1. The Char Dham road debate

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment

The Supreme Court on Thursday reserved its judgment on an appeal by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for relaxing its September 2021 order that specified the road width under the Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana (Char Dham Highway Development Project) of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). “There is no such defence versus environment argument at all… You have to balance both concerns,” the court observed.

A flagship initiative of the Centre, the Rs 12,000-crore highway expansion project was envisaged in 2016 to widen 889 km of hill roads to provide all-weather connectivity in the Char Dham circuit, covering Uttarakhand’s four major shrines — Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — in the upper Himalayas.

Laying the foundation stone in December 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the project as a tribute to those who lost their lives during flash floods in the state.

The controversy

In 2018, the road-expansion project was challenged by an NGO for its potential impact on the Himalayan ecology due to felling trees, cutting hills and dumping muck (excavated material). The Supreme Court formed a high-powered committee (HPC) under environmentalist Ravi Chopra to examine the issues.

In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members disagreed on the ideal width for hill roads. In September, the Supreme Court upheld the recommendation of four HPC members, including Chopra, to limit the carriageway width to 5.5 m (along with 1.5 m raised footpath), based on a March 2018 guideline issued by MoRTH for mountain highways.

The majority report by 21 HPC members, 14 of them government officials, favoured a width of 12m as envisaged in the project following national highway double-lane with paved shoulder standards: 7 m carriageway, 1.5 m paved shoulders on both sides, and 1 m earthen shoulders on either side for drains and utilities (hillside) and crash barrier (valley side).

A wider road requires additional slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, dumping and deforestation – all of which will further destabilise the Himalayan terrain, and increase vulnerability to landslides and flash floods.

‘No rule of law’

HPC chairman Chopra wrote to the Environment Ministry in August 2020, underlining how the project was being implemented in brazen violation of statutory norms “as if the Rule of Law does not exist”. These include:

WORK WITHOUT VALID PERMISSION: Project work and felling of trees on different stretches, adding up to over 250 km, has been continuing illegally since 2017-18. A work order issued by the state Forest Department in September 2018 was not only post facto but also legally untenable. In fact, the department had written to the developer back in February 2018: “Char Dham project is related to the ambitious plan of the Honourable PM… considering the importance of the project… tree felling in the stretches quoted above is almost complete even though doing so without complying with the conditions of the in-principle approval is a clear violation.”

MISUSING OLD CLEARANCES: Work started on stretches adding up to over 200 km on the basis of old forest clearances issued to the Border Roads Organisation during 2002-2012. This is illegal and defeats the regulatory purpose since the scope of work has changed drastically with “enormous hill cutting” undertaken. Muck has just been pushed down the slope along NH-125, posing a serious threat to the environment and local habitat.

FALSE DECLARATION: Tree felling, hill cutting and muck dumping on stretches adding up to over 200 km commenced by falsely declaring that these stretches did not fall in the Eco Sensitive Zones of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajaji National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park etc.

WORK WITHOUT SEEKING CLEARANCE: Work began on various stretches, adding up to at least 60 km, after withdrawing applications for forest clearance without furnishing reasons.

VIOLATION OF SC DIRECTIVE: Work started on stretches adding up to at least 50 km, even though the state government said in an affidavit in April 2019 that stretches where work had not already begun would be subject to the direction of the SC.

The defence angle

Even as the project grappled to come clean, it garnered support from the MoD that moved an appeal before the Supreme Court in November, seeking “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7 m (or 7.5 m in case there is a raised kerb)” with 8-10 m formation width to “meet the requirement of the Army”.

While conceived primarily to facilitate the Char Dham yatras (pilgrimage) and to boost tourism, the project always had a strategic angle to it as the highways would facilitate troop movement to areas closer to the China border. Suddenly, this became the sole justification for building wider roads.

But the MoD went a step further. Its affidavit on January 15 said that “unfortunately, notwithstanding the security of the country and the need of the defence forces to resist external aggression, if any, at the Indo-China Border”, the HPC chairman and two members had recommended that “no credence should be given to the needs of the armed forces”.

Chopra reacted immediately. Emphasising that “no convincing argument exists in the recent affidavit of the MoD to ignore and override the profound and irreversible ecological damage to the Himalayas that will impact each and every one of us and generations to come”, he urged the Supreme Court to ask the MoD to “withdraw imputations” of “insincerity of motive” against him and two other HPC members.

Speed versus stability

The wider the road, the quicker the defence deployment and supplies. But widening a mountain highway, particularly on the young, still-unsettled Himalayas, runs the risk of leaving the slopes more unstable.

In fact, the HPC argued that “a disaster-resilient road is much more critical” than a wider road “prone to frequent blockages, landslides and recurring slope failures”, concluding that an intermediate width for Himalayan highways was more judicious even for the country’s defence needs.

During the hearing on Wednesday, the counsel for the NGO pointed out how three valleys in Pithoragarh situated close to the China border were cut off due to landslides for two months, pleading that the Army, as well as civilians, required a safe, reliable road and not one that remained blocked or got washed away periodically.

