11/17/2023, 17.29
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Hindu pilgrimages and defence against China: a mirror of today's India in the collapsed tunnel

by Alessandra De Poli

The collapse of a stretch of road through the Himalayas, in which 40 workers are still trapped, encapsulates many facets of the development advocated by Modi. The structure is part of a highway to develop Hindu tourism in the region, but can also quickly deploy army troops in case of a clash with Beijing. The environmental problems, however, which are often ignored, are likely to worsen.

Milan (AsiaNews) - On 27 December 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone in Dehradun of what will be called the Char Dham project, whose name refers to a region of the northern state of Uttarakhand which - crossed by the mountain range of the Himalayas - hosts a pilgrimage circuit consisting of four important Hindu temples.

It is precisely along one of the arteries of this infrastructure project that 40 workers involved in the construction of a tunnel were trapped by a landslide last Sunday. While the best way to free the workers without putting their lives at risk is still being assessed, rescue teams have brought water, food and oxygen, but the situation for the workers could become critical in a few days.

Beyond the mobilization for the fate of these workers which remains uncertain, it is worth asking the question: why is India building an infrastructure in such a delicate place? The stated aim of the project, expected to cost 120 billion rupees (12,000 crore), is to widen national highways leading to the holy sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. During the inauguration, Prime Minister Modi, addressing the population, said that during the pilgrimages they would remember "this government and Nitin ji as Shravan is remembered", referring to Nitin Gadkari, the current Minister for Road Transport and Highways, and to Shravan, a character from the Ramayana known for taking his elderly parents to pilgrimage sites despite great obstacles.

“The Char Dham circuit is one of the most significant pilgrimage sites for Hindus and the construction of the road is aimed at increasing religious tourism to the shrines,” said Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, a non-governmental environmental organization with headquartered in Uttarkashi district.

But some sections of the road will also be intended to more quickly mobilize Indian troops towards the Chinese border. The border that separates Uttarakhand (and Himachal Pradesh) with China in fact forms the central stretch of the "Line of Actual Control" (LAC), along which Beijing has built a series of villages and military posts that it believes could threaten Indian security.

In June 2020, the armies of the two countries had directly clashed in the Galwan Valley, resulting in the death of at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers. Since then the situation has continued to be tense: competing for control of the disputed territories, Delhi and Beijing have built more and more dual-use civil and (possibly) military infrastructure over the last three years.

On the Indian side, however, the progress of the Char Dham project has also caused a series of environmental damage. In fact, many experts believe that the increase in landslides in Uttarakhand (and the sinking of the city of Joshimath) is due to the new highway that leads to the Hindu shrines. According to activists, the government has devised systems to avoid checks and the resulting sanctions.

However, in February this year, India's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued an official memorandum according to which highways that had previously been exempted from environmental clearances for safety reasons - because they were built 100 km or not from the borders - they will still have to follow some environmental protection measures. The Supreme Court also intervened, saying that the roadways could not be wider than 5.5 meters but the Delhi government had once again invoked "national security" to not block the project. Yet it has been known since the time of the English that the central mountains of the Himalayas are fragile and crumbly.

It is not yet clear what exactly caused the landslide in the tunnel in which the workers were stuck, which is located on the stretch between Silkyara and Dandalgaon in Uttarkashi district. But, according to experts, this type of damage is certain to occur again if environmental problems in the region continue to be ignored.

Last year, environmentalist Ravi Chopra resigned as head of a special committee that was supposed to evaluate the environmental impact of the motorway project after discovering that the commission's opinion would only apply to some sections which would still undergo controls because they did not they were part of the section responsible for defending the border with China. “These all-weather roads are a tragedy for Uttarakhand, mainly due to the wrong techniques used for their widening,” commented Chopra, adding that the valley's layout cannot be considered safe: “If the slopes are disturbed, disasters such as landslides are inevitable."


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