Chardham Highway Project| Environmental compliance not a mere “checkbox”; Committee headed by Justice AK Sikri to oversee implementation of HPC’s recommendations: SC

Supreme Court: The 3-jude-bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud*, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath, JJ has asked the Government to make a significant alteration in the approach to Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna by adopting sustainable measures in line with High Powered Committee’s recommendations and has said that,

“Piecemeal implementation of some mitigation measures for protection of the environment, without any concrete strategy in place, cannot pass muster.”

The Project

On 23 December 2016, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways announced the Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna to widen the roads of approximately 900 kms of national highways, in order to ensure safer, smoother and faster traffic movement. These highways connect the holy shrines which have been labelled as the “Chote Char Dham” in the State of Uttarakhand – Yamunotri (NH94/134 up to Janki Chatti), Gangotri (NH-108), Kedarnath (NH-109, up to Sonprayag), Badrinath (NH-58) and the Tanakpur-Pithoragarh stretch of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route (NH-125).

The Project was conceptualized with the aim of improving accessibility to these shrines by widening the existing roads, making travel safer, smoother and faster. It seeks to widen the existing highways into a double lane with paved shoulder configuration with 16 bypasses, realignments and tunnels, 15 flyovers, 101 small bridges and 3516 culverts. The MoRTH has divided the Project into 53 individual projects, the length of each project being less than 100 kms.

The Challenge

The construction under the Project was challenged on the ground that the development activity has a negative impact on the Himalayan ecosystem as it will lead to deforestation, excavation of hills and dumping of muck, which will lead to further landslides and soil erosion, in an already sensitive environment.

The Verdict

“Making the Project environmentally compliant should not be seen a “checkbox” to be obtained on the path to development, but rather as the path to sustained development itself.”

The Court allowed the MoRTH and MoD to proceed with the Project subject to the condition that it addresses all the concerns which have been raised by the HPC and the Court.

Directions

Taking note of the HPC’s unanimous recommendations for taking remedial measures, the Court has directed that,

  • The national highways from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh be developed according to the doublelane carriageway width with paved shoulder standard as provided in the 2020 MoRTH Circular. The national highways from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh are feeder roads to border areas and are vital from the perspective of national security. It also provides vital connections to the establishments of the Armed Forces along the Nelong Axis, Mana Pass, Rimkhim Pass, Niti Pass and Lipulekh Pass. The importance of the requirement of double-laned highways has been emphasized as it is necessary for the movement of trucks, equipment and personnel of the Armed Forces. Hence,

“This Court, in its exercise of judicial review, cannot second-guess the infrastructural needs of the Armed Forces.”

  • There has to be an assessment of the nature of the problem by obtaining actual data through relevant studies for all individual projects. Specific mitigation measures then should be implemented for all projects, keeping in mind their unique concerns. In doing so, the general recommendations issued by the HPC should form the baseline, i.e., they should be implemented at the very least, along with anything over and above that is deemed necessary based on the studies so conducted.
  • The measures adopted have to be well thought out and should actually address the specific concerns associated with the Project. While this may make the Project costlier, but the Court said that this cannot be a valid justification to not operate within the framework of the environmental rule of law and sustainable development.
  • MoRTH and MoD should be transparent in the measures they adopt, in order for them to be held publicly accountable by spirited citizens.

Oversight Committee

An ‘Oversight Committee’, which shall report directly to the Supreme Court has also been set up to ensure implementation of the recommendations of HPC. The objective of this Oversight Committee is not to undertake an environmental analysis of the Project afresh but to assess the implementation of the recommendations already provided by the HPC

  • The Committee will be chaired by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri.
  • In order to enable the Chairperson to receive technical assistance, he shall be aided by:
  • A representative of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (‘NEERI’) to be nominated by the Director; and
  • A representative of the Forest Research Institute, Deemed to be University, Dehradun to be nominated by its Director General.
  • The Oversight Committee shall receive all logistical and administrative assistance from the UOI, the Government of Uttarakhand, MoRTH, MoD and MoEF&CC. The Secretary of the Environment and Forest Department, Uttarakhand shall ensure that logistical assistance is provided to the Committee.
  • MoRTH, MoD and MoEF&CC shall also nominate nodal officers for rendering assistance to the Committee, providing information and co-operating with the work of the Committee.
  • The District Magistrates for the Districts forming a part of the Project shall also provide facilitation and assistance to the Committee.
  • A formal notification in terms of these directions shall be issued by the UOI within two weeks. Within four weeks thereafter, MoRTH and MoD shall place before the Committee the steps taken by them to adhere to the HPC’s recommendations, along with a projected timeline for complying with the remaining recommendations. Monthly reports of this nature shall be placed before the Oversight Committee by MoRTH and MoD. The Oversight Committee shall then report on the progress undertaken to the Supreme Court every four months.
  • In case of any issues with the implementation of the recommendations, the Chairperson of the Committee shall be at liberty to approach the Supreme Court.
  • The honorarium for the Chairperson and members of the Oversight Committee shall be determined by the Chairperson and the payment shall be disbursed by MoRTH.

HPC versus Oversight Committee

The HPC shall continue with its work on overseeing the implementation of its recommendations for the Project, except for the national highways from Rishikesh to Mana, Rishikesh to Gangotri, and Tanakpur to Pithoragarh, which shall now fall under the purview of the Oversight Committee. This will avoid any overlap between the scope of work of the HPC and the Oversight Committee.

[Citizens for Green Doon v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1243, decided on 14.12.2021]


Counsels

For Appellants: Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves

For UOI: KK Venugopal, Attorney General for India


*Judgment by: Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

Know Thy Judge| Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

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