The Char Dham project is a mega infrastructure initiative by the Indian government to improve the connectivity and accessibility to four sacred sites in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand which includes several tunnels. Image source: Facebook/Raibar
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Char Dham Tunnel Tragedy
Interestingly the recent incident of at least 40 workers being trapped inside Barkot-Silkyara tunnel in Uttarkashi after a portion of the 4.5 km long, supposedly completed portion of the tunnel collapsed early morning on 12th November 2023 showed just how challenging the Char Dham project has been for the Indian Government.
Here’s another explanation of the tragedy:-
Uttrakhand Tunnel Collapse (Explained)
In this thread
– What was project
– How tunnel collapsed
– Where are workers trapped
– How rescue operation is going on
– What is way out
Each n everything u want to know about this incident in simple language with sketch
— STAR Boy TARUN (@Starboy2079) November 19, 2023
At this point, the 41 workers trapped have been rescued after much delays due to the terrain and weather.
Char Dham Project Background
The Char Dham project is a major infrastructure initiative by the Indian government to improve the connectivity and accessibility of four sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. These sites are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, collectively known as the Chota Char Dham. Millions of devotees visit these shrines every year, especially during the summer months when the roads are open.
The project involves widening and repairing 889 kilometres of national highways leading to these shrines, as well as building several bridges and tunnels to bypass accident-prone areas and reduce travel time. The project also includes a railway link and an airport to facilitate the movement of pilgrims. The estimated cost of the project is ₹ 12,000 crores and it was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 27 December 2016.
The project aims to boost tourism, employment and socio-economic development in the region, as well as enhance the security and strategic importance of the border areas. The project is being executed by the Border Road Organisation, a wing of the Ministry of Defence, under the supervision of the National Highways Authority of India.
The project has also faced some environmental and legal challenges, as it involves cutting trees, blasting rocks and dumping debris in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Some experts have warned that the project could increase the risk of landslides, flash floods and wildlife loss in the area.
The photo of Chinese and Indian soldiers clashing for almost 6 hours on the border in the Galwan Valley back in June 2020. It was reported that about 20 Indian soldiers were killed whilst the Chinese suffered about 35 deaths on their end. Image source: The Guardian
Char Dham Key Benefits
It is not a secret that the Chinese have continued to improve the infrastructure on the other side of the Indian border which makes the easier & faster movement of their military assets. However, unlike Pakistan which trains & equips terrorist outfits that infiltrate the borders, there has not been any major movement of Chinese troops into India in the past.
The Indian Government for years have remained inactive on any projects to improve the same infrastructure at their end and that is so until Narendra Modi became the 14th Indian Prime Minister in 2014.
Modi’s Government immediately went into action by first securing the borders with Pakistan (including launching surgical strikes) which over the recent years saw substantial state-sponsored terrorist attacks in India. Military assets & logistics have greatly strengthened and improved and now together with Russia & France, India is one of the leading military assets manufacturers.
Now with an increased intrusion by the Chinese into Indian borders, there has been a greater urgency by the Modi Government to improve the assets & logistics of borders facing China as well. The underlying objective of this Char Dham project is security but there are other corresponding benefits & challenges too.
1. Enhanced safety and comfort for pilgrims
The existing roads to the Char Dham are narrow, winding and often damaged by landslides, floods and snowfall. The project will widen the roads to a minimum of 10 metres, which will allow smooth passage of vehicles and emergency services. The bridges and tunnels will also eliminate sharp curves and steep gradients that pose a risk to travellers. The project will also provide amenities such as parking lots, rest houses, toilets, medical facilities and helipads along the route.
2. Boost to tourism and economy
The project will increase the tourist inflow to the Char Dham region, which will generate employment opportunities and income for the local people. The project will also promote the development of ancillary industries such as hospitality, handicrafts, agriculture and horticulture. The project will also create a market for local products such as wool, honey, herbs and spices.
