Chardham Highway Project – for what and at what cost?

November 20, 2023

Chardham Highway Project – for what and at what cost?

Statement of the Asia Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders

The Char Dham project is a two-lane highway project currently under construction in the state of Uttarakhand by the Border Road Organisation. Upon the completion of the project, it will connect the four important pilgrim towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.

Overview of Char Dham Project

The foundation stone of the ₹12,000 crore project was laid at Parade Ground in Dehradun by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on December 27 2016. The highway construction project is called as Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana and its aim is to improve the connectivity to the Chota Char Dham. The Chota Char Dham itself is a pilgrim circuit nestled in the Himalayas.  The highway project will also have railway links and several long bridges and tunnels to eliminate accident and slide prone areas.

Environmental Concerns regarding the Char Dham Project

Environmentalists had pointed out that the unregulated cutting of trees and scooping up land at the base of the hills are irreversibly damaging the ecosystem as well as making the regions the project passes through dangerously prone to landslides.

Although the government had given orders to the contractors to treat the slopes before moving on to the next construction point, it was found that most had not done so. This had increased the chances of landslides occurring on a frequent basis.

Other concerns raised included dumping of debris on the slopes itself instead of taking them to designated dumping sites. The debris when dumped on both sides of the banks of a river narrowed its course which led to intense flooding in the past years.

The Supreme Court of India appointed a review committee to look into the matter and it found that several norms were violated during the construction of the project. The committee recommended that the project should continue keeping in mind several environmental factors during the construction of the project in order to safeguard the environment and prevent any loss of life that comes as a result of haphazard construction practices.

Collapse of the tunnel on 12th Nov 2023, at 5.30pm IST

Forty one labourers have been trapped for the last 9 days  after a portion of an under-construction tunnel collapsed in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. The tunnel is located on the Yamunotri National Highway near Silkyara and was being constructed under the Chardham Highway Project.

Looking at the efforts so far to evacuate workers show that there was no proper security arrangement in place for the construction of the 4.5-kilometre-long tunnel. Earlier rescue plans included cutting the rock from above with a vertical drilling machine, however, the machine was unavailable at first.

After this incident, geologists have once again  raised questions about the Char Dham Highway project. Geologist Naveen Juyal said mainly two types of incidents occur during tunnel construction in Uttarakhand — sudden release of large amounts of water and unexpected encounter of sheared rocks (worn by rubbing against each other).

The former Indian Space Research Organisation scientist also questioned whether geological and geotechnical studies were conducted during tunnel alignment. Such an investigation is conducted prior to any such construction and a report is provided to the construction agency.

Present situation after the collapse

The rescue operation was suspended on 17th Nov 2023 Friday afternoon when a US-made auger machine deployed to drill and push in pipes through the rubble to prepare an escape passage for the workers developed a snag that exacerbated the anxiety.

Today a team of international tunnelling experts has reached by Silkyara location in Uttarkashi to assist in the ongoing rescue efforts.  They’ve shared their positive outlook on the rescue and relief operations currently in progress.

Calls of environmental defenders

So-called development projects should ensure ecological balance and harmony and the safety of its workers and nearby communities. With this situation, we urge the government of India to stop the Chardham Highway Project due to ecological and security concerns. We also call for urgent action to rescue the trapped labourers and undergo rehabilitation in the landslide area.

We hope that fellow environmental defenders would support the people of India for our common advocacy of protecting the environment and upholding environmental rights.