If someone has to be blamed for the ecological disaster that left hundreds killed and thousands stranded in Uttarakhand, it is the Indian political class.
Both the Congress and BJP had steadily opposed imposition of any strong environment regulation in upper reaches of Uttarakhand saying it would hamper local development. The real story, however, is that the strong hydel lobby - both public and private sector - are opposed to the environment ministry’s bid to declare different valleys as eco-sensitive zones, thereby prohibiting major construction activity in the area.
The ministry in December, 2012 declared the 100km stretch around river Bhagirathi (Ganga in the upper reaches) from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, covering an area of 4,180 square kilometers, as an eco-sensitive zone. This happened three years after a draft proposal was floated by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh.
The zone prohibited any change in land use from green - such as horticulture, agriculture and tea gardens - to non-green use except for roads, tourism and man-made heritage projects. The notification clearly prohibited river valley, mining, poultry, use of plastic bags and sewage treatment plants.
Till data, the notification, which covers only fringes of upper reaches of Uttarakhand and excludes the present epicenter of devastation - the Alakananda and Mandakini rivers - has not been implemented.
The Uttarakhand state assembly - having Congress and BJP members - unanimously opposed the notification and state chief minister Vijay Bahuguna wrote a three-page letter asking the Centre to scrap the notification.
"The state has a different view on the notification and the chief minister feels it will come in the way of development," environment and forest minister Jayanthi Natarajan said.
"In a democracy, we have to discuss things. However, I believe this is not the time to bring those issues to the fore. I think all of us have to join hands to ensure relief and rescue and to make sure all people are safe," she said.
The notification was fall-out of a decision of a group of ministers headed by then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, which scrapped the two Central hydel projects on the Bhagirathi river.
They were the Loharinag Pala and Pala Maneri hydel projects and also decided to declare the Bhagirathi river stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as ecologically sensitive area.
The then BJP government opposed the decision to declare it an eco-sensitive zone and the incumbent Congress government maintained the same stance. "The powerful hydel lobby does not want any obstruction to devastate the hills," said Mallika Bhanot, who is associated with the Save Ganga campaign.