New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday approved the widening of roads as part of the Centre's Char Dham road expansion project, agreeing with the government's arguments that wider roads in the area were of strategic importance.
The top court noted that given the "serious challenges to national security" in the recent past, the border security concerns need to be met and movement of troops and equipment is needed.
The three-member bench comprising of Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Surya Kant, and Justice Vikram Nath observed that the Defence Ministry is a specialised body and can decide its operation requirements.
Armed forces' infrastructure needs have to be met to safeguard borders, and highways that are of strategic importance cannot be treated the same way as those in other hilly terrains, the court said.
However, the court also acknowledged the petitioner's environmental concerns, and said it was forming an oversight committee to be headed by a former judge of the top court - Justice AK Sikri.
This committee - which will report to the Supreme Court every four months on the project's progress will also have representatives from the National Environmental Research Institute and the Ministry of Environment. Its objective is to ensure implementation of existing recommendations.
The 899-km highways project in an ecologically sensitive area of Uttarakhand - which has seen a worrying number of landslides and floods - will involve the cutting of trees to widen roads that will ultimately connect the four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The road-widening was challenged by Citizens for Green Doon, a local NGO that red-flagged immeasurable destruction to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.
The Defence Ministry had said with the construction of this road, it would be easier for the Indian Army to reach the border with tanks and weapons and would increase connectivity in the mountainous areas.
The petitioner, however, had argued the Army never sought widening of roads.
"Someone high up in political power wanted highways on the Char Dham yatra. And the Army then became a reluctant participant," the petitioner told the Supreme Court, clarifying that it was not saying the needs of the environment trumped that of the defence of the nation.