3. Preservation of culture and environment
The project will respect the cultural and religious sentiments of the pilgrims and the local communities. The project will ensure that no damage is done to the natural beauty and ecology of the region. The project will also adopt eco-friendly measures such as rainwater harvesting, waste management, afforestation and slope stabilisation. The project will also showcase the rich heritage and diversity of Uttarakhand through cultural centres, museums and art galleries.
4. Strategic significance
The project will enhance the strategic importance of Uttarakhand as a border state. The project will improve the connectivity and mobility of the security forces in the region, which will help in safeguarding the national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The project will also facilitate the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, which is a pilgrimage to Tibet that holds immense religious and diplomatic value.
One of the biggest challenges to the people who are living in the highlands in the Himalayas is landslides & heavy snow which can cut off access to cities, towns and villages. The Char Dham project intends to change this so that the people will have all-weather road access. Image source: Scroll
Char Dham’s Main Challenges
The Char Dham project also faces several challenges and criticisms, especially from environmentalists, activists, and experts who have raised concerns about its ecological impact, legal compliance, and feasibility. Some of the major challenges are:
1. Environmental impact
The Char Dham project involves cutting down thousands of trees, blasting hillsides, dumping debris, and altering the natural landscape of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. This could have adverse effects on the biodiversity, wildlife, water resources, soil stability, and climate of the region.
It could also increase the vulnerability of the area to landslides, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. For instance, in 2013, a flash flood triggered by heavy rainfall killed thousands of people and damaged several roads and bridges in Uttarakhand. Many experts have attributed this disaster to the rampant deforestation and construction activities in the region.
2. Legal compliance
The project has been accused of violating several environmental laws and norms, such as the Forest Conservation Act, 1980; the Environment Protection Act, 1986; the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; and the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.
The project has also been challenged in various courts for not obtaining proper clearances, conducting adequate impact assessments, following public consultation processes, or complying with expert recommendations. For instance, in 2018, the Supreme Court appointed a high-powered committee (HPC) to review the project and suggest measures to mitigate its environmental impact.
The HPC submitted several reports highlighting the violations and shortcomings of the project and recommending that the width of the roads should be reduced from 10 metres to 5.5 metres to minimise tree felling and slope destabilisation. However, the government has contested these recommendations and sought exemptions from some of the environmental norms.
The project also faces practical difficulties in terms of its technical design, financial viability, and operational efficiency. The project involves constructing roads and tunnels in high-altitude areas with harsh weather conditions, complex geological features, and limited accessibility. This poses several engineering challenges and risks for the workers and contractors involved in the project.
Moreover, the project’s cost-benefit analysis has been questioned by some experts who have argued that the project may not generate enough revenue or returns to justify its huge investment. Furthermore, the project’s operational efficiency may be hampered by factors such as traffic congestion, road maintenance, waste management, and pilgrim management.
India acquired 15 Chinook helicopters in 2019 & is an advanced multi-mission helicopter that can operate in diverse environments, especially in high-altitude regions and can also fly at night and in adverse weather conditions. It is also used to support BRO’s road-building projects in the difficult terrains of the Northeast by carrying heavy equipment and material through narrow valleys. Image source: Wikipedia/Indian Air Force
In reality, the Char Dham project is a necessary project that India had to embark on as the Chinese military has become more daring to openly intrude on Indian borders. They are testing the system and seeing how India would respond to it both militarily and diplomatically.
India under the Modi Government is not the same India that got beaten up by the Chinese in 1962. It can reply to any intrusions with a powerful punch as we have seen done with the Pakistanis. Not only the infrastructure towards the border is being improved but India also building strategic airforce bases that can handle heavy-duty, high-lift transport aircraft such as Boeing CH47 Chinook & Beoing C-17 Globemaster.
An all-weather road will ensure the Indian Army is able to mobilise its assets faster & strategically. The project itself is not only a remarkable engineering feat but also a crucial asset for India’s security, particularly in the context of Chinese intrusion concerns. Its construction addresses geographical challenges, enhances military preparedness, strengthens border security, and brings economic and social benefits to the region. As India continues to prioritize infrastructure development, projects like the Char Dham play a pivotal role in ensuring the nation’s security and progress.