The way things stand

Both parties concluded their arguments on Thursday. While the NGO underlined the government’s disregard for the September 2020 court order when MoRTH unilaterally relaxed its guideline for hill roads last December, the government furnished a two-page report on the steps taken for landslide mitigation.

The judgment is likely to serve as a benchmark for “balancing both concerns” within the legal framework, and draw a not-so-fine line between vanity projects and strategic imperative.

Source: The Indian Express

2. Who is Devasahayam, the first Indian layman to be conferred sainthood?

Relevant for GS Prelims

A Hindu man from Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, who converted to Christianity in the 18th century, is set to become the first Indian layman to be declared a saint by the Vatican on May 15, 2022. Devasahayam Pillai, who took the name ‘Lazarus’ in 1745, was first approved for sainthood in February 2020 for “enduring increasing hardships” after he decided to embrace Christianity, the Vatican said.

Devasahayam is said to have faced harsh persecution and imprisonment after he decided to convert to Christianity, ultimately resulting in his killing in 1752. While he was declared eligible for sainthood last year, the Vatican announced the date of the ceremony on Tuesday.

So, what do we know about Devasahayam Pillai?

Born on April 23, 1712 in the village of Nattalam in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari District, Devasahayam went on to serve in the court of Travancore’s Maharaja Marthanda Varma. It was here that he met a Dutch naval commander, who taught him about the Catholic faith.

In 1745, soon after he was baptised, he assumed the name ‘Lazarus’, meaning ‘God is my help’. But he then faced the wrath of the Travancore state, which was against his conversion.

“His conversion did not go well with the heads of his native religion. False charges of treason and espionage were brought against him and he was divested of his post in the royal administration,” a note issued by the Vatican in February 2020 read. He was imprisoned and subjected to harsh persecution.

“While preaching, he particularly insisted on the equality of all people, despite caste differences. This aroused the hatred of the higher classes, and he was arrested in 1749,” the Vatican stated.

On January 14, 1752, just seven years after he became a Catholic, Devasahayam was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest. Since then, he has widely been considered a martyr by the Catholic community in South India. His body is now at Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in the Diocese of Kottar.

Why was he approved for sainthood?

In 2004, the diocese of Kottar in Kanyakumari, along with the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) recommended Devasahayam for beatification to the Vatican. In February, last year, the Vatican declared that he was eligible for sainthood.

He was declared blessed by the Kottar diocese in 2012, 300 years after his birth. “In remarks that day during the midday ‘Angelus’ prayer in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI recalled Devasahayam as ‘faithful layman’. He urged Christians to “join in the joy of the Church in India and pray that the new Blessed may sustain the faith of the Christians of that large and noble country,” the note from the Vatican stated.

What was the controversy surrounding his name?

Devasahayam’s ascent to sainthood was not without controversy. In 2017, two former IAS officers wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato, who was then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, urging them to drop Devasahayam’s last name ‘Pillai’ as it was a caste title. However at the time, the Vatican declined their request.

It was only in February 2020, when the Vatican cleared him for sainthood, that they dropped ‘Pillai’ from his name, referring to him as ‘Blessed Devasahayam’.

Source: The Indian Express

3. Why North Chennai is the worst-hit in this year’s heavy rains

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment

In 2015 and during many such extreme weather systems that Chennai has witnessed, it was mostly central and southern parts of the Tamil Nadu capital that bore the brunt. However, in the rains that have lashed Chennai in the past five days, North Chennai, the city’s congested neighbourhood with a largely working class population and several industries, is worst-affected.

Why is North Chennai more impacted due to heavy rains than other areas?

That is largely thanks to its low-lying topography. While the entire Chennai city is vulnerable to waterlogging for many reasons, including a much lower elevation above the sea level, which is often about six metres, what has made things worse for North Chennai is the absence of storm water drain networks and poor desilting of canals.

Multiple officials of Chennai Corporation, who had been managing waterlogging in North Chennai since last Sunday, said the debris from construction and other commercial activities was another key factor that has led to flooding in North Chennai. “Storm water drains here are inadequate in number and those existing networks and canals too were blocked.”

Canals of North Chennai

There are about 14 canals in the North Chennai region. Other than the famous Buckingham canal, Otteri Nullah, Kodungaiyur canal, Captain Cotton canal, Ekangipuram canal, Ainsley canal, Madhavaram Surplus Course and Link Canal are among the major waterways that helped in flood mitigation.

However, in most of the streets and neighbourhoods that were flooded this time, it took longer than usual for the water to recede. That happened not only due to lack of drains but also because of faulty road planning wherein relaid roads and several concrete road stretches have been higher than houses and building complexes either side.

Low-lying areas

Vyasarpadi, Pulianthope, Kodungaiyur and Pattalam, which is one of the largest marketplaces, are among the most vulnerable localities in North Chennai. While Vyasarpadi and Puilanthope areas are in knee-deep waters with just 10 cm rains, flood water seemed to have no exit route this time in areas like Pattalam after last Saturday’s 22cm rains.

