On 27 December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the Char Dham highway project in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. The project, estimated to cost Rs 12,000 crore, aims to improve road connectivity to four revered Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas. It involves widening 900 kilometres of national highways leading to the Char Dham spots—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. The government’s stated goal is to make the journey to these sites safer and faster by building all-weather roads as well as a series of tunnels, bypasses and bridges.
A day before the inauguration, Modi tweetedthat the Char Dham highway project will give a “strong boost” to connectivity and tourism in the region. “I assure you that whenever you will come for Kedarnath, Badrinath yatra, you will remember this government and Nitin ji like Shravan is remembered,” Modi said at the inauguration. He was referring to Nitin Gadkari, the union minister for road transport and highways, and Shravan, a character in the Ramayana known for taking his aged parents to pilgrimage sites despite great obstacles.
“This is the prime minister’s pet project,” Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, an environmental non-governmental organisation based in Uttarkashi, told me over the phone. “The Char Dham circuit is one of the most significant pilgrimage spots for Hindus and the road building is meant to increase religious tourism to the shrines.”
News reports have suggested that Modi may launch his campaign for the 2019 general elections from Kedarnath, an ancient shrine in the Garhwal Himalayas that is significant for many Hindus. The Prime Minister’s Office has reportedly been directly monitoring the Char Dham project, and the Bharatiya Janata Party government wanted it completed ahead of the general elections next year. Modi had announced a March 2019 deadline for the project, while Gadkari had set a more ambitious timeline, targeting completion by the end of this year and even urging the Ministry of Environment and Forests to expedite the necessary clearances. According to a government press release issued in March this year, the project has since been delayed—though the reason for this remains unclear—and is now likely to be completed by March 2020.
However, environmental organisations and activists have raised concerns about the project, stating that no environmental impact assessment (EIA) was conducted even though the highways are located in an eco-sensitive zone. They argue that the government has misused a technical loophole in the law to escape environmental scrutiny of the project. “Bypassing the whole EIA process was to execute the project faster without giving any consideration to the vulnerability and fragility of this disaster prone area,” Bhanot said.