- Ravi Chopra, an esteemed environmentalist based in Uttarakhand, is renowned for his dedicated efforts to preserve natural resources within the Himalayan region.
- In 2019, the Supreme Court appointed Chopra as chair of a committee to review the controversial Char Dham highway construction project; he later resigned after construction proceeded despite the committtee’s findings that the project could pose significant risks to the ecologically fragile region.
- The Char Dham project drew international attention in November 2023, when a segment of a tunnel collapsed, trapping dozens of workers for 17 days.
- In a recent interview with Mongabay, Chopra discussed the environmental risks and hazards of development in Uttarakhand.
In India, the majority of the population resides in rural areas, and the concept of development is often associated with urbanization. However, in environmentalist Ravi Chopra’s mind, rural development must be intricately tied to an area’s natural resources.
“In the rural areas, the lives of people depend very critically on their immediate surroundings,” Chopra says. Families get their water from a nearby well or pond, farmers get fertilizer from animal dung, villagers get firewood from nearby forests. “So if you change anything in the rural environment, you affect the lives of the rural people immediately.”
Chopra is a veteran conservationist in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand who is renowned for his efforts to preserve natural resources within the Himalayan region. He is also the director of the People’s Science Institute, a nonprofit public interest research organization that serves the needs of rural populations.
Chopra’s career came to international light in November, when a segment of the Silkyara tunnel under construction collapsed, trapping 41 workers for 17 days. The story made headlines around the world, highlighting questions of environmental sustainability that Chopra had raised years earlier.
The 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) tunnel is part of a massive 900-km (552-mi) two-lane national highway project called Char Dham. In 2019, Chopra was appointed as chairperson of a “high-powered committee” created by the Supreme Court to review the project, which aims to provide year-round accessibility to Uttarakhand’s four major Hindu pilgrimage sites: Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri. It’s a mountainous region prone to landslides and floods, and when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Char Dham project, he dedicated it to the 6,000 people who were killed in a 2013 flooding disaster across the Kedarnath Valley.
From the start, the project faced strong opposition from NGOs and activists who criticized the circumvention of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for the ecologically fragile Himalayan region. By law, highway expansions of up to 100 km (62 mi) in length must undergo an EIA — but the highway ministry bypassed this by dividing the total length of the project into 53 smaller segments.
The committee under Chopra’s chairmanship had concluded that widening the road would pose significant risks to the region. But the highway ministry countered with an argument that reducing the road width would pose serious road safety risks, and the Ministry of Defense also warned that reducing the road width would have serious consequences for national defense and security interests. Following this, the Supreme Court approved three stretches of the project near the border with China.
Soon after, Chopra resigned from the committee, stating that his belief that the panel could protect the fragile ecology of the Himalayas “has been shattered.” More than two years later, the Silkyara tunnel collapsed.
Mongabay spoke with Chopra recently via video call. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: How would you define development in the context of rural India?
Ravi Chopra: Generally, what people mean by development is economic development, but in more recent years, the governments in India have confused economic development with economic growth. Gandhiji, for example, considered development only in terms of making people more responsible citizens and more humane. Now, when we look at economic development in the present context, we find that it is economic growth at any cost, and therefore it is extremely destructive of the natural environment — that is one of the major problems of what is called development in this country today.
Mongabay: What makes you say that development has become more economic-based in Uttarakhand?
Ravi Chopra: A critical feature of development in the last 10 years has been the weakening of the environmental regulatory systems in the country. Take the Char Dham project, for example. An environmental impact assessment should have been the starting point for such a huge project, yet by using subterfuge, the government avoided the environmental impact assessment. The result has been not only colossal damage to the natural environment but also endangering the lives and security of people who use the Char Dham roads, which also include the armed forces.
Mongabay: Do you think the breaking of the Char Dham project into individual projects was a deliberate attempt?
Ravi Chopra: Yes, that’s why I called it a subterfuge. According to the current rules, the road is a linear project; linear projects, if they are less than 100 km in length don’t require environmental impact assessment. That’s why this 900-km-long project was broken down into 53 separate projects to avoid the need to do an environmental impact assessment.
