The Supreme Court today adjourned the hearing in the Char Dham road widening project in Uttarakhand by two weeks after giving time to allow Ministry of Defence to respond to the allegation made by the chairman of the high-powered committee linking the project to the recent disaster at Dhauliganga river. However, Attorney-General KK Venugopal had argued on behalf of the defence ministry before the ruling, “There is no link.” He then sought two weeks to file a reply to put his stand on record.
Char Dham Road: The contention
Ravi Chopra, the chairman of the committee, had written a letter addressed to the Supreme Court, suggesting a link between the disaster and road widening project.
The bench of Justices RF Nariman, Hemant Gupta and BR Gavai adjourned the matter by two weeks to allow the Centre file it’s reply.
The high-powered committee was formed to assess environmental damages to the Char Dham road project, presently under construction.
The strategic (as well as religious) 900 km long Char Dham Road aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four important Hindu pilgrimage sites: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, in Uttarakhand.
The court was hearing a petition filed by NGO Citizens for Green Doon raising environmental concerns over the road-widening work.
On 8 September, the apex court had upheld the recommendation of the minority members of the high-powered committee. It asked the implementing agencies to reduce the width of the road to 5.5 m for the whole project. The order was based on a March 2018 circular released by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways laying down guidelines for road construction in hilly terrains in the country.
On 2 December last year, the top court had asked its high-powered committee to consider within two weeks the applications including that of the defence ministry seeking widening of roads up to 7 m in the Indo-Chinese border area.
No consensus among scientists about the cause
A glacial lake burst, a cloud burst or an avalanche, the impact of climate change or “development” — scientists are not sure what triggered the sudden surge of water near Chamoli in Uttarakhand Sunday morning that briefly raised fears of a repeat of the 2013 disaster in the state.
A breach in a temporary water body formed due to a hanging glacier crashing down after a huge rockslide, a few kilometres upstream of Rishi Ganga river, resulted in the flash-flood in District Chamoli, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology had said on 10 February.
However, another group of scientists had on 8 February attributed the mishap to glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). They explained that retreating glaciers, like several in the Himalayas, which usually result in the formation of lakes at their tips, called proglacial lakes, often bound only by sediments and boulders. If the boundaries of these lakes are breached, they said, it could lead to large amounts of water rushing down to nearby streams and rivers, gathering momentum on the way by picking up sediments, rocks and other material, and resulting in flooding downstream.
On the other hand, while GLOF is being considered to be the most likely trigger for the disaster, there are questions surrounding this possibility. “We don’t know of any big glacial lakes in this region. An avalanche is quite common, and there could have been one, but an avalanche on its own would not result in an increase in the flow of water in the river. The water has to come from a source, and as of now, we do not know what this source is,” said Professor HC Nainwal, a glaciologist at the Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Srinagar, Uttarakhand.
Villagers of Village Raini in the Tapovan area of Chamoli that lies near the area which saw the maximum destruction caused by that Sunday’s flash floods have expressed concerns that the flash floods may be the result of heat being produced by a radioactive device that was lost in 1965 during a secret expedition to Nanda Devi.
The expedition was conducted by American intelligence agency CIA and the Indian government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) to plant nuclear-powered surveillance equipment on the summit of Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest mountain range (after Kanchenjunga) for spying on China.
However, the mountaineering team conducting the expedition got caught in a blizzard and had to return, leaving the device at the base of the mountain. A year later, when they went back to the area, they could not find it; subsequent expeditions have also not been able to trace the device, which has a life span of over 100 years and is believed to be still somewhere in the area.