July 20, 2015 1:46:21 am
What is the situation at Rohtang Pass?
The ban imposed earlier this month by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on all tourism-related commercial activity continues. Following a visit to Rohtang Pass on June 22, NGT Deputy Registrar Sheetal Sharma had submitted a report alleging that earlier orders passed by the Tribunal were being flouted. Sharma claimed that there were 5,000 vehicles at the Pass, five times the maximum number allowed by the NGT. She also referred to the blackening of snow and insanitary conditions. Stakeholders and officials contested the report, but the Tribunal cracked the whip. It also threatened to attach the treasury accounts of the government, and salaries of top officials including the Principal secretary (Environment), and the Kullu Deputy Commissioner.
What has been the fallout of the order?
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Local people who ran dhabas and tea stalls, and were involved in tourism businesses such as paragliding, snowscooter- and horse-riding, and renting out snowboots, jackets and sledges, have been hit. Livelihoods of more than 8,000 residents of Manali and nearby villages are said to have been affected. The NGT has asked the government to submit a comprehensive relief and rehabilitation plan after meeting all stakeholders.
How serious is the environmental crisis?
The NGT has taken a strong view of the situation. In 2013, it ordered the removal of encroachments at Marhi between Manali and Rohtang Pass and, this year, it imposed a ban on diesel-run tourist vehicles at the Pass. It subsequently relaxed the ban, but imposed a ceiling of 1,000 vehicles — 600 petrol and 400 diesel — only on valid permits. The government was told to explore CNG-run buses, and strictly monitor air quality.
The Pass is part of a highly fragile ecosystem that has been degraded by irresponsible commercialisation over the years. Some 2,500-3,000 tourist vehicles travelled to the Pass daily during peak tourist season, besides those going on to Ladakh. The area saw a massive increase in vehicular pollution, and was littered with plastic waste. An environmental expert report said glaciers in the area were receding at the rate of 10-12 m a year.
What happened then?
In 2009-10, Himachal Pradesh High Court turned a letter from one Dr Sanjay Kulshreshtha about conditions at Rohtang Pass into a PIL. A committee headed by the chief secretary was set up to look into the issue. On the orders of the court, Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute studied the situation and confirmed damage to the ecology due to unregulated tourism. The chief secretary’s committee proposed restrictions on the number of vehicles, the setting-up of a ropeway, running special buses, and allowing only battery-operated snowscooters. Then Chief Justice A M Khanwilkar passed directions to arrest the damage. However, the government did little on the ground.
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