Eco zone

Conflicting interests

Print edition : March 06, 2015

June 18, 2013: The devastation around the Kedarnath Temple caused by the floods. Photo: AFP

Chief Minister Harish Rawat with Prime Minister Modi after the Governing Council meeting of the NITI Aayog in New Delhi on February 8. Photo: PTI

The Uttarakhand government has been urging the Centre to withdraw a December 2012 notification that declared a 100-km stretch between Gomukh and Uttarkashi an eco-sensitive zone, on the plea that it hampers development.

COMPETITIVE populism can make governments totally oblivious to the larger issues at stake, even if these issues concern the basic survival of people. Perhaps, nowhere else is this more manifest than in Uttarakhand, where massive floods in the Kedarnath valley caused extensive loss of life and property in June 2013. The State government did nothing to address the factors that aggravated the impact of sudden flash floods. It is now pressing the Centre to withdraw a notification, which was issued by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December 2012, declaring an area of 4,179.59 square kilometres over a 100-km long stretch of the Bhagirathi river basin from Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ).

A resolution to this effect was passed in the State Assembly on December 28, 2014. Chief Minister Harish Rawat has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the matter. He also raised the issue at the Chief Ministers’ meeting with the Prime Minister at the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Ayog on February 8 in New Delhi. He had earlier met Environment and Forests Minister Prakash Javadekar in this connection.

The Uttarakhand government’s plea is that that the Centre had issued the notification unilaterally, without consulting the State government or the people of the State. According to the letter written by the Chief Minister on December 19, 2014, the notification has caused unrest because it thwarts development activities. There are 88 villages in the notified area. The notification makes difficult the construction of roads, houses, schools and hospitals. Even the cutting of the branches of trees or just taking sand from the riverbed is a problem.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress seem agreed on the issue. The BJP’s Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Ajay Bhatt, has also written a letter to the Environment and Forests Minister highlighting the same points and demanding that the notification be modified to suit the State’s interests.

According to the Chief Minister’s media in-charge, Surendra Aggrawal, the notification discriminates against Uttarakhand because similar restrictions are not in place in other Himalayan States such as Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. According to him, with no development work taking place in this area, agriculture, tourism and related activities will suffer and people will be forced to migrate in search of jobs. In a border State like Uttarakhand, this would create a security problem for the country, especially in view of the fact that China has already reached the neighbourhood with roads and bullet trains. “Do you want our border areas to be converted into a no-man’s land?” he asked. According to him, the State already had its own Bhagirathi River Basin Development Authority, which should be able to undertake/regulate all activities in this river basin. Other senior government officials in Uttarakhand agree. But they are aware that with the present government’s emphasis on cleaning and rejuvenating the Ganga, a withdrawal of the notification may not be possible. “This even the Chief Minister is aware of, so we would be happy with certain modifications, especially in defining the boundaries of the area covered,” said an official.

Recapitulation

A perusal of the notification does not reveal anything that the State government should object to. First, a look at the notification. Following protests by environmentalists, including an indefinite fast by an ex-IITian, Professor G.D. Agrawal, on the pitiable condition of the Ganga as a result of widespread damming and tunnelling for various hydropower projects, the Centre decided to constitute the National Ganga River Basin Authority and declared the entire 100-km stretch around the Bhagirahti from Gomukh to Uttarkashi an ESZ. This was a landmark decision, considering the massive damage that was being done to the extremely fragile ecology of the area.

The decision meant a ban on hydroelectricity projects other than micro and mini ones (100 KV to 2 MW), extraction of river water for industrial projects, commercial mining of minerals and stone quarrying, commercial felling of trees, commercial use of firewood, polluting industries, discharging of untreated sewage and industrial effluents into rivers, use of plastic carry bags, and hazardous waste processing units.

