On green laws, need a change in attitudes
A set of SOPs for all highway projects near border areas may, unfortunately, be too late to reverse the damage on the fragile Himalayas. But it can engender a change in the attitudes of the authorities and the developers
A set of standard operating procedures (SOP) issued by the Union environment ministry for all highway projects near border areas may, unfortunately, be too late to reverse the damage that unchecked development has wreaked on the fragile Himalayas. But if it can engender a change in the attitudes of the authorities and the developers, it may still help in safeguarding this fragile ecosystem. The document asks for comprehensive studies on the vulnerability of a proposed project site for landslides, slope stability, seismic activity and eco-fragility, and calls for environment-friendly and safe construction methodology. If the proposed route involves tunnelling or drilling, the SOP calls for detailed studies.
Coming as it does months after the first signs of cracks started appearing in houses and buildings in Joshimath, and years after experts first flagged warnings about development projects and highways in the Himalayas, the SOP may achieve little in nudging existing projects towards sustainability. But its attempt at striking a balance between national and defence priorities can become an important signal for future projects, should the government now adopt this approach and implement it rigorously. But to do so, it will have to reconcile this document with its recent moves, including one from July last year that exempted highways in border areas from obtaining prior environment clearances, effectively clearing the path for the controversial high-altitude stretches of the Char Dham project in Uttarakhand. The damage in Joshimath and its adjoining areas is already done. But it is not too late to save the Himalayas. It will need to dispel the attitude of looking at environmental regulation as development roadblocks to achieve any meaningful progress.