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Displacement and deforestation on Kedarnath route

The massive Char Dham road project in India's Himalayas is generating protests by locals who fear being displaced, as well as by environmentalists fearing for the fragile eco-sensitive zone
<p>Massive landslides are a regular phenomenon in these fragile mountains, experts believe that unplanned widening of road will trigger more landslides [image by: Hridayesh Joshi]</p>

Massive landslides are a regular phenomenon in these fragile mountains, experts believe that unplanned widening of road will trigger more landslides [image by: Hridayesh Joshi]

Last Friday, before the closing of the gates of the Kedarnath temple, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi gave an elaborate speech about the ‘grand reconstruction’ of Kedarnath town. While inaugurating the project he also said the number of people visiting Kedarnath will increase manifold in the coming years.

“You can take this in writing, next year no less than ten lakh (one million) people will come to visit the shrine,” he said. However this ‘development’ is not good news for everyone. Downstream at Agastyamuni, Uma Prasad Bhatt, a local resident is worried. His house is marked for demolition to build an all-weather highway to Kedarnath. This proposed highway is part of Char-Dham project inaugurated by the prime minister last year. Bhatt says authorities want to acquire his property for widening of the road but the compensation they are offering is meagre.

“I live with my brother in this house. Two families are getting a compensation of just INR 1.6 million (USD 24,600). We can’t purchase land and get a house built with that money. Where will we go? What will we do?” Bhatt told thethirdpole.net.

Bhatt is not alone. There are many others who will be affected. The house of 35-year-old Someshwar Benjwal in the same village will also be razed. “I am not going to leave my home. We will sit on the road if they force us to accept this unfair compensation,” Benjwal said.

People like Uma Prasad Bhatt and Someshwar Benjwal are among those who will be displaced but they are not willing to leave their homes [image by: Hridayesh Joshi]
The government wants to complete the process of land acquisition by the end of October 2017 and start construction on this all-weather road which is being touted as a major development project. Officials told us that they have received most of the amount for compensation and they will transfer it to the accounts of those displaced or affected.

“We have received around INR 550 million (USD 8.46 million) for compensation for this district. The compensation will be distributed according to circle rate [the official rate at which land is priced] of the area and the land acquisition act of 2013. [The compensation will be] twice of the circle rate in urban areas and four times in rural areas,” said Mangesh Ghildiyal, the district magistrate of Rudraprayag.

People in Rudraprayag district are protesting against the inadequate compensation they have been offered [image by: Hridayesh Joshi]
However, the villagers in the adjoining areas are not convinced and preparing for the struggle. Part of the problem is the government fixed circle rate. A circle rate is the minimum value at which land can be sold. As such it is often far below the market value of the land, especially if the circle rate has not been revised periodically.

In Rudraprayag activist Ramesh Chandra, who is organising people who are affected, told thethirdpole.net, “People here have formed a sangharsh samiti (committee for struggle) and we are demanding justice. The chief minister had also come to hear us some time back but we don’t see much hope.”

The displacement of people is not the only issue. The project will cause a great deal of ecological damage as well. Tens of thousands of trees will be cut to widen the road. The maximum tree felling will occur in the Narendranagar forest division of Tehri district.

“There are two main highways in the area which falls under my jurisdiction. One is Rishikesh to Chamba and other is Rishikesh to Kirtinagar. Approximately 19,000 trees will be cut for widening of road for this project in these two stretches,” said Rahul Kumar, the district forest officer of Narendranagar.

Such forested areas of Uttarakahnd will see large-scale tree felling for the Char Dham highway project [image by: Hridayesh Joshi]
Rajeev Dheeman, the district forest officer of Rudraprayag, confirmed that more than 7,400 trees will be cut between Rudraprayag and Gaurikund. Environmentalists have raised concerns saying such large tree felling will further destabilise the hills and trigger more landslides. There is special concern for the hundred kilometre Uttarkashi-Gangotri route which has been declared an eco-sensitive zone because of the receding Gangotri glacier and fragile mountains.

The authorities didn’t tell us the exact number of trees which will be cut in the Gangotri eco-sensitive zone but in an affidavit submitted in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) the ministry of road, transport and highways said that between Uttarkashi and Gangotri 12,995 trees have been identified to be removed. The ministry told the NGT that the number of trees to be cut will be reviewed and minimum number of trees will be cut according to site conditions.

Most of trees marked for felling in this eco-sensitive zone are species like cedar (deodar) trees which take several years to grow and protect the environment by holding the water in the land. This dense forest also acts as a sink and protects the Gangotri glacier from melting by absorbing the heat. Moreover, this jungle is critical for the Bhagirathi river as it forms its catchment area.

After the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand, which killed more than 5,000 people, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) submitted a report and identified 37 landslide zones between Dharasu and Gangotri. Environmentalists fear that the damage caused by road widening will lead to an irreparable loss to this region as the cutting of trees will cause more soil erosion.

“Recently, with all the studies around glaciers, it has been discovered that Gangotri glacier is not only the fastest receding glacier but we have seen an obscene quantity of debris which is being stored there. The only way to protect the area is by binding the forest and binding the soil and that can be done by the increasing the vegetation. After having suffered so many disasters in past we should understand that this is a very fragile area and we are sitting at the brink of a receding glacier,” said Mallika Bhanot, who is associated with Ganga Ahvaan, a movement to save the Ganga.

The matter was also taken up by the NGT after a petition was filed in court. The government and road construction authorities have assured the NGT that the work will be done in compliance of law and the guidelines of eco-sensitive zone will not be violated. The go-ahead to the project by the NGT is based on this assurance.