Alluding to the Chinese military build-up across the Line of Actual Control, the Centre told the Supreme Court Thursday that wider roads are needed in the Char Dham mountain region of Uttarakhand to transport missiles like the BrahMos and other critical military equipment.
The Army has to take the BrahMos… a large area will be required. If it results in landslides, the Army will tackle it. How do we go if the roads are not wide enough?’ Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, told a bench headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud.
Underlining ‘we have to defend the country’ and ‘roads have to be made available to the Line of Actual Control in spite of landslides, snowfall or whatever,’ Venugopal said ‘we are vulnerable’ and ‘have to do whatever we can’.
The bench is hearing a plea by NGO Citizens for Green Doon which has challenged the Stage-I forest and wildlife clearance granted for improvement and expansion of feeder roads there by felling trees.
Two days ago, the bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Vikram Nath, had underlined its ‘predicament’ by asking if it could ‘override defence needs’ on environmental grounds.
‘We cannot deny the fact that at such a height, the security of the nation is at stake. Can the highest constitutional court say that we will override defence needs particularly in the face of recent events? Can we say that environment will triumph over the defence of the nation? Or we say that defence concerns be taken care of so that environmental degradation does not take place?’ the bench had said.
The petitioner NGO, however, contended that the project was meant to facilitate the Char Dham Yatra conceived in 2016 so that more tourists can trek up the mountains.
On Thursday, Venugopal said insofar as the width of the roads is concerned, the report of the Indian Roads Congress has to be taken into consideration.
The Army, he said, is not going to take 8,000 cars up to the Chinese border. When the situation becomes very serious, such volumes may be seen, he said, adding ‘Nothing may happen. It may only be posturing. The Defence Minister said ‘we have to be careful, we have to be on guard’.’
Venugopal said the number of tourist cars are relevant only to the Char Dham sites and it has no bearing on the Army.
The project to widen 889 km of hill roads to provide all-weather connectivity between major pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand has led to a heated debate with members of a Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee divided on the width of the road.
While the majority favoured increasing the width to 12 metre, the minority, including the committee chairman, backed 5.5 m for the carriageway and additional paved shoulder — taking the total width to about 7 to 7.5 metre — for use by pedestrians/pilgrims who take the trek to the holy sites.
On September 8, 2020, the Supreme Court had directed the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) to stick to a 2018 circular. The Centre moved an application seeking modification of this order.
On Thursday, Venugopal said the 2018 circular fixing 5.5-metre width for roads is irrelevant for the needs of the Army today.
Elaborating on the Supreme Court direction, he said the court had accepted the 2018 circular since the HPC’s views were not unanimous. This, however, was only in the context of the Char Dham project and the HPC report, he said, did not concentrate on the Chinese build-up.
‘We have to defend the country and we should ensure that facilities that can be made available to the armed forces should be made available to them. Roads have to be made available to the Line of Actual Control in spite of landslides, snowfall or whatever. HPC’s report is a far cry. We are vulnerable. We have to do whatever we can,’ Venugopal said.
‘What happens when you can’t take up artillery and missiles? The HPC’s report has got nothing to do with this,’ he said. ‘And to be told that there are landslides, so please don’t do this. What will happen? How will the Army be supplied? The HPC report was in a totally different environment,’ he said.
‘The question is: Will the Army drop its hands and say landslides will happen, so we will not access this mountain road to the Line of Actual Control. That is not possible. No Army will say that,’ he said.
The bench said the prayer in the Centre’s application does not specify the width it actually wants.
Agreeing, Venugopal said: ‘The prayer should have been more explicit. We need a double lane with padded shoulders.’
Appearing for the NGO, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves said: ‘We may want to do many things in the Himalayan regions like taking up a missile. You can make the road as broad as you want, but the real issue is: Are the Himalayas in a state where they can tolerate it or will they break down? .You can’t improve the Himalayas. They are what they are.’
The ‘best defence for our country are the Himalayas. If those are undone, coming generations will see the impact. If winter precipitation and Ganga flow are hampered, water security will be a huge problem… If you ask me, should development stop in the Char Dham area, I will say yes. Restraint and balance. The restoration of the calmness of these sites rest on your shoulders,’ he told the bench.