Defence installations and other infrastructure related to national security, pine plantations, introduction of exotic species, establishment of hotels and resorts, erection of electric cables, tree-felling, water extraction for sale, and signboards and hoardings would be permitted but with regulations for checks and balances. All development activities in the notified area would follow a zonal master plan, to be prepared by the State within two years. Compliance would be ensured by a monitoring committee, which would have a person of known integrity and administrative capability as its head. Ten other members would be drawn from agencies, including the Ministry of Environment and Forests, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), pollution control boards, town-planning authorities and forest and irrigation departments, and experts on the environment and ecology.

Immediately after the notification was issued, the then Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, protested and wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demanding that it be withdrawn (“Politics of ecology”, June 14, 2013). But soon afterward, the Kedarnath tragedy struck and the issue got sidelined. Nothing happened on either implementing the notification (the State government did not show any interest) or withdrawing it. In the meantime, Harish Rawat replaced Bahuguna as Chief Minister. Now, the issue has again gathered momentum, leaving environmentalists frustrated.

Hydroelectric projects

Here, it is important to mention that the Supreme Court is already hearing a petition on the construction of 24 hydroelectric power projects on the Ganga and its tributaries in the State. In August 2013, the court ordered the Centre, to constitute an experts’ body to see how much existing/proposed hydropower projects had contributed to the tragedy that June. The committee’s findings, submitted in April 2014, were alarming. The report said that hydroelectric power projects caused slope destabilisation, which caused landslides and led to mud and sediments being deposited on the riverbed, thus raising its level and causing floods. Besides, mud and silt released by the projects also caused havoc in downstream areas in Srinagar by flattening out huge areas (see also “Damning audits”, December 2010). The committee also found that conventional mitigation measures had not succeeded in giving satisfactory results. It recommended that the 100-km stretch between Gomukh and Uttarkashi be declared an ESZ. It said, too, that such measures should be taken for all rivers in Uttarakhand.

Contractor-politician nexus

Environmentalists say that the contractor-politician nexus is behind the hyping up of fears on the ESZ notification. According to Dr Nitin Pandey, a green activist from Dehradun, the opposition to the notification is nothing but a pile of falsehoods and lies. “The truth is that if anyone is harmed by this 41-page document then it is the construction lobby, the mining mafia, the timber mafia and the rich people who want to make big hotels in the area. There is absolutely nothing in the notification which harms in any way the common man who resides in the area. On the contrary, the notification strengthens the hands of a common citizen, much to the chagrin of the moneyed exploiters of Uttarakhand, whose exploits of Uttarakhand’s natural resources will now be curtailed,” he writes in his blog.

According to him, a sustained, motivated and totally baseless campaign against the notification has been carried out with the intent of scaring common people and leading them to believe that their lives will be ruined by it. “On the contrary, the truth is that the lives of residents of all villages and towns in the area will be made more secure, safe and immune from exploitation by moneyed people. It contains nothing other than common sense issues which our State government should have implemented on its own, without waiting for the notification. Why our leaders give out factually incorrect statements is anyone’s guess,” he writes.

Other activists, such as those from Ganga Aahavan who have been associated with the Ganga movement for years, say the politician-contractor lobby is behind the present move to demand withdrawal of the notification. “The common man does not suffer at all, does not lose anything. In fact, if implemented properly, the ESZ notification will go a long way in bringing sustainable development to the area, not the mindless one that we have been witnessing and which brings about disasters like the one in June 2013,” says Mallika Bhanot from Ganga Aahavan.

There have been protests against the ESZ notification. But there have also been dharnas in Uttarkashi demanding that the ESZ notification be operationalised and people be made aware of its fortuitous propositions. These people, represented by their Gram Pradhans (from over 35 villages), have also written to the Chief Minister and the Union Water Resources Minister and the Union Environment and Forests Minister, demanding that the provisions of the notification be explained through government advertisement and other media campaigns so that people stop getting misled by the politician-contractor nexus.

With the present National Democratic Alliance government placing so much emphasis on cleaning the Ganga and restoring its pristine glory, it remains to be seen how it reacts.

“Cleaning the Ganga will not be possible unless its flow is restored and that can be done only when there is free water flow in the river. Hence, withdrawing the ESZ notification would defeat the purpose,” said Mallika Bhanot.

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