuring maximum width of roads. Our plan was to widen the bridges and find alternative routes in the areas of chronic landslides. However, their focus is only on cutting. They are cutting hills even where there is no need. The project has been converted into a contractor's paradise. They are dumping muck into rivers."
Citing an instance, Rawat says that "between Narendra Nagar and Rishikesh the road they have cut is so wide at some places that it seems to be the parking place of aero planes".
Kaushik counters: "Is it possible that someone can cut the hill according to one's wishes? Whenever a project begins a lot of clearances are taken. A lot of planning entails in any such project to decide even how many inches (of hill) you will cut, how you will cut it."
Despite several government agencies including Geological Survey of India and Garhwal University identifying the landslide prone-zones, the new construction has ignored the mandatory required safeguards. Consequently, many landslides have already been recorded in places that had not seen a single in the last century. In Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway at least 13 people recently died in an accident caused by a landslide. Villagers in Chamba note that thousands of tons of muck has been dumped carelessly along the roads that has made them slushy and dangerous.
"Our pathways and link roads have been washed out. It never happened earlier during monsoons. One of our relatives who was visiting us died on her way back as she was buried under the debris," says Falguni Devi of Chamba.
"All Norms Violated"
During the hearing in NGT the petitioner presented video evidence about the violation of norms and muck dumping in rivers. Geologists and earth scientists warned that these violations may be disastrous, causing "irreversible losses" to the Himalayas.
The petitioner argued that NHAI and MoRTH circumvented the necessary condition of obtaining the Environmental Clearance. "Since any road project beyond 100 km needs environmental clearance and an environmental impact assessment, they divided the 900-kilometer long project in more than 53 segments," says Himanshu Arora of Citizen for Green Doon, adding that "as a result, thousands of trees are being cut for this project that has triggered the falling of several other trees. That loss is never counted".
Significantly, when NHAI and MoRTH countered by saying that they have built retaining walls along the road to contain the muck, the NGT did not buy the argument. The tribunal observed that the retaining wall isn't enough as was visible in the video. "When it rains the entire muck goes down in the river. This (wall) doesn't work," commented the NGT.
When asked that it was stated before the NGT that no environmental clearance was taken, and many rules were violated, the minister Kaushik replied: "There are two cases in NGT. One is about the number of trees to be cut, another is about dumping. They (petitioners) said that you take the dump a little away, that matter is in the court and will be shortly settled."
It's obvious that the adverse remarks of the tribunal have brought no change on ground.
Almost 50,000 trees are to be felled for the project, including slow-growing high altitude trees like pine, birch and oak. The rich forest in Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini valley protects the Himalayan glaciers and functions as a catchment for all major rivers.
Since the NDA government wants to showcase the highway project as a model before the 2019 parliamentary elections, the work is taking place at a very high pace.
Senior earth scientist Dr Pradeep Srivastava, who works with Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, terms the project "unsustainable". Such projects, he says, won't work in these mountains because the roads are built on "fragile rocks" and "subsided landslides". "An all-weather road is a misconception. Nowhere is it written that it will withstand landslides and steep slopes. We don't need such broad highways in mountains. We need good roads which meet the needs of locals," says Srivastava, who has written several reports on Himalayan geology.
Experts believe that the sensitivity of fragile slopes is not considered by road planners.
"You can't cut the hill vertically at 90 degree as they are doing now. If the base is removed the mountain will fall, landslides will naturally happen, and we are already watching this happening. There are places in the hills where we never saw the landslides but since this construction started numerous landslides are happening." Says R.C. Sharma who heads the department of environment science in H.N. Bahuguna University in Srinagar, Garhwal.
Kaushik, however, claims that "landslides are not happening because of this project, landslides have actually stopped."
Dr Kishore Kumar, chief scientist at Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), says, "There are guidelines about the width of roads in Indian Road Congress manuals and should have been followed while widening the highway."
Dr Kumar advocates the need for a robust slope management system. He warns: "We do not have a proper slope management system in place while building and maintaining the roads. Only building highways won't suffice, there should be a highway slope management system in place as well. If you don't care about slope the highway will not withstand."
Eminent environmentalist Ravi Chopra says that the muck dumping may seriously impact the local vegetation and riverine ecology. "Since muck settles at the base of watercourse, the river may change its course which can be very destructive as we saw during the 2013 Kedarnath floods. The debris and muck also increase the turbidity of water. Increased turbidity affects the sunlight reaching at the bottom of water bodies and reduces oxygen levels. This can endanger aquatic species," says Chopra, who was a member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee to assess the role of big dams in Kedarnath floods that had claimed more than 5000 lives.
One argument in favor of the construction of Char Dham project is its strategic importance. Good roads are required considering the Chinese deployment on its borders along Uttarakhand. While China has constructed extremely goods on its side of the border, India is yet
to match its eastern neighbor.
Border Road Organisation (BRO) told NGT in July that roads are "extremely important from strategic point of view" and needed to be upgraded. Locals, however, ask: Does upgradation mean hastily widening of roads or a focus on sustainability as well? Environmentalists warn that breaking the mountain without heeding to geologists may prove disastrous even for defense preparedness.
Defense experts while maintaining the need of good roads in this area for "national security" do emphasise on ecology. "A holistic approach has to be adopted to ensure that an ecological balance is maintained and the sanctity of biodiversity to the attainable degree of supremacy is kept" says Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Dr M.C. Bhandari.
"Not A Mountain Centric Project"
Migration is a major issue in Uttarakhand. Over 1000 villages have been identified by the government as ghost villages, indicating that just a couple of families are left in such villages. Lack of employment, poor health and education facilities prompt the exodus. The government's attempts to showcase the road project as a ticket to employment finds few takers.
The objective of the Char Dham highway is to make the pilgrimage easier and quicker. However, does it contribute to the local economy? Anthropologist and cultural activist Dr Lokesh Ohri says the government seems to be "highly confused" between tourism and pilgrimage.
"If pilgrimage is completed in less time, people would have fewer stops en route. They won't stay at chattis, won't eat at dhabas. The common man will feel short-changed. It will only help big projects like resorts and tour operators, but I do not think it is going to contribute anything to the local economy other than a carbon foot print for the communities," says Dr Ohri.
As shadows fall over a muddied lane along the highway, it is clear that the tirth yatra will no longer be the same. One can only anticipate it --- it's difficult to imagine how the Garhwal range will bear witness to the barren and flattened hills a decade later.
( This report was first published in India Climate Dialogue)