Char-Dham Highway Expansion- Can We Override The Concerns of Defence?Or Do We Ensure The Project Comports With Environmental Protection? SC-Full Courtroom Exchange

Mehal Jain

9 Nov 2021 2:44 PM GMT

  • Char-Dham Highway Expansion- Can We Override The Concerns of Defence?Or Do We Ensure The Project Comports With Environmental Protection? SC-Full Courtroom Exchange

    In connection with the Char-Dham Highway expansion project, the Supreme Court was on Tuesday told that the proposed widening of the roads is only to advance the Centre's "ambitious" Char-Dham Pariyojana.Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, for the petitioner-NGO, told the bench of Justices D. Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath that the justification offered by the Centre that the expansion...

    In connection with the Char-Dham Highway expansion project, the Supreme Court was on Tuesday told that the proposed widening of the roads is only to advance the Centre's "ambitious" Char-Dham Pariyojana.

    Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, for the petitioner-NGO, told the bench of Justices D. Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath that the justification offered by the Centre that the expansion of these roads, which are being described as feeder roads leading to the border roads at the Indo-China border, is of strategic importance for national security, is only a ruse and that the Armed Forces has stated that it does not need the same.

    It may be noted that last year, the Centre had moved an application for the modification of the order dated September 8, 2020 which was passed by a three-Judge Bench headed by Justice Rohinton Nariman, in order to permit the Union of India to make roads with 10 mtrs tarred surface as opposed to the 5.5 mtrs as ordered by the Court. The September 8, 2020 order directed that the roads in hilly and mountainous terrains for the Char Dham Highway project are to be constructed in accordance with the 2018 circular of the MoRTH and hence, the width of the road would remain at 5.5 metres. On December 2, 2020, before the Supreme Court, the Defence Ministry had sought wider roads for national security, arguing that the three national highways- Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh- lead up to the northern border with China and act as feeder roads. During that hearing, Justice Nariman had noted that the road and the defence ministries "are not working in tandem with each other".

    The bench had asked the court-appointed High-Powered Committee to meet and look into the applications filed before the Court by the Ministry of Defence, against reducing the road width, in two weeks. Liberty was also given to the Ministry of Roads to amend its circular. The MoRTH on December 15, 2020 amended its 2018 circular that formed the basis of the ongoing legal case. The 5.5 m maximum width limit for roads in hilly and mountainous areas is now effectively 10 m. "For roads in hilly and mountainous terrain which act as feeder roads to the Indo-China border or are of strategic importance for national security, the carriageway width should be 7 m with 1.5 m paved shoulder on either side", the circular says. Referring to the 2018 circular 'Standards for lane width of national highways and roads developed under central sector schemes in hilly and mountainous terrain'- which the new circular now supersede- the 2020 circular adds,

    "The standards have been further reviewed in the light of the issues raised by the Ministry of Defence. A committee of chief engineers considered the suggestions received and have recommended modifications to the standards". Reportedly, the HPC also submitted its report in two parts – the majority report and minority report, dated December 31, 2020. In its report to the SC, the high-powered committee presented a divided opinion with the majority in favour of the wider roads on the Char Dham route, considering the strategic requirement and snow removal needs. The minority group comprised high-powered committee chairman Ravi Chopra, who is a noted environmentalist, and two other members, however, expressed their dissent and maintained that the road width should be restricted to 5.5 m.

    Today's Hearing

    On Tuesday, Mr. Gonsalves urged that the decision to widen the roads is driven by considerations other than the army- "The army knows what is happening. We too are defence-oriented. We are also 'safety of the armed forces'-oriented. We find it the most hazardous thing that affidavits are filed in this court which are hazardous to the interests of the army"

    "Why are these affidavits, photographs given, if the ministry of defence is not asking for these roads. The Ministry of Defence is asking for something very close to what the minority HPC is suggesting, that is the 2018 circular. This is happening because in 2016, the Chardham Pariyojana was declared as a flagship project of the Centre. The Chardham Yojana envisaged highways in the mountains so that the SUVs can go running up and down the mountains. Earlier, pilgrims went on foot. The subsequent intermediate width meant that cars and trucks could go. But that is not good enough. So you must have broad roads so that you feel you are in a city so that you can speed up and down the mountains and you can have helicopters which go to the top of the Chardham. All this has not come without a terrible cost. You have to weigh that cost because the Himalayas have physical restrictions on what human beings can do. Studies show that black soot collection, due to heavy traffic up and down the roads and helicopters going, is setting on the glacier which is very close to the Char Dham, these glaciers are breaking and you have catastrophe after catastrophe!", he advanced.

