The chairperson of a Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee has flagged several violations of forest and wildlife laws by the Char Dham Pariyojana project of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, The Indian Express reported on Wednesday. The 889-km road widening project worth Rs 12,000 crore is meant to connect four major pilgrimage sites – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – in Uttarakhand.

In a letter to the environment secretary on August 13, the committee chairperson, environmentalist Ravi Chopra said the project has caused “incalculable and long-term damage to the Himalayan ecology” by felling trees, cutting hills and dumping excavated material without valid permissions on various stretches. He has asked the environment ministry to take necessary action.

The High Powered Committee was constituted by the Supreme Court in August 2019. It was asked to examine the ecological impact of the project and recommend remedies.

Among the violations listed in Chopra’s letter are work without valid permission, misuse of old clearances, work without clearance and violation of Supreme Court’s orders. “Work commenced on various stretches, adding up to at least 60 km, after withdrawing applications for forest clearance without clarifying the reasons,” read Chopra’s letter. “Works on these projects had not started during the first visit of the HPC in October 2019. But on subsequent visits of HPC [High Powered Committee], tree-felling and hill cutting was observed on these stretches despite the HPC communicating to the MoRTH its view against initiating new works… This is a brazen violation, as if the Rule of Law does not exist.”

Environment Secretary Rameshwar Prasad Gupta, however, said he was not aware of Chopra’s letter. “I have not seen it but if the Environment Ministry has received any communication, we will naturally look into it,” he told The Indian Express.

Chopra said the ministry was yet to acknowledge his letter. “I emailed it to a number of Ministry officials on August 13,” he said. “Since the Ministry does not always respond immediately, I thought I would give it a couple of weeks before writing to them again.”

In July, the committee had submitted two reports after members disagreed on the ideal width for hill roads. However, both the reports flagged various shortcomings and recommended that a note be sent to the environment ministry for “detailed enquiries and necessary action”. The reports have been submitted to various Union ministries and the Supreme Court, according to The New Indian Express.

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