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The Char Dham road project: Narendra Modi’s Himalayan blunder


The 900km, all-weather road enhancing connectivity between four major Hindu pilgrimage sites is PM Modi’s pet project. It will not only displace hundreds of people, but create a massive rush of pilgrims, putting untold pressure on the delicate Himalayan ecology. Experts say it’s also ill-conceived, given its location on the ‘floodway’ of the Ganga basin.

Why a Himalayan highway may do more harm than good

Atul Sethi, The Times of India

A  900km, all-weather road has been Priority No. 1 for the BJP government in Uttarakhand for several months now. The road is being built to enhance connectivity to the Char Dhams of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is a pet project of PM Modi, who laid its foundation stone in December 2016. Since then, he has been personally monitoring the work through video-conferencing and, at a recent session, also asked officials to give him real-time live updates on the work through cameras mounted on drones.

The chief secretary of Uttarakhand, who was overseeing the road and reconstruction projects in Kedarnath until Modi’s last visit to the shrine in October 2017, was shunted out almost immediately after the Prime Minister returned to Delhi. Apparently, the work was not going fast enough. The new incumbent, believed to have been handpicked by the PM himself, made a beeline for Kedarnath a day after he joined to oversee the work, following it up with a repeat visit within a fortnight.

So why is Modi in such a hurry to complete the road? The buzz is that he wants to launch the BJP’s 2019 poll campaign from Kedarnath. Evidently, there are electoral brownie points to be had by claiming credit for a highway which links four major Hindu shrines.

However, it may well turn out to be disastrous for the Himalayas. Some people are comparing it to the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train link, both being seen as unviable ‘vanity projects’.

There are a number of issues concerning the all-weather road but environmental and geological concerns are foremost. Around 43,000 trees, as per state government estimates, are expected to be felled to build this Himalayan highway —  of which more than half have already been cut. The National Green Tribunal recently put a halt on any further felling following a petition filed by environmental groups, which claimed that proper clearances were not obtained before removing such a large chunk of green cover.

However, much of the damage has already been done as the mountains have been denuded, increasing the threat of landslides manifold.  Also, the debris generated from the construction has been arbitrarily dumped into Himalayan rivers which could disturb their natural course and might cause damage on the scale of the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy. For those who have travelled in the area recently, it is evident that the seismically active Garhwal Himalayas have been badly shaken up by the construction activity that has ensued to make way for the 15 big bridges, 101 small bridges, 3,596 culverts and 12 bypasses that are part of the highway.

Meanwhile, the government of CM Trivendra Singh Rawat talks of vikas. It insists that the project is being built using state-of-the-art technology, and will improve accessibility, boost the local economy and bring development to the hills.

That’s debatable. To begin with, the pilgrim destinations which are to be connected are snow-bound and closed for almost six months of the year. How viable then is it to spend crores on an ‘all-weather road’? Yes, accessibility will improve but it will also dilute the spirit of the pilgrimage. It’s already happening, with ‘package tourists’ coming for ‘one-night, two-day’ stays. The economy of these shrine towns  is set to change character as the highway reduces travel time and encourages ‘holiday makers’ rather than pilgrims.

In addition, there are worries that the compensation given to villagers in lieu of land for the project will prompt more migration — Uttarakhand already has more than 1,000 ghost villages — as families use the money to seek a better life in cities. This will only add to the pressure on cities like Dehradun which are already bursting at the seams.

At the moment, many locals are paying a heavy cost for the project. Sometime back, there were mounting protests in Guptkashi near Kedarnath where the dwellings of around 400 families are going to be partly or completely demolished for widening  the road. This will affect livelihoods as most residents operate hotels, lodges or shops from their homes, catering to pilgrims during the yatra season.

One argument is that the highway will help the Army as the areas lie near the border. But the Army’s Border Roads Organisation under its Project Shivalik already does a stellar job of ensuring the roads used by the Army in the area are well-maintained.
There are several areas in Uttarakhand which are crying out for the funds that the government is pumping into the highway. Hundreds of villages are without road or electricity, and healthcare is in shambles. If the Prime Minister really wants to do something of Himalayan proportions for the state, he should first address these problems on priority.

 

RELATED


All weather Char Dham road project meaningless, says geologist Valdia

Hindustan Times
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious “all weather road” for Char Dham pilgrimage could prove meaningless as it was being planned on the ‘floodway’ of Ganga basin in Garhwal valley, said renowned geologist KS Valdia. Valdia, a Padam Shree recipient who also headed a committee formed by the central government to study the eloped Saraswati River, said Uttarakhand was prone to seismic activities and landslides. “And without treating the root cause of the problem the planners will lead to nowhere.” “The state had witnessed floods in the past. It is, therefore, not a wise idea to have a project close to the floodway but this is what exactly happening in Uttarakhand,” octogenarian Valdia told HT on the sidelines of his presentation on the lessons learnt post 2013 disaster at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology.

 

Displacement and deforestation on Kedarnath route
The Third Pole
This ‘development’ is not good news for everyone. Downstream at Agastyamuni, Uma Prasad Bhatt, a local resident is worried. His house is marked for demolition to build an all-weather highway to Kedarnath. This proposed highway is part of Char-Dham project inaugurated by the prime minister last year. Bhatt says authorities want to acquire his property for widening of the road but the compensation they are offering is meagre. “I live with my brother in this house. Two families are getting just a compensation of just INR 1.6 million (USD 24,600). We can’t purchase land and get house built with that money. Where will we go? What will we do?” Bhatt told thethirdpole.net.

Chardham project could be disastrous for earthquake-prone Uttarakhand, say experts
The Hindustan Times
The Chardham all-weather road project and the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail line project may spell disaster for seismically sensitive Himalayan region if advanced technologies were not adopted, experts said. The two centrally funded projects aim to ensure a safe and faster access to the ‘Chardhams’ (four shrines) for pilgrims from across the country. “I am not anti-development but the two mega projects should be implemented using advanced equipment backed by equally hi-tech engineering,” said Prof YP Sundriyal, a geological expert at HNB Garhwal (Central) University. He warned the projects would spell disaster for the region if old technologies like uncontrolled blasting of hills and tunnel digging are continued with.

The global road-building explosion is shattering nature

Bill Laurance
An unprecedented spate of road building is happening now, with around 25 million kilometres of new paved roads expected by 2050. An ambitious new study that mapped all roads globally has found that roads have split the Earth’s land surface into 600,000 fragments, most of them too tiny to support significant wildlife.
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