    Objecting to this, AG K. K. Venugopal contended that none of these submissions are in the affidavit submitted by the petitioners to the court. "Everything will be shown. There is not one word outside the affidavit. Be rest assured. Even after the declaration of the Chardham Yojana, there has been crisis after crisis after crisis!", asserted Mr. Gonsalves.

    At this, Justice Chandrachud asked, "Can we deny the factual position that these roads are feeder roads to the roads which lead up to the border? Suppose you have to go from Rishikesh to Meerut to the border, I don't think there can be any dispute about the fact that these are strategic feeder roads to the border. We will ofcourse be dealing with the environment as well. We will be asking the AG about those considerations. But just for clarity, we cannot dispute the fact that these are feeder roads, and that border roads are only those which are appurtenant to the border in a geographical proximity sense may not be the correct way of dealing with it, because a feeder road which subserves the movement to the border is equally to be upgraded"

    The judge continued to ask, "What they are trying to do now is not to create a six lane or an eight way highway, but we are only having double laning of the road. By robust common sense, we understand that it allows two vehicles to pass. If you have travelled in Ladakh and if you have moved from Leh to Kargil and Kargil to Zanskar, one would know that the high-altitude roads in Uttarakhand are not much different. Today, you have essentially a road leading to the border where only one vehicle can pass. I give you the example of Ladakh because if you are climbing and an army vehicle is descending, or even if there is a civilian vehicle, both cannot pass at one point of time. There is an unwritten code between the civilians and the army that whoever is ascending will give way to the vehicle which is descending because the vehicle which is descending has a greater danger of slippage. If this is the overall scenario which is persisting on the border roads, and I don't think there has been a very radical change since 1962, then can the court really turn its eyes into oblivion and say that this need should be ignored? You are right that the Himalayas are young mountains, mountains which are fragile, the work of any road construction on the mountains has to be carried out with a considerable degree of care. At the same time, can we really completely say that the concerns which have been expressed before the court can be disregarded by the court? Would we be justified in doing that?"

    "The HPC report and what we are going to bring to the Court's notice indicate that though we may have grand intentions and grand wishes to have all kinds of roads or particular kinds of roads, the Himalayas can't take it. It was predicted that they would not be able to take it. The court injuncted them in using the 2018 circular. They went ahead notwithstanding and now the proof is in the events which have happened now", responded Mr. Gonsalves.

    Justice Chandrachud probed, "But you have an adversary (China) who has developed infrastructure up to that hilt on the other side of the border?"

    "The border areas are very different from the himalayan areas to some extent. As you go higher and higher, it becomes plain, it becomes flat", began Mr. Gonsalves. The AG intervened to say that that is not correct.

    Continuing, Mr. Gonsalves advanced, "In the border areas, where the area is mountainous and you have attempted the same thing, the Parliamentary committee went there to see what is the status of the border Road in 2019. And you know the experience of your own army in the mountainous terrain- in the flat planes, you can go ahead on full speed, but in the mountainous terrain, you found that your roads were collapsing. The Parliamentary committee report is referring to all that"

    "If the Himalayas are not capable of taking this blasting into the mountains and this huge muck which is thrown into the valleys and the rivers, what is the point of saying that we would love to have this kind of roads? If you had this kind of road and the environment was still alright, then it would have been okay. The question is not whether we should or should not have, the question is can the Himalayas allow human beings to do the kind of things they want to do? Regardless of the consequences? We are troubled by the consequences!", he urged.

    Reiterating that the petitioners are also "for the defence", Mr. Gonsalves indicated a conversation with General Bipin Rawat, the chief of army staff- "He was asked if they want proper roads. He was sitting in the Himalayas which is his home and he said that 'in the army, we are happy with the roads as they are'. His words were, 'We must look after defence and we must look after the environment'. When he was asked about trucks going up these roads, he said 'we don't want these roads to be like that. We have very heavy artillery-lifting helicopters and they have done their jobs'. This was a candid conversation with him, who is a thorough army man and a thorough 'Pahari'"

    At this, Justice Chandrachud observed, "He may not be completely right. When an army soldier from the southern command is sent up to Ladakh, for every thousand feet that they climb, beyond 12,000, there is a mandatory waiting period. Otherwise, you can't just take soldiers from Chandigarh upto the Siachen glacier. The level of attrition will be unbelievably high. I have done a lot of trekking. I will say this as a matter of personal experience because we are also citizens of the world. Whenever you are going through to these heights, you will realise there are convoys of soldiers from the army led by the Colonel where, for every thousand feet that they have climbed, there is a mandatory period for you to stay so that you can acclimatise. If you don't do that, any army man will tell you that there will be a very high level of attrition. While you may have very good equipment for airlifting, you have the C130 Hercules with the army, but the human cost is very high. The movement has to be gradual when men and materials have to be moved!"