The issue was taken to the courts; [it] went to the National Green Tribunal [which takes cases relating to environmental protection, forests and natural resources] and then to the Supreme Court. In September 2019, the Supreme Court issued an order appointing a high-powered committee, authorizing the committee to call for an environmental impact assessment. The committee asked the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways to carry out a rapid environmental impact assessment. The judge had said he wanted the report in 4 months, which, of course, was not possible. We finished it in about 7 or 8 months, but in all that time, the ministry just took its own sweet time. They were just dodging it; they did not want an environmental impact assessment to be done because then all kinds of conditions might have been imposed on the project, the do’s and don’ts.
Mongabay: What were your reasons for quitting the High-Powered Committee?
Ravi Chopra: The committee came up with, I think, about 34 or 35 recommendations. These were unanimous; there was no dispute about them, and almost none of the significant recommendations were being implemented. Every time I or the entire committee tried to push for the implementation of its recommendations, which were mandated by the court, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways simply did not respond.
There was one critical issue on which there was a dispute within the committee, and that had to do with the width of the road. The project was officially launched sometime in March 2018. The Ministry of Transport and Highways issued a notification saying that based on the experience of earlier years of building national highways in the mountain regions, it had concluded that having 10-meter-wide [33-foot-wide] roads was leading to a lot of devastation and degradation of the environment. Therefore, it is recommended the width be limited to 5.5 m [18 ft]. Yet the ministry went ahead to construct the highway that was 10 m wide. I thought there was no point in staying on the committee because we simply couldn’t ensure that safe and sustainable roads were going to be built, and that is why I quit.
Mongabay: What effects will the Char Dham Project have on the residents and villages situated along the highway lanes proposed for expansion?
Ravi Chopra: The effect of the road widening has several aspects. In many locations, those roads pass through areas that are either very urban, which means on the outskirts of the urban areas, or that are urbanizing areas (they are still classified as rural). In the urban areas, road width is reduced because it is heavily built up, and it’s too expensive to remove everybody and pay them compensation.
Wherever the road goes, commerce follows, so people have built houses, hotels, dhabas, everything — and all of them have to be removed from that location. The compensation that is given is certainly not adequate for them to go and buy a plot of land somewhere else, particularly since this has affected small hotels and dhaba owners, because if they tried, they would want to locate a new establishment along the wider road, but they find that that plot has probably already been brought up by some big hoteliers. When I was a part of the committee, we received a large number of complaints from people saying this was going to affect their livelihood.
The second thing is the heightened insecurity of these roads. As I said, in some parts, new landslide stretches have been opened up, but the security walls are not adequate. So, thirdly, it causes a lot of inconvenience when roads get blocked because of landslides.
Fourthly, it is not a direct impact on the people, but there is a major impact on the rivers. When you cut a mountain slope, you are supposed to take the debris and use it for constructing the road. That isn’t done. Another alternative is to have a dump yard and dump the debris. The dump yard is to be constructed in a very scientific manner, but that is rarely done. Typically, the waste is just pushed down the slope into the river. The moment you do that, the river water becomes turbid, sunlight does not enter the river and there are a lot of organisms — tiny organisms, microorganisms that live on the bed of the river or float in the water. They need the sunlight to make their food, and when they don’t get that, they die. If they die, then the higher animals that feed on them suffer, so it affects the entire food chain in the river.
Mongabay: How would the ongoing project impact the average person, and what potential repercussions might ensue for them?
Ravi Chopra: The Himalayas are a young mountain. They are still in a stage of formation, and therefore, while the Himalayan mountains may look very strong and stable, they are not; they are constantly growing, and there are major regions of structural weaknesses throughout. The wider the road, the more slope you have to cut. The more slope you cut, the more likely you are to face problems exposing weak surfaces. It requires cutting trees on the slope; once the trees are gone, there’s very little to hold the soil on the slope. If the soil gets washed away, then you have lost a carbon sink, which is another environmental disaster in this age. But you may also alter the course of the underground springs; finally, in the process of cutting the slope, you may have exposed weaknesses, and if the protection walls are not adequate, then you can have a lot of landslides.
