GANGOTRI (Uttarkashi) : Pradeep Rana runs a tea stall en route to Gangotri, the origin of the River Ganga. One can see Bhagirathi flowing serenely below in the valley as Pradeep prepares for the day, boiling potatoes and preparing tea. His only source of income is this tea stall, which he set up in the 80s. As the tea comes to a boil, Pradeep expresses his concern. His son is now a graduate but is yet to find a job.
“I have spent my life selling tea. My son wants to do something different. I was planning to convert this tea stall into a small hotel,” Pradeep and adds that now he is not sure whether he would be able to translate his dream.
Reason: On December 18, 2012, Union ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) notified the 100-km stretch from Ganga’s origin at Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). The notification, which covers 4179.59 sqkm area, puts “conditional ban” on several activities, including construction of homes, commercial buildings and hydropower projects.
Why ESZ Was Notified?
The rationale behind notifying ESZ gazette is that “anthropogenic pressure on ecosystem has increased causing irreparable damage to fragile mountain ecosystem including flow and character of the river”.
The locals are against the notification calling it a hindrance to the development of the area. In the run up to the assembly elections on February 15, the two big political players in the region – BJP and Congress --- are busy in the blame game. The notification was issued during Congress-led UPA regime at the Centre. Now, there’s a BJP-led NDA government ruling from New Delhi. The gazette affects nearly 1 lakh people of the Gangotri assembly constituency. Interestingly, Uttarakhand assembly in 2013 had unanimously passed a resolution seeking withdrawal of the notification.
Is there any contradiction?
ESZ notification read that tourism activity shall be continued but in a “controlled” manner. The locals are heavily dependent on the pilgrimage and tourist activities. Now, they are confused about the “terms and conditions” mentioned in the notification.
Rajesh Negi, owner of Himalayan Hikes, an expedition operator based in Uttarkashi, is a worried man. His firm handles groups that visit Bhagirathi valley for expeditions. Uttarkashi, with more than 25 Himalayan peaks available for summit, has emerged as a preferred destination for European mountaineers over the last few years. A number of trekking routes are also accessible for domestic and foreigner adventure lovers.
Negi is unsure whether tourism industry could face issues in the coming times. “We are keeping fingers crossed. The ESZ notification is very technical to me,” he says.
Nonetheless, the notification has had been under the scanner of experts.
SS Pangti, member, Bhagirathi River Valley Development Authority, underlines gazette is contradictory in nature. He points out that it permits “establishment of hotels and resorts” under the category of activities to be permitted. “Notification lacks clarity. The big investors could ruin the ecosystem if they are permitted to open hotels and resorts,” he adds.
The notification further stated that state government in consultation with local authorities and stakeholders would prepare zonal plans within two years time, which will set “clear rules” on carrying out activities such as the construction of roads, homes etc.
However, for four years, the state didn’t move the zonal plan to authorities at Centre for approval and just before the announcement of polls, Harish Rawat government made a proposal. It was rejected as it reportedly proposed for carrying out mining activities and construction of hydropower projects of more than 2 MW in the region.
The sitting Congress MLA from Gangotri, Vijaypal Sajwan, lobs the ball in BJP’s court. He asks why BJP didn’t repeal or amend the notification when it is in power at the Centre.
In fact in early January, chief minister Harish Rawat staged a dharna in protest against rejecting state’s zonal plan.
“We knocked the doors of High Court since the state didn’t take interest in making zonal plans. However, as promised, the state didn’t move the Supreme Court against notification,” says Lokendra Bisht, BJP leader from Gangotri.