    "But we also don't want our troops racing up the roads and then having mountains break on them. What is the point then? What is the security then?", submitted Mr. Gonsalves.

    Justice Chandrachud noted, "If you have ever been on those mountains, there is no question of the troops racing up. They go on the Tata trucks, you know how those trucks go, you know how the army travels. Even the Gypsies don't go up and down racing"

    "Alright, but they are still moving swiftly, moving quickly. But the intermediate width under the 2018 circular also allowed for quick movement and safety. The biggest mistake was thinking that if you build a road, then that is it. No! The mountains crash and re-claim the roads! They don't follow human commands like that. You can't expect them to stay where they are. That was a terrible mistake that they made. We will demonstrate the position before and after the monsoon of these very roads which are to take our troops up there- after the monsoon, when there is an exacerbation in the instability of the mountains. What are we doing to the mountain ranges? Can they be played around like this? They don't take notice at all of science, or reports!"

    He told the Court that the Ministry of Defence had originally asked for the intermediate width in terms of the 2018 circular- "They did not ask for any of this. This argument is taking place because the chardham yatra was a prestigious flagship of the central government. It was for the char Dham yatra and not the movement of the army, it was to facilitate movement of the Yatris in quick moving vehicles up and down and not for the army. We will demonstrate this. And you can't justify it on the basis of the char Dham yatra and so you make it an army issue. But this has nothing to do with the army. The army is saying what we are saying, what the minority report is saying, what the 2018 circular is saying. All the indications are that these roads were made for the char Dham yatra!"

    "And if this was done modestly and in a dignified way, the chardham yatra would have been a lovely thing. But instead you have gone overboard, you have become excessive, very ambitious, the wrong kind of ambition. Going to the Chardham is a very holy and pious task but not like this. That you will reach the top but while coming down, you don't know what will happen to you. Are the lives of Yatris of any concern?", he continued.

    "2016 onwards, there has been crisis after crisis after crisis. The first was the 2013 Uttarakhand cloudburst. That was a different kind of construction in the Himalayas which the experts had warned against. The experts said don't allow for this bumper to bumper hydroelectric project in the Himalayas. And then there were 17 hydroelectric projects, bumper-to-bumper, in the Himalayas- Collect the water, go for some metres and then drop it. Then there was the 2013 cloudburst and there is a brilliant judgement of the Supreme Court on what happened. The cloud burst itself is not the issue- because there is this water, water, water, it will destroy and it will kill but not excessively. But the bumper to bumper projects had weakened the Himalayas because they blasted the mountains. The debris was there, the muck was there. The water took the muck and the boulders smashed constructions and that resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. So this court commissioned Ravi Chopra, who is the chairman of the instant HPC (and part of the segment of the Committee which gave the minority report), to make a report of bumper-to-bumper constructions in the Himalayas and Ravi Chopra said they must be stopped immediately and the court stayed all future 24 hydroelectric projects. After 2013, there were many such instances. Our prime minister recently made a wonderful statement at a conference that we want roads which are resilient. Not some fancy Road where somebody thinks of an idea and passes a resolution, not like that. We just had the 2021 glacier avalanche. This is the sign of the things to come! It is a very important climate change case there! Can you imagine what will happen? The HPC report is estimating 1° increase. Winter precipitation goes down, snow formation lessens, you have snow melting into the rivers!", he told.

    For the defence of our troops, we want something which is safe. The army reluctantly followed the political establishment because the army never said 'we want these roads'. Someone high up in the political establishment said 'you go ahead, no matter what. We want this Chardham to succeed, we want the pilgrims to go up, we want these roads'. So the army reluctantly followed. We will show those affidavits. MORTH agreed with us. But now it is covering its tracks!", advanced Mr. Gonsalves.

    Justice Surya Kant inquired, "is it your case that the Char Dham project will go on the same roads as the proposed construction or some other Road?"