When a project is designed, an estimate is made of the number of trees that are going to be cut down, and permission to go ahead with the project is also based on how many trees will be lost and all kinds of vegetation and flora and fauna species. All that is supposed to be estimated in the course of the environmental impact assessment, so the forest department does a counting of the trees that will be cut. If, after the cutting, there is a landslide, nobody counts how many more trees were lost. So, the actual loss is much greater. There are a number of problems that arise when you want to cut a road or widen an existing road in the mountains.
Mongabay: Uttarakhand witnessed a tragic event of the collapsed Silkyara tunnel, which was also part of the project. Many other incidents have also come to light — did you anticipate such disasters?
Ravi Chopra: The report of the committee is full of examples of where prior geological investigations were inadequate. Given the fragility of the mountains in this area, very careful and detailed investigations are required. But this project was done in a hurry, therefore the environmental impact assessment was avoided. Geological investigations that were required were not done, and so we see that the hills and the mountains were crumbling at various locations. While we did not highlight this specific location that would have a collapse or a disaster, we did cite many landslides that had occurred and that were likely to occur because of inadequate geological investigations, and this is just one of those kinds of problems that we had definitely highlighted.
Mongabay: What would be the safest way to incorporate construction in the hills, and what are the current roads and dams under construction doing to the environment?
Ravi Chopra: The safest way is to avoid things. There are different types of problems that would affect dams and roads. For example, many of the dams are located in glacial valleys; the glaciers don’t recede as one piece. The glacier does not behave as a single bowl; they have parts that may have a lot of snow cover; there may be other parts that do not have so much snow cover. So, when a glacier recedes or melts, it often tends to fragment, and where it breaks, the molten ice forms a lake or a small pond. The boundary of the lake or the pond is nothing but the moraine of the glacier. The moraines are debris; these are rocks, stones, mud, etc. It is a kind of natural wall that is not very strong, and if there is a heavy downpour and the amount of water and slush coming into that water body increases, the pressure might break the wall, and then that whole water body will empty, like the Chorabari Lake emptied in 2013 and led to the Kedarnath disasters. Any dam or other structures downstream will be destroyed. As climate change intensifies, these kinds of disasters will increase.
Secondly, there is a region in the high Himalayas that is labeled as a periglacial zone. In Uttarakhand, this region would be where the river bed is at an elevation of about 2,000 or 2,200 meters [6,560 or 7,218 feet]; above that elevation, glaciers have receded in the recent geological past. They’ve left behind huge amounts of debris in their valleys. In the event of very heavy rainfall, because the valleys are narrow, the water level in the stream rises, and it takes all the debris that is lying on the sides of the valley and pushes it downstream. If the valley narrows downstream, all that solid matter forms a wall with more water coming in from the back. Eventually, the wall breaks, and the stream rushes down with even greater energy and will destroy anything further downstream. That is how the Vishnuprayag dam was destroyed in 2013. There was a committee that I headed in 2013, and we recommended to the government not to build any dams in the periglacial zone.
Mongabay: Would you call the Kedarnath disaster a natural calamity or a man-made disaster? And is the construction happening in such regions safe?
Ravi Chopra: First of all, if there had been no dam, the flood would have come rushing down the river and would have passed downstream. But we had dams that blocked the flow of the water, and there was so much water that it broke the dam, and each time a dam breaks, the water acquires energy — greater energy as it moves downstream. So even though the rainfall could be described as a natural event, the destruction that occurred was not simply natural.
Now, the kind of construction that is currently going on in Kedarnath, and definitely in Badrinath, is most unwise. The Badrinath Valley floor is made up of rocks and debris that have rolled down the mountainsides over a long period of centuries, if not thousands of years. So, the bed of the valley is not very stable in an earthquake, and anything that you construct on top of that bed is susceptible to damage or destruction, depending on how well it is made.
