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Govt ‘ignored’ expert view on Chardham highway project, asserts panel chairman

By Sanjana Koli* 

Hailing from the mountains, I have always felt privileged to experience the best of nature, the purest of environment, and the calmest places in my life. Over the years, I have appreciated the beauty that I see and learnt the importance of this environment and its element in the working of our day-to-day life. Most of which goes unnoticed.
We get most affected when some damage is done to a thing belonging to us. That is why environment concern affects most the people who have either been in proximity of the environment or have dedicated their lives to it. One such person is Dr Ravi Chopra, with who I got in touch to share my concern about the deteriorating environment and natural beauty of my native place, Uttarakhand.
A person born at the time of independence, who has patriotism in his blood, his zeal to do something substantial for the nation, made him bring out the First Citizen Report of India, an account of the current state of India’s Environment. When the nation and leaders were concerned about making India a developed nation, Dr Chopra and his friends from IIT Bombay worked towards the environment, developing through interaction between technology and society.
In his term of four decades, Dr Chopra’s most eminent contribution has been setting up the People’s Science Institute in Dehradun to use science and technology to serve the poorest of people in need. He wanted a place where people could walk in with their problems, and his team can discuss with them and come up with a solution. His way of working in PSI was co-creating, making the people in need bring their development, carry out the required projects, and finally manage the assets they created.
Instead of implementing very advanced technology, the PSI team focuses on reviving the existing local traditions and techniques and just improvising them scientifically to get the best result.
Road broken due to landslides
Dr Chopra and I share a common concern for Uttarakhand. He has lived in Dehradun since the 1980s, and he has quoted that “In 1988, I used to visit Mussoorie to encounter snowcapped hills, but unfortunately, now when I visit Mussoorie, I see a haze of dust, that comes through pollution, and settles on hill and mountain tops”. We realized it is not a localized problem. The majority of the pollution hovering over the mountains comes from the plains.
But is the problem only due to rising air pollution? No! of course not. Ever since the time partition, when thousands of trees of the Terai region were cut down to settle the refugees, to the current time when people don’t think twice before removing trees from these beautiful mountains just for personal benefits.
These trees are like giant lungs, absorbers of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. So, on the one hand, the massive explosion of motor vehicle traffic cr]eates tremendous emissions and dust. Along with it, we are also removing the natural absorbants, which are meant to compensate for our wrongdoings.
So, what should be done? Ban vehicles around these beautiful mountains to preserve them from getting spoilt?
Practically no state government will take this decision because of the size of the tourism industry. They can, of course, not dissatisfy the locals. They are their vote bank and money bank for political parties.
This problem is not a problem with cars. Still, the extensive tourist exploiting the resources of specific places, affecting the locals as we see every year in Shimla when locals face a severe water crisis during the peak tourist time.
A practical and complete solution to this that Dr Chopra suggested is creating many tourist alternatives. When talking specifically about Uttarakhand, it is full of beautiful places, in the Terai region, Raja Ji national park, Jim Corbett national park, Naundhar wildlife sanctuary, Barinag, Chkori, Binsar, etc., which can be developed as tourist spots.
 Traffic jams in Shimla
However, the first step for this is to be taken by the locals themselves, by developing potential tourist places and putting information about them out to the world.
But this will undoubtedly require a push from the government. It will not happen by just villagers doing it. Once the knowledge about these places gets spread, it is only then we will see the dispersal of tourists.
Tourism raises the need for infrastructure development, especially roads. But can this be done better by not affecting the mountains, which are fragile and prone to land slides. According to Dr Chopra, there are wiser ways to build roads in the mountains than those we currently employ. Back in 2012, the government of India came out with a policy that national highways of the country will be built on one standard. The final width of the road accounting for about 12.5-13 meters.
However, in 2018, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) for mountain roads put out a new notice, saying the experience of last 5-6 years in the mountain areas has shown that mountains cannot support such wide roads. According to the new norms for mountain areas, the width of the tarred surface of the road should be only 5.5 meters.
In this way, we can minimize the cutting of mountains to make our roads and do it so that we don’t endanger the sensitive slopes.
In the Chardham highway project, whose high-powered committee is chaired by Dr Ravi Chopra himself, he said the government first announced the timetable without considering the opinions of their engineers. The geological investigation was done superficially, they were not adequate, so we have accidents all over the place.
What Dr Chopra questions more is that in 2018, when the project was planned follow the stipulating carriageway width of 5.5 metres, then no objection came from the Defence Ministry, but now 2-2.5 years later, the Ministry of Defence has sought modification to the previous standard of 12-meter road.
The Supreme Court saw fit to set up a committee to consider the cumulative and independent impact of the Chardham project on the entire Himalayan valley and come up with recommendations.
Wildlife sanctuary in Uttarakhand
When I questioned Dr Chopra, so why don’t the committee made them implement the right thing? He said it is very unfortunate that despite the committee doing all background checks and even the data from MoRTH suggesting 161 sensitive points within 574 km of the highway, the committee was divided.
This was because only three members, including Dr Chopra of the committee, were independent, and the rest government employees, being influenced by the order from above in some way. So, after pollution, tourism, and infrastructure development, the next problem we discovered is the government’s will. Locals and activists can push, but unless the government becomes responsible, change is not possible.
When talking about mountains, we cannot miss talking about rivers. Unfortunately, in the words of Dr Chopra, “Most rivers in India have turned into drains.” Why is that? And what needs to be done to revive them and protect the existing ones?
When our government pride itself at events like Kumbh, showing how great they did cleaning the river, they only talk about removing solid matter. What about the enormous amount of biomass and germs added to the river, making it toxic for the living organisms dependent on it?
Dr Chopra insists that government also needs to control the biological wastes, which requires constant monitoring of water quality by the government department. He also suggested a decentralized sewage and water treatment system across cities, with fewer chances of failure. “It is also important to maintain the flow of a river. If it is not flowing, it is not a river.”
Dams, which are obstructions to the river’s free flow, have the primary purpose of generating electricity and irrigation. Dr Chopra, who has been a critic of hydropower projects, says it is a folly to build dams above elevations of 2,200 meters. He gives a strong argument that we have a much better and cheaper electricity alternative like solar power, which can be distributed every inch of the land and not even have to be conveyed from one power station to another city.
People's Science Institute
When talking about the need for irrigation, he believes that we need much less water than we are giving today. Today we are hooked on rice and wheat. However, 50% of our grains were coarse grains at the time of independence, which doesn’t require much water. The government needs to develop its policy and promote eating more nutritious food like mandua, bajra, ragi.
They are much nutritious, hardier crops and will survive climatic fluctuations as they require much less water. All they need to change their pricing mechanism, make them as expensive as rice and wheat. Given this advertisement, people will quickly change their behavior, so here also a significant role of the government comes into play.
Sustainable changes that don’t exploit the soil or the water beyond the renewal level and give good returns are the changes that Dr Chopra has been promoting and implementing through PSI. We, the people of mountains and governments, should have the same mindset and goals if we want to remove the evils like exploitation due to tourism, pollution, environmental construction due to infrastructure development, removing of the forest, damage to the rivers, and affected lives of the locals. To preserve the characteristics of the mountains, what they are known for – beauty and peace.
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*Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, PGP in Management (MBA), 2020-2022

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