    "The same Road. It is just that You can't justify it in the name of Chardham that you will cause such devastation in the Himalayas. So the principle justification came in this way. It is not a decision of the army, according to us. The Army is indifferent. It is much much later that the political establishment got the army involved and now you have this argument of artilleries etc. In 2019, Bipin Rawat gave us the answer that we are okay with these roads, that you must look after the army and you must look after the environment. This is the last statement of the army!", replied Mr. Gonsalves.

    Justice Surya Kant further probed, "Do you have any official or unofficial report on the impact on the Himalayas on the other side of the border where China has a huge build-up of multiple buildings, macro rail etc?"

    "We can try and get them. But the Chinese government is not known for robust environment protection, I am not sure what to say of the Chinese judiciary. There is the diktat of the political establishment asking you to do this or that. Some admire it because they get things done, but if one takes a longer perspective of democracy...", replied Mr. Gonsalves.

    Justice Chandrachud remarked, "All development has to be sustainable, there is no doubt. We have the precautionary principle, the principle of sustainable development, the polluters' pay principle. But the needs of sustainable development have to be balanced with the defence of the nation! We cannot really deny the fact that we are in such terrain and at such altitude where the defence of the nation is extremely complicated. Can we therefore say that we will override the concerns which the armed forces are voicing through the AG? Can we, as the highest constitutional court, say we will override the concerns of defence, particularly in view of contemporary events which have taken place in the recent past, and say that whatever your concerns are, this does not comport with the environment and therefore we will interdict these concerns of the armed forces? Or do we say that we will ensure that you must also provide for environmental protection when you are carrying out these projects which will be in the interest of the defence of the nation?"

    Continuing, the judge reflected, "Yes, there is glacial melt, there is a lot of flooding which has taken place because of that. But glacial melt is not only because of the construction of roads. It pertains not only to India but other countries in the region. It is the product of the rampant development which is taking place across the board. The court is treading into a very critical area where we are told that the defence of the nation requires upgradation of these roads. But like Justice Surya Kant said- look at the preparedness on the other side of the border! Should the court say the environment will trump over the concerns of the defence of the nation? Or should we say that defence of the nation is a very important priority for any elected government of the day but when you do that, act in a manner consistent with the environment? The court has to have a more nuanced approach than that you have upgraded roads which are critical to defence and because it is defence, it will override the environment. Should the approach be that they will do it in a manner which will protect the environment also and not completely bypass environmental concerns?"

    Mr. Gonsalves responded, "If I were to say that the environment would trump defence, my case should be dismissed. But I am not saying that. I am going according to the 2018 circular which said that the intermediate width is the most appropriate because it is disaster resilient. The experts looked at the 2012 circular. and they review that in 2018! What is today 2020 was originally 2012! But that was reviewed and they said we have to look at it more carefully and we cannot let commercial interest dictate what we do in the Himalayas!"

    Justice Chandrachud noted, "Look at the predicament of the court in a matter like this. If a government says we are doing this in an ecologically fragile zone to promote tourism, the court is on a slightly more stable ground that we will impose a much more stringent standard for development. But here the government is saying it is necessary for us to defend our borders! Can we second-guess this assessment in that sense? If you go to Ladakh where there are Buddhist monasteries, could you say that the government is intruding upon the roads in the border areas of Ladakh which are in the adjunct of pilgrimage?"

    Mr. Gonsalves said that Ladakh may not be an appropriate comparison as there is a difference between Ladakh and himalayan mountain terrain.

    "Undoubtedly. You cannot equate the mountain terrain in Uttarakhand with Ladakh. But in terms of the security environment, equally, we cannot deny that the border areas in Uttarakhand have a degree of sensitivity which they share with the border areas in Ladakh", said Justice Chandrachud.

    Mr. Gonsalves proceeded to submit, "The 2020 amendment is the same as the 2012 circular which the court did not accept. A Double-lane paved shoulder road must be built, no doubt about it. But can it be built regardless of all the evidence, including the HPC evidence which is unanimous on this that the effect of making such a road would be so dramatic? Because the Himalayas are one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world. Unlike other mountain ranges which are undulating, this is a very steep-faced mountain. The moment you try and cut into the mountain, it destabilises the entire mountain and the mountain comes crashing down on the very roads which the Attorney General has so beautifully described. The government of India, just before this monsoon, filed photographs of beautiful roads with beautiful retaining walls and mesh structure and so on. Your Lordships don't need an advocate to tell Your Lordships what happened in the three months of monsoons that nature has. All those beautiful roads, and we have filed the latest photographs, have crumbled, have got crushed, have sunk into the gully and have been destroyed. I shudder to think that if the 2018 circular had been followed, which is a disaster resilient alternative, our soldiers and the convoys would have been saved. In 3 months, those roads are gone, the iron meshes are completely torn, those retaining walls are destroyed!"

