Road project damages Uttarakhand eco-sensitive zone, says report
A report by a monitoring panel has recommended stringent action against the executing agency, contractors and forest officials
Dehradun: A road built in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district without requisite permissions has caused irreparable damage to local ecology, according to a report by a monitoring panel, which has recommended stringent action against the executing agency, contractors and forest officials.
The construction of the 6km road between Bayna and Syaba in the fragile area was done by tree felling in a dense forest and unauthorized dumping of debris, the monitoring committee of the zone said in its latest report, a copy of which is with HT. The road was constructed without the approval of the monitoring committee and without any environmental impact assessment, said the 46-page report submitted on December 19, 2022.
The Union environment ministry in a December 2012 notification had declared an area of 4,179.59 sq km from Gaumukh, the origin of the Ganga river, to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone. The notification mandated a monitoring committee headed by the state chief secretary.
“(During) the last site visit to the project site in December 2020, it was observed by the MC members that significant forest area was still in its pristine state. It is for this reason that an alternate alignment was suggested to be considered by the MC members,” the report said. “However, the alternative route wasn’t considered sincerely and despite the stay order on the project, the work and consequent ecological damage carried out surreptitiously was with the intention that the project would become a fait accompli.”
Environmental damage in the ecologically fragile high Himalayas in Uttarakhand has hit the headlines in recent weeks after a large number of houses in Joshimath town in Chamoli district developed cracks due to land subsidence, leading to a mass evacuation of residents. The crisis was potentially precipitated by intensive infrastructure development in the area, local residents and experts have said.
After the report on the road in Uttarkashi was submitted, Uttarakhand chief secretary SS Sandhu directed Udayraj Singh, chief executive of the State Rural Roads Development Authority, to conduct an investigation, said Abhishek Ruhela, district magistrate of Uttarkashi and member secretary of the monitoring committee.
Udayraj Singh said he has directed RP Singh, chief engineer of the authority, to conduct an inquiry and submit a report. RP Singh said that he was looking into the issues raised by the committee, especially on why the work on the road was carried out when the state government and Union environment ministry had stayed it in 2020.
“Around 4.9km has been built. We will look into all aspects and submit our report soon, before the next meeting of the monitoring committee,” he said. “Under the earlier alignment suggested by the committee, it was apprised to them that more trees will be cut. So, they have not rejected the current alignment, but want action against the violations.”
“The user agency – PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana), has been blatant and brazen in their action and have carried out road-cutting, tree felling and muck dumping in violation of all laws of land, causing irreversible damage to the local ecology that consists of baanjh (Himalayan oak) and deodar (Himalayan cedar) trees,” the report said.
The matter came to light after a local resident, lodged a complaint in April 2020 and a survey report submitted to the local forest range officer by a forest guard stated that there was unauthorized muck dumping by the contractors and loss of trees at four sites in the area. The debris from road construction was illegally dumped in the Andrigad rivulet, the resident had said.
“The members were aghast looking at the amount of work done since the last site visit and the blatant cutting, the fresh tree felling and muck dumping in the Andrigad, all of which was proof of persistent, obvious and brazen violations by the user agency,” the report said. The road was being built under the aegis of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY).
The forest department has taken action against executing agency PMGSY from time to time for violations, said Puneet Tomar, divisional forest officer of Uttarkashi. “Now after the monitoring committee report, I am also preparing a fresh report based on the issues raised in the report, and the same will be submitted before the regional empowered committee of the project,” Tomar said, adding that more than 107 trees have been felled
The report has termed the violations on the Byana-Syaba road as grave and alarming that requires immediate and urgent attention. It has also recommended some immediate steps in the next three months before the next meeting of the panel.
The report has recommended strict action against the violators, which include PMGSY officials, black listing of the contractors, an inquiry within the forest department into the role of higher officials and carrying out of an independent geological survey of the area by an institute such as the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology for mitigation measures to be adopted.
“While Joshimath and several other areas are sinking, the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone is still safe, with the least number of landslides or land subsidence related issues, even though it is just as fragile,” a local environmental activist said, seeking anonymity. “It is being said that the prevention of mega projects owing to the notification has helped in protecting this area and such zones thus should be declared and established in other valleys as well.”
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