The Indian government is pursuing a 900 km-long Char Dham highway project in the ecologically sensitive area of Uttarakhand connecting four major Hindu pilgrimage sites – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.Environmentalists allege that the project is pursued in haste and would result in an irreparable loss. They point out that nature is already giving warning signs with new active landslide zones being formed.Besides facilitating millions of visitors coming to Char Dham every year, it is pointed out that the project is of immense strategic importance for country’s security forces due to its close proximity with the India-China border. The upcoming 900 kilometre-long Char Dham highway project, is being seen as a strategic attempt to bolster preparation of India’s security forces at the India-China border, apart from increasing tourist volume. But while it will facilitate the smooth movement of pilgrims and defence forces, it could be at the cost of the environment in the fragile hill state. According to experts, unchecked construction of the all-weather Char Dham highway may end up triggering disasters in the ecologically sensitive Uttarakhand region. The famous Char Dham pilgrimage in Uttarakhand comprises four holy sites for Hindus – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – and is visited by millions of tourists every year. Following the 2013 Uttarakhand floods the Char Dham National Highway (NH) connectivity programme was launched launched by Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government amidst much fanfare. According to the government, it involves improvement and development of 889 km length of national highways at an estimated cost of approximately Rs. 117 billion (Rs. 11,700 crore). The government has been pushing to complete the project by March 2019 as their eyes are set on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections scheduled for May 2019. A line diagram of the 900km Char Dham Highway. Image from Government of India. However, in March 2018, the Minister of State in India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways Mansukh L Mandaviya told Lok Sabha that the “project is targeted to be completed by March 2020.” To ensure speedy and smooth completion of the strategically important project, it is being monitored at the level of the Prime Minister’s Office in the NDA government, where it is looked over by the immediate staff of the country’s prime minister. Prime Minister Modi, in a series of tweets, while laying the foundation stone of the project in December 2016, had said that the “Char Dham highway project will lead to creation of over 900 km of roads. Connectivity and tourism will get a strong boost through the project. Adding of bypasses, tunnels, bridges and flyovers will ease travel. Proper slope stabilisation will ensure protection against landslides.” But environmentalists working in the region feel that what the government is doing to the fragile region is nothing but criminal. They point out that trees are being cut in an unaccounted manner, hillsides are being cut and the muck is being dumped in the rivers in an unaccounted manner. Experts believe that these infrastructure projects are not mountain-centric and will cause more harm than good in the future. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay. The activists point out the irony of this: the Char Dham project was touted as a tribute to the victims of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods. In 2013, the hill state was struck by one of the most devastating disasters in its recent times when widespread heavy rains resulted in floods across the state, claiming nearly 6,000 lives and inflicted damage worth billions of rupees. Unchecked infrastructure projects were one of the main reasons for aggravating the floods. “When the 2013 disaster happened, everyone agreed that this was developmental activities overburdening the Himalayas and there is a need to regulate developmental agenda and protect the fragile areas. When they are just such porous mountains why should such a project be conceived?” questioned Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO working towards protection of the Ganga river. She stated that the government worked on all the four valleys simultaneously showing an absolute lack of empathy of the government towards the security of pilgrims travelling to those shrines and towards the residents of those valleys, while also bypassing environmental norms.