    Justice Chandrachud said, "Let us look at the difference between 2018 and 2020. Even the 2018 circular contemplates a 7 m width, provided the volume of traffic is more than 10,000 PCUs per day; otherwise it is 5.5. What does 2020 do? 2020 specifically provides for one specific category of roads, namely, hilly and mountainous terrains which act as feeder roads to the Indo China border and have strategic importance on national security. So this does not apply to the Western Ghats but only to the Indo China border and roads of strategic importance for national security. And it says that the carriageway width should be 7 m, as 2018 also said. What they did by 2020 was to bring it in tandem with the upper limit of 2018. It is very clear. It provides for a 1.5 shoulder blade to be paved which is also there in the 2018 circular"

    Mr. Gonsalves responded, "What is the thought that went behind the 2020 circular? It is a political dictation on a technical subject. They said it is not in the terms of reference of the HPC and so they are not going to explain it!"

    Justice Chandrachud observed, "The MOD affidavit dovetails with the 2020 circular"

    "No, the MOD affidavit dovetails the 2018 circular. There is no difference between our stand and that of the MoD. They say 7 m and I said 5.5 together with 1.5 for the pilgrims to go...The carriageway is 5.5. On the left-hand and right-hand sides, some space is left for the crash barrier. Then there is walking space for the pilgrims, which is 1.5 m, on the right hand side. The whole thing comes to 7 m then. So we are very close to the real thing. 5.5 is a double lane road where two trucks can pass. This is what 2018 also suggests. It is very pilgrim-friendly", replied Mr. Gonsalves.

    At this, Vikram Nath noted, "There can be no road without side pavements. Even if they say 7 m, there has to be 1 or 1.5 m of side pavements. 'Blacktop' means there has to be a shoulder, a side passage"

    The Supreme Court-constituted High-Powered Committee

    Discussing the HPC report, Mr. Gonsalves advanced, "Although the name given is of a minority and a majority report, it is a unanimous report on all aspects. On muck dumping, hill cutting, impact of the Chardham Pariyojana on wildlife, environmental destruction, disaster management, Loss of forest cover, there is Perfect unison. But the conclusion is diametrically different. Clearly, the decision (in the majority report) is based on political instruction. After the 2020 circular, there is not a word in the report about fragility, climate change, landslides! There is no analysis! The order has come and all experts fall into line!"

    Justice Chandrachud pointed out twice that what Mr. Gonsalves was reading was not the reasoning of the committee but the note as submitted by the Chairperson of the Committee.

    "All these 20 members are directly, indirectly linked to the state government, the central government, or association with NGOs receiving funding from either of the governments. When it came to the width of the road, suddenly all of them voted en block and said it should be 12 m across- what is called a double lane paved system- while on environmental destruction, their views were otherwise. The chairperson is asking, 'Why have you gone away from the 2018 circular suddenly? Can you show me the merits, can you show me the consideration?'. They said 'nothing doing'. There is no reasoning as to why 2020. There is no deliberation as to why 2020. They just say this is the order and we have to follow it. All officials said that Ravi Chopra has no business questioning the 2020 circular, that it is not in the terms of reference of HPC and we will not allow him to ask", told Mr. Gonsalves.

    "Look at the excellent unanimous reasoning on destruction of the Himalayas. If this is the reason on which both sides (majority and minority) come together, then how do you allow this road to happen? They proved our case, nature has proved our case, what we predicted has come through, the last three months saw 20 such instances of landslides, because mountain sides were blasted away to widen roads! 'Pahadis' understand this! They say you interfered with our land, they are very afraid of what is happening! The interim report of the HPC was unanimous and only when the political directive came, they changed...HPC wrote to the transport ministry and asked the government to stop the road work. It was not complied with! Everything has been done contrary to the Supreme Court order of September 8, 2020! Ofcourse now they will tell you how much has been done! There has been Total disregard of the law, even after the Supreme Court order! We sent contempt of court notices also! It was all to sabotage, to undercut court proceedings by constructing as much as possible before the final report!", argued Mr. Gonsalves.

    "Our deities were supposed to rest for certain periods. But now the plan is to have pilgrimage throughout the year, to have helicopters throughout the year! The plan to have 10,000 PCUs/day is a grave miscalculation! Can you imagine the pollution cost?", he pressed.

