Unregulated and unchecked, choppers flew at one-fourth the altitude to cut costs
Noise levels too violated norms set by HC for protected areasdehradun Updated: May 02, 2017 21:04 IST
From an average of 200 sorties per day in 2015 to 300 sorties per day the next year, the chopper services on Kedarnath route remained unregulated and unchecked, a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report has said.
The report by the Dehradun-based WII, an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Environment Forest (MoEF), has recommended to the government to shift the Sersi helipad as the noise from the low flying choppers was disturbing the fauna of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.
Hearing a plea that cited the HT report on the WII recommendation, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on April 25 issued notices to MoEF, Uttarakhand government and the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). The plea, among others, sought directions to execute the NGT’s December 10, 2015 order, wherein the green panel had asked the state government to frame an aviation policy with specific reference to the sanctuary in relation to the height and level of noise that the helicopters should be permitted to generate.
The helipad at the centre of it
The Sersi helipad is situated close to the Sanctuary and is nearly 12 kms from the Kedarnath shrine. To avoid a 16-km trek to the shrine, pilgrims opt for the chopper services. Eleven companies were given the license to operate choppers in Kedarnath and had together reported average of 200 sorties per day (6000 per month) in May 2015 -- when the portals to the shrine were opened. In 2016, two more companies got the license to operate on the route and sorties increased to 300 per day in the month of May.
An investigation by the Hindustan Times found out that only one firm --- Himalayan Heli Services --- was operating choppers from Sersi helipad, near Mandakini Valley. The company in 2015, as per the WII report, did 30 sorties per day in May, 20 in June, 7 in September, 20 in October and 19 in November.
The WII survey found choppers flying at an altitude of 150 mt, instead of the minimum 600mt set by the central government. Centre has allowed the states to fix the altitude for copters, but, sources said, the Uttarakhand government is yet to do it.
The low flying choppers also violate the noise level earmarked by the Uttarakhand high court in protected areas --- 50 decibels during day and 40 decibels during night. Supreme Court has sealed noise level at 65 decibels for human habitation. The sensitive terrains of Kedarnath valley, which bore the brunt of the 2013 flashfloods that killed over 5000 people, reported noise levels between 70 - 80 decibels, says the report.
How they cut corners to save cost
“This particular helipad was doing more sorties as it is closest to the shrine. Other helipads were dependent on weather condition. The flight duration being very short, the choppers from this helipad flew at low altitude as it was fuel efficient,” an expert told Hindustan Times.
Prahlad Singh, manager at Himalayan Heli Services, accepted as much. “We did go for low altitude flights initially, which was fuel efficient. Now, we are taking pilgrims over the mountains, which is not cost effective. But we have started doing that,” he said.
Earlier, the Doaba Paryavaran Samiti had in 2015 filed a petition before the NGT urging it to declare the area around the Kedarnath sanctuary as eco-sensitive zone. It also prayed for setting the minimum altitude for flying choppers. The Uttarakhand government failed to take steps in this regard, following which environment activist Kavita Ashok filed a petition this year. The WII submitted its interim measure report to the government this month.
“The initial petition was filed so that an eco sensitive zone could be declared around the sanctuary and a flying limit could be set by the government. But, nothing was done in this regard. Now that the NGT has issued notice to the government, I am sure they will have to take substantial steps to check low-flying choppers, which has resulted in noise pollution,” Gaurav Kumar Bansal, the counsel for Kavita Ashok, told HT.
GPS check on choppers
The Uttarakhand civil aviation department has taken up the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) recommendations and would now keep a close watch on the chopper service in the Kedarnath Valley. “We have taken cognizance of WII report. The operator of Sersi helipad has been asked to take a longer route to avoid low flying. This would be checked through GPS. We have also sought audiometers from the WII that will be used at three places in Kedarnath Valley for regular monitoring of noise levels. We wil ensure that the noise levels are not more than 50 decibels, as suggested by interim report,” said R Rajesh Kumar, additional secretary, civil aviation department.
First Published: May 02, 2017 21:04 IST