NGT directs NHAI to budget for restoring the environment damaged on the Udhampur-Banihal highway

  • During expansion of the highway in between Udhampur and Banihal town in Jammu and Kashmir, the national highway authorities and contractors have been dumping the construction waste in Tawi and Chenab rivers.
  • This is disrupting the natural course of the rivers and threatening habitations downstream of the rivers.
  • The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to set apart an amount of Rs. 1.29 billion for restoration of damage to the environment.

Taking serious note of rampant dumping of road construction/widening wastes in river Chenab and Tawi, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has directed the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) to set apart an amount of Rs. 129 crores (Rs. 1.2 billion)  for the “restoration of damage done to the environment” during the widening of National Highway-44 between Udhampur and Banihal in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Damage to the environment has to be reversed which will be the responsibility of the NHAI. Environment and public health are required to be restored on ‘Polluter Pays’ principle,” observed NGT.

The green tribunal has also asked the NHAI to freely proceed against the erring contractors the latter has engaged for the widening of Udhampur-Banihal stretch of the National Highway-44 “if permissible in terms of the contractual rights”.

“But we don’t express any view about such inter se dispute,” reads an NGT order dated October 29, 2021 that also directed the NHAI to prepare an environment restoration plan within a period of one month.  “Restoration plan may be prepared within one month by the NHAI, which may be overseen by the Monitoring Committee constituted by this tribunal, with the assistance of any other expert/institution or otherwise.”

“Thereafter, the same may be executed as far as possible within six months. NHAI will be bound by the direction of the Monitoring Committee subject to any objection against the same being agitated before this tribunal. This covers past violations and in future all possible precautions be observed so as to maintain the environment free from damage,” the NGT directed NHAI.

A view of muck slipping into Tawi river in Udhampur district. Photo by Bivek Mathur.

Pertinently, acting on a petition filed by one Amresh Singh, 45, of Karol, Ramban in the year 2016, the NGT had constituted a Monitoring Committee (MC) headed by justice (retired) J.R. Kotwal of the J&K High Court in the year 2018 to monitor and assess the degradation of the rivers in particular and environment in general by the NHAI and its contractors in the course of four laning of the National Highway from Udhampur to Banihal town. The committee was also mandated to suggest the remedies to undo the harm already done to the environment and to rehabilitate the sites choked with the construction wastes.

In his petition filed through Advocate Swarn Kishore Singh, Amresh Singh had sought remedial action against violation of environmental norms by NHAI and its contractors — M/s Gammon India Ltd (GIL), the Hindustan Construction Co. Ltd. (HCCL) and subcontractors of GIL and HCCL — by dumping muck in river Chenab and Tawi, in the course of road widening from Udhampur to Banihal town in the Ramban district.

Petitioner Amresh Singh told Mongabay-India, “When the highway expansion work began in Karol area of Ramban town, the local contractors dumped the muck irresponsibly and unscientifically around the residential areas and also in the rivers. This caused breathing problems to our people. Our natural ground water sources were also choked/blocked by the contractors. Their irresponsible behaviour pushed me to launch a crusade against the illegal dumping of muck in the rivers”.

To restrain the NHAI and its contractors from unplanned dumping of earth in the rivers and the residential areas, Amresh Singh had also petitioned the district administration at Ramban and the Supreme Court but without any success.

Disposing of his (Amresh Singh’s) petition on October 29, 2021, the NGT also directed the NHAI to set up an in-house environment compliance monitoring panel at the headquarters to monitor compliance of environment clearance/forest clearance conditions for various developmental projects being executed by the NHAI to prevent recurrence of such incidents and to ensure protection of the environment.

No end to violations  

Notwithstanding the fact that the NGT has time and again categorically warned against dumping of earth in the rivers, imposed fines on violations, and asked for following precautions to avoid any further damage to the environment, contractors have been dumping the muck generated from the construction/widening of the roads at will in Tawi and Chenab rivers.

Journalist Asif Iqbal Naik, who writes for Early Times, a daily published from Jammu, and reports often on environment beat, says: “The NHAI and the local contractors are not only threatening the major rivers but small rivulets, ground water sources, and forests all across Jammu and Kashmir during the course of construction of various link roads, PMGSY roads and other projects like tunnels”.