Tondiarpet, Washermenpet, Mannady, several pockets of Ayanavaram, Royapuram, Tiruvottiyur, Periyar Nagar, Sidco Nagar, MKB Nagar, Jamalia, Kolathur, Otteri and Perambur are among the other low-lying areas in North Chennai that are vulnerable to water-logging.

Affected areas

Pulianthope is one of the worst-hit areas in the ongoing rains. Pulianthope Main Road, Pattalam and K M Garden, Tiruvottiyur, Choolai, Jawahar Nagar, many neighbourhoods in Perambur and Vyasarpadi are among the areas where roads and residential, commercial stretches have been inundated for the past one week. The situation worsened with heavy rains on Wednesday night.

Source: The Indian Express

4. What’s behind the crisis at Belarus-Poland border

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues

Thousands of migrants have flocked to Belarus’ border with Poland, hoping to get to Western Europe, and many of them are now stranded at the frontier, setting up makeshift camps as Polish security forces watch them from behind a razor-wire fence and prevent them from entering the country.

look at what led to the standoff:

What is behind the crisis?

Belarus was rocked by months of massive protests following the August 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a sixth term in office. The opposition and the West rejected the result as a sham.

Belarusian authorities responded to the demonstrations with a fierce crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

The European Union and the US reacted by imposing sanctions on Lukashenko’s government.

Those restrictions were toughened after an incident in May when a passenger jet flying from Greece to Lithuania was diverted by Belarus to Minsk, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich. The EU called it air piracy and barred Belarusian carriers from its skies and cut imports of the country’s top commodities, including petroleum products and potash, an ingredient in fertilizer.

A furious Lukashenko shot back by saying he would no longer abide by an agreement to stem illegal migration, arguing that the EU sanctions deprived his government of funds needed to contain flows of migrants. Planes carrying migrants from Iraq, Syria and other countries began arriving in Belarus, and they soon headed for the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Pavel Latushka, a member of the Belarusian opposition, charged that state-controlled tourist agencies were involved in offering visa support to migrants and helping them drive to the border.

The EU accused Lukashenko of using the migrants as pawns in a “hybrid attack” against the 27-nation bloc in retaliation for the sanctions. Lukashenko denies encouraging the flow of migrants and said the EU is violating migrants’ rights by denying them safe passage.

What has been the response by EU countries?

During the summer, Lithuania introduced a state of emergency to deal with small groups of migrants and strengthen its border with Belarus. It set up tent camps to accommodate the growing number of migrants.

This week, larger groups have gathered at the Polish border, and authorities in Warsaw sent riot police and other forces there to bolster the border guards. Polish authorities estimated about 3,000-4,000 were there. Some people used shovels and wire cutters to try to break through a razor-wire fence to cross. Polish authorities prevented hundreds of attempts by migrants to cross. Eight deaths have been confirmed, and temperatures have fallen below freezing at night.

The EU has made a strong show of solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. EU officials are expected to discuss another round of sanctions against Belarus, and European Council President Charles Michel said for the first time that the bloc would consider the possibility of financing “physical infrastructure” such as barriers or fences on the border.

Analysts say Lukashenko’s heavy-handed approach would likely backfire.

“Such brutal tactics would make Belarus toxic and delay the prospect of talks with the EU,” said Artyom Shraybman, a Belarusian political analyst who was forced to leave the country under pressure from authorities. “European politicians won’t engage in talks under pressure.”

Pavel Usau, head of the Center for Political Analysis and Prognosis based in Poland, also said Lukashenko is mistaken if he thinks he can force the EU into concessions.

“Lukashenko expects the EU to give in to pressure and ask Poland to let migrants cross into Germany,” Usau said.

“But the EU realizes that doing so would allow Lukashenko to emerge as the winner and encourage him to continue to take further such steps, raising the number of migrants to tens of thousands.”

The Belarusian opposition has urged the EU to take even tougher measures, including a trade embargo and a ban on transit of cargo via Belarus.

What is Russia’s role?

Belarus has received strong support from its main ally, Russia, which has helped buttress Lukashenko’s government with loans and political support.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the migrants flows resulted from the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Western-backed Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. He challenged the EU to offer financial assistance to Belarus to deal with the influx.

At the same time, the Kremlin angrily rejected Poland’s claim that Russia bears responsibility for the crisis.

Usau said Russia could step in as a mediator in the hope of improving ties with Germany and other EU nations.

What comes next?

Belarus is estimated to host between 5,000 and 20,000 migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Many have run out of money and grown increasingly desperate as the winter approaches. Belarusian residents are uneasy about their presence, raising pressure on the authorities to act.

Some observers expect Lukashenko to escalate the crisis and pressure the EU to ease sanctions.

“As a minimum, Lukashenko wants to take revenge against the EU, and as a maximum he aims to soften the European sanctions that have dealt a painful blow to key Belarusian industries,” said independent analyst Valery Karbalevich. “Belarusian authorities have tried unsuccessfully to persuade the EU to engage in talks and bargaining, and migrants are just an instrument in a hybrid attack by Minsk.”

“Lukashenko has nothing to lose,” he added. “He’s no longer worried about his reputation.”

Source: The Indian Express