    "Many places have single lanes. When you take it to the intermediate width, you are not keeping the status quo, you are upgrading! Only not to the level that it will lead to environmental destruction! This is the balance Your Lordships had asked me about! There has not been a single landslide in the highest rain in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone between UttarKashi and Gangotri where intermediate width was maintained and roads are not widened!", he urged.

    Going back to the HPC report, Mr. Gonsalves advanced, "After everything you wrote in the chapters in the report, after the language you wrote, after the photographs you put up, you changed at the end in an inexplicable somersault?! In the context of India, we may know what kind of influences come to prevail!"

    Justice Chandrachud noted, "The conclusions (in the report) are very strong. The only point of diversion is the width of the road"

    On Tuesday, Mr. Gonsalves proceeded to show the bench pictures and videos from the last three months of the monsoon, depicting the condition of Pithoragarh border Road, the Badrinath highway, The Gangotri Highway etc- "The moment they did vertical cutting, the road collapsed. The mountains are reclaiming your Road! Your mitigating measures of iron meshes and retaining walls are all gone. The Badrinath highway was blocked following the landslide for many days. The newspapers are full of mountains collapsing, people dying, vehicles crashing!"

    When the AG objected to the presentation of all these pictures, Mr. Gonsalves asserted, "This is all from the public domain. Why must you object to it?"

    "I will be objecting for the simple reason that this has not been placed before my clients for the purpose of finding out When was this taken and in regard to which part. For the last one year, we have not been able to even touch the side of the hill and broaden the roads. We have not been able to do anything with regard to any one of these roads, where we have dug up the whole place. If there has been any collapse, it is because we have not been able to do anything with regard to the mountains and the hills and this cannot be taken into account!", countered the AG.

    Justice Chandrachud said, "We got your point. So it is not because of the road construction"


    The Supreme Court on January 18 had listed the Char Dham Yatra road project for hearing on a Non-Miscellaneous Day, the interim order to keep the road width at 5.5m continuing in the meantime. The bench of Justice Nariman had noted that Mr. Gonsalves had filed objections to the majority report.

    Reportedly, the majority report also took into account the state government's focus on reversing the migration in border areas by providing ample livelihood opportunities and ease of transportation, and said that the latest MoRTH circular on wider roads, of December 15, 2020, amending its previous circular and increasing the road width in hilly and mountainous terrains along the Indo-China border from 5.5 m to 10 m, should be accepted.

    The majority report added it is not "feasible" to revisit the entire project where work is already completed and reduce the road width from 10 m to 5.5 m, underlining that it was "impractical" to reclaim the already tarred road because it will not be possible to grow trees on the excavated parts.

    "Road width may be kept as approved for Char Dham with flexibility as per site conditions, considering the prior, during and post vulnerability of the terrain in the design, instead of restricting the road width," stated the majority report, adding landslides may have no direct connection with road cutting and constructions.

    In its affidavit, the MoRTH has urged the Supreme Court to accept the majority view of the high-powered committee (HPC), which has favoured a 10-metre road width for the Rs.12,000-crore Char Dham highway project. The ministry has pointed out that 21 out of 26 members of the court-appointed HPC have been in favour of the wider road to ease movement of military forces along the Indo-China border areas, and to ensure better amenities for local communities.

    Reportedly, the application before the top court last year by the defence ministry, presented by solicitor general Tushar Mehta, said, "The roads should have capacity to facilitate movement of heavy vehicles carrying troops, self propelled artillery and various machinery required by the army. For this purpose a double lane road having a carriageway width of 7m (or 7.5m where there is a raised kerb) is necessary to meet requirements of the army. The very security of the nation is involved and it has become necessary to seek modification of the September 8 order."

    The road ministry had claimed that a substantial reduction in the width of the road to 5.5m in terms of the 2018 circular at this stage will result in non-uniform carriageway width varying from 10m to 5.5m in short stretches. "This sudden change in road width in a short road length is not desirable from road users' safety perspectives and may lead to the formation of black spots and spurt in road accidents," said the ministry.

    On February 17, the Centre told the SC that the assertions made by the HPC in the wake of the recent unfortunate disaster in Uttarakhand, where the members led by the Chairman have imputed blame to the Project, are not correct. Appearing before a bench headed by Justice Nariman, the Attorney General, for the Defence Ministry, took objection to the Chairman of the HPC, Ravi Chopra, writing a letter to the Government linking the Highway widening project to the recent flash floods on Dhauliganga river, which claimed many lives and damaged Tapovan hydro project. The AG termed the letter "unwarranted".

    Click Here To Read The Order

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