“Due to the perpetual dumping of wastes, the courses of the rivers are getting altered. And this has a direct bearing on people living around,” says Naik.

 “The rivers and the other ground water sources in these districts are being polluted with the muck and the city wastes, the forests are being cut clandestinely at a rapid scale, and the sand and the stone mafia is emptying our rivers like never before. Nobody is penalizing the violators because government too cares little about environment,” asserts Naik.

Brij Mohan Sharma, the member secretary, Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Board, however claimed that a case has been registered against all the violators polluting Tawi and Chenab en-route Udhampur-Banihal stretch of the National Highway in the court. He, however, didn’t share details about which court has been approached by the Pollution Control Board.

Rock and debris from the highway dumped into the Tawi river. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.
Rock and debris from the highway dumped into the Tawi river. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

NHAI admits dumping of 200% muck in some locations 

The rate at which the construction wastes are being dumped in the rivers could be gauged out from the fact that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has itself admitted dumping of 200% muck in at least 5 locations just in Ramban town. Similar heaps of construction wastes could be seen at different locations en-route Udhampur-Banihal stretch of the highway.

In a reply filed before the tribunal, the NHAI has itself estimated the cost of lifting of extra muck as Rs. 20.22 crores (Rs. 202 million).

Since the NHAI has failed to take adequate biological and engineering measures as per the environment management plan (EMP) framed at the time of seeking environment clearances, the muck destabilised at the slopes has eventually slipped into river channels at many sites.

This has caused damage to the environment and hydrological conditions, causing blockade of water course of natural drainage and rivulets besides narrowing the water channels and seasonal nallahs, losses to aquatic life and biodiversity, and geological disturbances in the region.

Way out to minimise damage to environment?  

On April 23, 2018, a committee headed by chairman J&K Pollution Control Board (J&K PCB) with the assistance of Centre Soil and Water Conservation, Research & Training Institute, Chandigarh; Central Pollution Control Board and Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Himalayan Forest Research Institute, Shimla had suggested certain safeguards to be followed in the construction of the highways.

The committee had recommended preparation of technically approved dumping sites well before the beginning of the dumping process, following of appropriate engineering interventions in terraces to hold the muck, and possibility of construction of Plain Concrete Cement (PCC) grids or anchored RCC grid structure on the unstable slopes to prevent the overflow of the muck and debris.

It had also laid emphasis on re-assessment of gabion structures in vulnerable hilly eco-system, construction of gabion walls above the highest flow level of the rivers, repairing of the worn-out gabion walls, rehabilitation of the dumping sites which have attained full capacity with local grass, trees & shrubs, use of Jute Geo Textile (JGT) for establishment of vegetation at vulnerable sites, monitoring of rivers water & ambient air quality as per the CPCB guidelines, preparation of management plans for natural water courses & drainage crossing the project area, among other measures.

What’s NHAI’s, contractors’ stand?

Through an affidavit filed before the National Green Tribunal, the NHAI has claimed that action has been initiated for the rehabilitation of the dumping sites by way of civil work for which tender has already been floated and the work would be awarded by the first week of November 2021.

“Violations are by the contractors against whom the action has been initiated,” the NHAI has told the NGT.

A tipper loading muck and boulders from an under-construction site on Jammu-Srinagar Highway in Udhampur town. Photo by Bivek Mathur.

The NHAI has also claimed that that the contract of one of the contractors, HCCL, has been terminated on March 29, 2021 and notice of termination was also served to Gamman Engineers and Contractors.

The HCCL’s reply to the tribunal is that the violations have taken place because requisite dumping sites were not provided and the number of designated dumping sites were not sufficient to accommodate the quantity excavated of stones, boulders and muck. The contractor has also cited reasons of tough topography for its failure in construction of RCC retaining walls at the slopes of dumping yards.

After recording the statements of NHAI, its contractors, PCB and the applicant, the green tribunal finally observed that as per a report of the J&K Pollution Control Board, an amount of Rs 129 crores (Rs. 1.2 billion) is required for implementing environmental management plan which can be treated as the cost of restoration due to damage to the environment.

Read more: Is the upcoming Char Dham highway speeding towards environmental disaster?


Banner image: A tipper loading muck and boulders from an under-construction site in Udhampur town.


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