Secondly, having so many people drive up to these locations, particularly in cars that are driven by fossil fuels, generates a lot of greenhouse gases. These valleys are extremely narrow, they have canyons, so the greenhouse gases that are generated in the exhaust begin to rise. Black carbon particles move and settle on the glaciers, which enhances melting. We are creating conditions that will damage the glaciers and lead them to melt fast. The same thing is happening with the massive number of helicopter flights that go to these locations every day during the tourist season.
Mongabay: With the recent Silkyara tunnel collapse, do you believe the government should take accountability for such accidents, as they are a culmination of various environmental factors?
Ravi Chopra: I would not say they are due to various factors; they are due to various mistakes, and when someone using public funds makes such grievous mistakes, they should be held accountable. Here again, the importance of the EIA is highlighted. In an EIA for a project like this, there is supposed to be a chapter on disaster management. Even if the EIA and the chapter were not done very rigorously, at least some thought would have been given to the possibility of disasters, particularly of the type that we saw. Therefore, there should have been two or three tunnels along the length of the tunnel and two or three exit tunnels along the length of the main tunnel. The main tunnel is fairly long, 4.5 km [2.8 mi]; they should have had a couple of exit tunnels on the side as well.
Mongabay: what are your thoughts on the increasing tourism in the state of Uttarakhand?
Ravi Chopra: Tourism in Uttarakhand has been largely confined to the Char Dham shrines, the Corbett National Park, Mussoorie and Nainital. These have been the big draws. But in the last 20-odd years since the formation of the state, many more parts of the state are now accessible, so it is high time that tourism is spread out over the state, and therefore the benefits flow to a much larger population. All these parts have more or less reached the limits of their carrying capacity, or the limits have been exceeded. For example, on a typical summer day, something like 100,000 tourists visit Mussoorie, and I think the stationary population of Mussoorie may not be more than 30,000 or 35,000. This puts a tremendous burden on natural resources, particularly water.
Secondly, this builds on a large cloud of pollutants that gradually comes up from the plains. The plains have a major, almost permanent air pollution problem, so any additional increase then becomes very difficult to manage. So, the third thing is that it has now pushed up property prices in these locations to what I should say are insane levels that affect a lot of the local population. What is required in a state like Uttarakhand is essentially a green economy.
A green economy begins with the revival of forests. The forests will yield several resources for downstream usage, and along with that, there is a tremendous need to invest in mountain agriculture because it has a tremendous potential to produce large amounts of niche products. I am talking about an integrated farming system that has existed here throughout history. It involves having good forests, which supply water and fodder for the animals, which means more dung for fertilizer, resulting in greater productivity in the fields. It also requires the regeneration of springs so there is an adequate water supply. It requires paying attention to the farm animals, and it requires input in the form of new knowledge.
For example, now that we are in the midst of climate change, the temperatures shift higher both in terms of the temperature level and the elevation. For example, Almora, which may never have seen 40° [Celsius, or 104° Fahrenheit] in the summer back in 2000, now has several days of 40°. So, what are the crops that will do well in the changing climate? This information has to be generated and shared with the people, and accordingly, advice given on what should be cultivated and what should not be cultivated.
Mongabay: what do you think would be the most ethical way to conserve the environment of Uttarakhand?
Ravi Chopra: Since the early 1960s, when we started road building for defense purposes in this region, we have been neglecting environmental protection and conservation. For about 15 or 20 years, the Chipko movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s flourished, and there was some regeneration of forests and the environment in general, but thereafter, the destruction of Uttarakhand’s environmental resources has been very rapid, particularly after statehood. Environmentally, I would say Uttarakhand is in quite a bad shape and it is getting worse. For example, in Dehradun city, something like 22,000 full-grown mature trees of all kinds are being cut down to widen the roads so that more tourists can go up to Mussoorie. But in these places, the carrying capacity is exhausted.
Eventually, when the climate change impacts become unbearable, then, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Then, we will wake up and we will try and become more sensitive to nature and the environment. But in the meantime, a lot of people would have suffered, and most of the people who will suffer will be the poorer ones.