The Centre’s notification of a 100-km stretch along the as an eco-sensitive zone evokes a strong reaction from the Congress government in the State as well as from the BJP, besides sparking protest demonstrations. By PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI
THE Congress government in Uttarakhand is caught in a political cleft stick over the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) along the river Bhagirathi. The Centre declared the 100-kilometre stretch along the river, from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, an ESZ last year and the final gazette notification was published recently. The Uttarakhand government is doomed if it supports the notification and doomed if it does not, because the local people, with the support of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have risen in revolt against the decision. Dharnas and demonstrations are being held in Uttarkashi, and the State Congress is worried that if it does not speak out against the decision of the Congress-led government at the Centre, it will have to face the people’s ire. Hence, the government has been forced to take the politically untenable position of demanding that the notification issued by the Centre be rescinded.
Following protests by environmentalists, including an indefinite fast by Professor G.D. Agrawal, on the pitiable condition of the Ganga as a result of widespread damming and tunnelling for various hydropower projects (which was extensively covered by Frontline), the Centre decided to constitute the National Ganga River Basin Authority and declared the 100-km from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi an ESZ, in what was then a landmark decision considering the massive damage that was being inflicted on the fragile ecology of the area .
The decision meant that certain strict do’s and don’ts had to be followed. For example, activities that are strictly prohibited include hydro-electricity projects other than micro and mini ones (100kV 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, setting up polluting industries and discharging untreated sewage and industrial effluents into the river. Plastic carry bags and hazardous waste processing units are also banned inside the zone.
Activities that are to be regulated with checks and balances include defence installations and other infrastructure relating 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. The guidelines apply to an area of 4,179.59 sq km, including the 100-km watershed stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, covering 88 villages. All development activities in the area will be according to the zonal master plan, to be prepared by the State within two years, and compliance to this master plan will be ensured by a monitoring committee which will have a person of known integrity and administrative capability as its head and 10 other members, including a representative of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, besides representatives from non-governmental organisations, the town planning department, the Pollution Control Board and Forest and Irrigation Department and environment and ecology experts.
The draft notification was placed in the public domain in July 2011, but the final gazette notification was published only now. The State government has protested against the notification, saying that its objections to certain provisions in the draft have been overlooked by the Centre. Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna met the Prime Minister on May 6, along with the Member of Parliament from Haridwar and Union Minister Harish Rawat, the MPs Satpal Maharaj and Pradeep Tamta, Uttarakhand Tourism Minister Amrita Rawat, the MLA from Gangotri Vijaypal Singh Sajwan, and Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar. Bahuguna also met the Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, and requested her to take positive action.
The Chief Minister, who presented a strongly worded, three-page letter to the Prime Minister, told him that despite his having written to the Minister of State for Environment and Forests in December last year, the Centre had gone ahead and issued the notification without following due procedure and without consulting the State government. He pointed out that while in the draft only an area of 40 sq km was to have been affected by the notification, the final notification increased this to 4,179.59 sq km, which was unfortunate. Besides, he said, the draft had put a ban on hydropower projects of 25 MW and above, but the final notification banned all hydel projects, which would rob the State of significant sources of revenue in the future. “… projects with a capacity of 1,743 MW, which are in various stages of development, cannot be executed anymore, apart from the already incurred expenditure of Rs.1,061 crore going waste…. Such a sensitive decision has been taken by the MoEF without consultations at the field level,” he wrote.
The Chief Minister also pointed out that the strict guidelines for tourism-related activities, the restriction on the number of pilgrims to char dham yatra, and the ban on the construction of roads would anger the local people and pilgrims and compromise national security in the strategically located border State. He told the Prime Minister that the State already had a plethora of regulatory mechanisms to deal with the issues, so there was no need for additional administrative hurdles in the way of development. He also said that besides causing unrest among the people, the final notification had legal loopholes as statutory provisions had not been followed while enhancing the area affected by 100 times. “Keeping the huge public resentment and also the legal lacunae, I request you to kindly rescind the notification of the eco-sensitive zone in its present form with immediate effect,” he wrote in the letter to the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister reportedly told the delegation that an inter-ministerial committee would go into the points raised by it. But a senior State government official told Frontlinethat it was highly unlikely that the Centre would heed the State’s demand to rescind the notification. “May be minor adjustments could be made as a face-saving device, but cancellation, as demanded by the Chief Minister, is ruled out,” said the official, admitting that the fears raised were mostly hypothetical in nature. A senior MoEF official also ruled out the possibility of rescinding the notification, saying that at best some “corrections” could be carried out.
Environmental activists, including members of Ganga Ahavaan, an NGO, who have been at the forefront of demanding such a measure to save the Ganga from unscrupulous building and mining, including mining by the sand mafia, say the Chief Minister has been politically compelled to act since the BJP had made it an issue. “They are afraid that they will have to face the people’s anger if they don’t protest,” says Hemant Dhyani, a Ganga Ahavaan activist from Uttarkashi. Significantly, the contractors’ and builders’ lobby, which has also been demanding the cancellation of the notification, is alleged to have masterminded a number of attacks on Ganga Ahavaan activists.
According to Nitin Pandey, an environmental activist from Dehradun, the claims of those opposed to the notification are 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 build big hotels in the area. There is absolutely nothing in the notification which harms the common man in any way. On the contrary, the notification strengthens the hands of the common citizen, much to the chagrin of the moneyed exploiters of Uttarakhand, whose exploitation of Uttarakhand’s natural resources will now be curtailed,” he writes in his blog. According to him, there has been a sustained, motivated and totally baseless campaign against the notification, carried out with the intent of scaring the common people and leading them to believe that their lives will be ruined by this notification. “On the contrary, the truth is that the lives of the residents of all the 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.
Mallika Bhanot and Gita Khillani of Ganga Ahavaan agree. “The objection [to ESZ] is totally baseless, politically motivated and instigated by the contractors’ lobby. We are trying to make people see better sense but we are facing a lot of hostility in this. We are trying to convince the people that development should be in sync with the particular flavour of the area, and the ESZ, in that sense, was for their larger good,” they say.
The BJP, meanwhile, has declared, predictably, that it will continue its agitation on the issue. In fact, former BJP Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank also wrote to the Prime Minister, when the draft notification was issued, raising serious objections. He had told this correspondent then that being a border State which had over 60 per cent of its area under forest cover, it needed a different set of guidelines for development. “We need to keep our peculiar characteristics in mind because we too have to undertake development projects and provide employment to people. The guidelines for us should be different from other States which are in the plains,” he had said. Nishank, in fact, has been advocating that the Himalyan States should be formed as a separate group, with separate guidelines for developmental activities. The Assembly elections saw the exit of the BJP and the arrival of a Congress government, which too is hamstrung by the same political compulsions and hence finds itself speaking in the same language as the erstwhile BJP government.
The discomfiture of the Chief Minister was evident in the fact that he avoided giving an interview to Frontline on the issue. His office said his letter to the Prime Minister, being self-explanatory, should suffice.
Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows, in this case, the two sworn enemies, the BJP and the Congress. Politics has also forced the Congress-led State government to confront a Congress-led Centre.