Locals not consulted on Bhagirathi plan: Experts
Independent expert members on a committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to prepare the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone’s zonal master plan (ZMP) and independent members of a panel formed to scrutinise the ZMP have written to the government saying they hadn’t approved the final plan released in May.
The members wrote to the Union ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) expressing their concerns over the plan released by the latter, saying they had concluded that the document was “flawed” and not in consonance with a 2012 notification of the project.
One of the main concerns raised by the panel is that the ZMP was to be prepared specifically “in consultation with local people, particularly women”. The Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone stretches from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand and covers an area of 4,179.56 square kilometres, including 88 villages.
But the letter, written by nine independent members,a copy of which has been reviewed by Hindustan Times, stated the draft ZMP was not translated into Hindi and, as a result, was never put before the panchayats and villagers for their comments and suggestions before the final document was prepared.
“We had no inputs from villagers and panchayats for whom the ZMP was being prepared. The ZMP submitted for approval violates the letter and spirit of the BESZ notification,” the letter stated.
The members wrote that the ZMP was a compilation of departmental proposals primarily based on current schemes, which are unacceptable because they lacked public feedback.
Expert members also raised concerns about several unaddressed issues in the final ZMP such as land use change, local participation and scope for panchayats in taking decisions and on highway widening, which will lead to the felling of over 12,000 trees, including 6,000 Deodar trees
“The plan, which was sent to the MoEFCC by the Uttarakhand government, is a compilation of departmental plans. It’s not what people have asked for or recommended. Five token consultations were carried out by the district magistrates in 2017 but we were never told what responses were received from the public. Women community members were not the focus of these token consultations,” said Ravi Chopra, who is a part of the 11-member ZMP scrutiny committee that was set up following a Supreme Court (SC) order and the ZMP preparation committee.
“All members are not supposed to approve the ZMP. Additional chief secretary of Uttarakhand government was heading the drafting panel. He must have approved the ZMP in consultation with other members. The job of Union ministry of water resources was to get the draft plan scrutinised by an 11-member scrutiny committee. We had forwarded their comments to MoEFCC as it is the approving authority,” said UP Singh, secretary, ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.
On July 29, HT had reported on differences of opinion among several committee members, who had raised concerns about the final ZMP. For instance, some members had pointed out that slope cutting could be fraught with danger for the region’s fragile ecology.
“Therefore, the undersigned, who were entrusted with this task by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and by the Hon’ble NGT, hereby declare that the abovementioned ‘approved ZMP’ does not have our consent or approval, nor does it consist of our scrutiny,” the letter added.
RP Gupta, secretary, environment ministry, could not be reached for a comment on Sunday but his office confirmed that it had received the letter from panel members.
“The process of designing and notifying any ESZ sets the foundation of how much its mandate is accepted and enforced. This is not just important for the conservation of the area but also for determining social, ecological and economic futures. Without this, ESZs can be non-starters,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.