The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to follow its 2018 circular while implementing the Rs 12,000-crore Char Dham highway project for better connectivity to shrines in Uttarakhand, PTI reported. The top court instructed the Centre not to widen roads in the area beyond five and a half metres.

The 889-km road widening project is meant to connect four major pilgrimage sites – Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – in Uttarakhand. The 2018 curricular had advised against building full-fledged roads cutting across the Himalayan slopes and specified that carriageway width of intermediate lane configurations will be 5.5 metres with two-lane structures. However, 13 out of 18 members of a high-powered committee formed by the Supreme Court in 2019 are in favour of a 10-metre-wide road, which requires a mountain to be cut to a width of 24 metres.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, told the court that roads in the hilly terrain must be allowed to be widened by seven metres for defence and strategic purposes, especially amid heightened tensions between India and China. He added that the widening of roads by seven metres would facilitate easy movement of Army vehicles towards the border.

“All you have to do is to go by your 2018 guidelines,” a bench headed by Justice RF Nariman told Mehta. “How can you not go by your own guidelines?”

Also read: Road-widening projects in Himalayas for Char Dham pilgrims could be a disaster in making

The top court also accepted a report submitted by the high-powered committee to assess the environmental impact of the road project, according to Hindustan Times. The committee has argued that the Centre’s suggestion of the widening of single lane roads would be detrimental to the ecologically-sensitive area, which is also prone to landslides.

Mehta told the court that a minority of the committee members are in favour of the 5.5-metre limit, according to The Indian Express. Senior Advocate Sanjay Parikh, who appeared for the petitioners in the case, said that widening the roads by 7 to 7.5 metres would suffice for military purposes.

Last month, Ravi Chopra, the chairperson of the high-powered committee had flagged several violations of forest and wildlife laws by the Char Dham project. In a letter to the environment secretary on August 13, Chopra had said the project 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 had asked the environment ministry to take necessary action.

In July, the committee had submitted two reports to the Supreme Court and the Centre after members disagreed on the ideal width for the hilly 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”.