NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it cannot turn a blind eye to the troop built up and shoring up of infrastructure by China at India’s border and rule that environment will always trump national security to brush aside the Centre’s plea for widening of strategic feeder roads, popularly known as Chardham project, linking defence facilities along Indo-China border.
Countering vehement opposition to Centre’s plea for widening of feeder roads leading to Indo-China border locations by NGO ‘Citizens for Green Doon‘ on the ground that it would cause an environmental disaster, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud, Surya Kant and Vikram Nath said, “There is no doubt that sustainable development has to be balanced with national security requirements. Can the highest constitutional court override the concerns of armed forces, particularly given the contemporary developments at the Indo-China border?”
“In the 1962 war, our troops were without supplies and had to undertake arduous treks to reach the border outposts. We know what happened. Given the situation at the border and the new legislation passed by the Chinese government to override claims of neighbouring countries on disputes over border lands, there is an urgent need to build infrastructure to carry heavy artillery, tanks, missile launchers and swift movement of troops,” the AG said.
“The army does not want to be caught napping as it was in 1962,” Venugopal said, adding the border roads – from Badrinath to Mana pass, From Gangotri to Muningla pass, and Pithoragarh to Lipulekh pass – have been widened for movement of army trucks. “But, the widening of border roads are meaningless if the feeder roads are not widened,” he said.
Agreeing with the AG during the inconclusive hearing of the case, Justice Chandrachud-led bench said, “There has not been any radical change in the border infrastructure since 1962. This aspect cannot be ignored by the court. Environment remains a concern and it can be protected while not disregarding the security concerns.”
Referring to the arguments of NGO’s counsel Colin Gonsalves that the heavy traffic that these widened roads will carry would lead to excessive carbon shoot deposit on glaciers accelerating their melting and terming the case as one of the most important climate change cases, the bench said, “Yes, there is glacial melting. But, it is not just because of construction of roads. It is more a systemic issue and the large carbon footprints.”
“The defence of India requires upgradation of the roads. Look at the preparedness on the other side (Chinese side). Can the environment trump the defence requirements or should it be balanced,” the bench asked. “IF the government had said it was widening the roads for tourism purposes, then they could have been non-suited. When the roads are widened for defence purposes, it is but natural that pilgrims would also use it,” Justice Chandrachud said and gave numerous examples from the Leh-Ladakh region to counter the NGO’s arguments.
Gonsalves said that large-scale hill cutting and road laying activities on the young Himalayan mountain range would be a sure recipe for disaster and climate change. He said pilgrims earlier used to trek and there was no need for widening the roads to invite wrath of nature, which has been evident through a series of catastrophic events since the NDA government’s pet project has been given effect to. The SC had rightly limited the widening of the roads to 5.5 metre against the Centre’s demand for 10 metre double lane paved shoulder roads, he said.
Gonsalves said that during a candid conversation with members of the NGO, CDC Bipin Rawat had said that there was no need to widen the roads as the existing ones were good to meet the requirements of armed forces. “Rawat, a true Pahadi (hillman) had said that armed forces have enough capable helicopters to airlift heavy artillery, armaments and troops,” he said. Later he clarified that Rawat had not met members of the NGO but a journalist when he had made those comments.

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