Rajat Sharma

Environmental protection cannot be at the cost of national security

AKBToday I want to share with you some facts relating to what our valiant army jawans are facing while defending our borders.

Can you imagine our army has to fight a battle in court to seek permission to widen the border feeder roads so that heavy army equipment can reach the frontier? Can you believe our army, which needs good roads to reach the border, has to fight legal battles? Can you believe there are NGOs in India which tell the court not to allow the army to widen border roads because this will mean cutting down trees?

Our army has to plead before the apex court not to prevent widening of border roads in the name of protecting trees. Our army tells the court that the adversary is ready with its infrastructure on its side of the border and it needs to widen the border roads from 5.5 metres to 10.5 metres.

We live under the false impression that nobody can stop our army when national security is concerned, but sadly, this is a fact. Whether it is modernisation of army or acquisition of sophisticated weapons, or developing border infrastructure to speed up troop movement, any individual or NGO can go to the court to stall them. Questions relating to systems, rules and environment are raised.

The judiciary, on its part, cannot give a verdict without hearing all concerned parties. In some cases, the hearing stretches over several years. You might be wondering why I am raising this. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court was hearing Centre’s plea for widening of feeder roads leading to India-China border locations in Uttarakhand, which was being vehemently opposed by an NGO ‘Citizens for Green Doon’. This NGO said, cutting of trees can cause environmental disaster.

The Supreme Court bench of Justice D Y Chandrachud, Justice Surya Kant and Justice Vikram Nath said, “There is no doubt that sustainable development has to be balanced with national security requirements. Can the highest constitutional court override the concerns of armed forces, particularly given the contemporary developments at the border?”

The bench also said, “Defence of India requires upgradation of roads. Look at the preparedness on the other side. Can the environment trump the defence requirements or should it be balanced?” Attorney General K K Venugopal gave a detailed presentation on the need to widen the existing roads to 7 to 10 metres width, because the apex court had earlier permitted the width to be only 5.5 metres to meet the requirements of armed forces.

The Attorney General said, “In the 1962 war, our troops were without supplies and had to undertake arduous treks to reach the border outposts. We know what happened. Given the situation at the border and the new legislation passed by the Chinese government to override claims of neighbouring countries on disputes over border lands, there is an urgent need to build infrastructure to carry heavy artillery, tanks, missile launchers and swift movement of troops.”

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Tuesday night, we showed the narrow feeder road leading to Mana, the last border village on India-China border in Uttarakhand. This road needs to be widened on a war footing to carry heavy military equipment, but now the matter has reached the highest court of the land.

Probably, in no other country in the world, an army has to go to court to seek permission for widening roads for the nation’s defence. There are people who may say that the Supreme Court should quash such appeals from NGOs, when defence of India is concerned, but even the apex court has to follow a legal process and hear arguments from all sides.

The Attorney General had to tell the apex court about the huge military build-up by China on the border. China has deployed missiles and rockets, and has built roads leading right up to the Line of Actual Control. Huge military camps have been set up by China.

On the other hand, our army officials have to go to courts to argue that border feeder roads need to be widened. On Tuesday, our reporter Anand Prakash Pandey spoke to Union Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who said, out of 825 kilometres road under Char Dham project, work on nearly 600 km roads is complete, and work on only 225 km road remains. Since the matter is now in Supreme Court, and the Ministry of Defence has placed its views, work can start only after the apex court gives its verdict. The Attorney General showed to the court border road maps to argue that these feeder roads need to be widened.

On the Chinese side, from Ladakh to Uttarkhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, China has already developed road infrastructure, and has built airstrips for its air force. A bullet train is running in Tibet, rail tracks and all-weather roads have been built. On our side, tunnels, roads and bridges are being built in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, but work in Uttarakhand on the famous Char Dham project is now stuck because of legal hassles.

The Char Dham project involves cost of Rs 12,500 crore, and work is going on 85 per cent of the project. Fifteen per cent of the work is entangled in legal disputes. On Tuesday, Gadkari told our reporter that the Centre is not against environmental protection, and if one tree is cut, five new trees are planted after the work is over. He said, the army needs better roads to send heavy military equipment to border posts. National security cannot be compromised on grounds of cutting of trees, he added.

When Justice D Y Chandrachud asked the petitioner NGO’s lawyer whether China is concerned about environment when it is carrying out so many projects in the Himalayan region, the lawyer replied, Chinese government has no concern about environment, but we, in India, should be concerned.

Already, the US Defense Department in Pentagon, in its report, has published images of how China has built a village of 100 dual-use homes on the banks of River Tsari Chu, near Arunachal Pradesh in a territory which it forcibly occupied in 1959. This village is in the disputed area of Upper Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. The village, built last year, is in total violation of bilateral agreements between the two countries. In fact, China has built 628 ‘border defence villages’ along the 2,488 km long Line of Actual Control stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.

There are many in India who complain how China is building villages, camps, roads and railway tracks near the LAC, and then compare these with lack of infrastructure on the Indian side. They forget the basic difference in the politico-legal systems that prevail in India and China.

Here, in India, we have a thriving democracy, where the executive and judiciary have to listen to grievances from all sides, while in China, they have one-party, or rather one-man rule, where the judiciary is subservient to the Chinese Communist Party. Anybody questioning any decision of the Chinese authorities faces charges of sedition and vanishes from public life. The CPC also controls the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) through its Central Military Commission, headed by none other than President Xi Jinping, who is soon going to become lifetime President.

In China, voices of human rights and environment activists are not heard at all. Millions of people are displaced in the name of development in China. But, in India, NGOs and activists go to the courts, even if the matter relates to defence of the country. They try to stall widening of border roads, essential for troop movement, by arguing that thousands of trees will have to be cut.

Which is more important? Defence of India, or saving the trees? I am not in favour of deforestation, but these environmental regulations are meant for normal times. The situation that we are facing on the border requires action on a war footing. In the name of saving trees, we cannot prevent our army from moving up to forward areas by widening roads. Defence of India is supreme. I would like to thank the Supreme Court judges for raising pertinent questions during the hearing of this case. It is sad that we have people who try to stall our army’s movements in the name of environment.

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