The Water Resources Ministry has requested the National Green Tribunal to order preparation of a fresh zonal master plan for the eco-sensitive zone around Bhagirathi river in Uttarakhand as the present one proposed by the state government was not environmentally sustainable.
In a report submitted to the NGT on December 30, outgoing Water Resources Secretary Shashi Shekhar, who retired the same day, has said that the master plan proposed by the state government envisaged activities that were not permitted in the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) that was notified in December 2012. This included proposals to develop hydropower projects above capacities of 2 mw and mining.
Bhagirathi is one of the two source streams of river Ganga and flows through an extremely fragile eco-system in upper Uttarakhand. About 100-km stretch of this river, from Gaumukh to Uttarakhand, covering a total area of 4179 square km was declared eco-sensitive zone through a notification on December 18, 2012.
Among other restrictions, the notification prohibits development of hydropower projects with capacities greater than 2 mw. The notification also called on the state government to prepare a zonal master plan to regulate activities in the region.
Shekhar, who was asked by the NGT to submit his ministry’s view on the implementation of the zonal master plan, has said the state’s plan was not based on any scientific assessment and could, if implemented, destroy the pristine ecology of the region. He recommended the setting up of a committee, consisting of experts from hydrogeology, geology, ecology, river engineering, climatology and related fields, to undertake a comprehensive study of the area and draw a fresh master plan.
Shekhar’s report, which came after two rounds of consultations he held with Uttarakhand government officials and other stakeholders last week, is an indictment of the state’s attempts to bypass the ESZ notification of 2012. The Uttarakhand government has been arguing that the ESZ hampers developmental activities in the state, despite at least two former Environment Ministers, Jayanthi Natarajan and Prakash Javadekar, clarifying in detail that some of the restrictions put in place by the ESZ notification were necessary for preserving the fragile ecology of the region.
The state government, however, received some sympathetic hearing from the Environment Ministry in August this year. At that time, the Environment Ministry said it “could consider” the insertion of a “transitional clause” in the notification to allow for ten hydroelectric projects, each of capacity less than 25 mw and adding up to a total of 82 mw, that were approved prior to the declaration of the eco-sensitive zone. It had suggested a “carrying capacity study” to be initiated before taking any decision.
The Water Resources Ministry had, however, pointed out that these projects could not be allowed without amending the notification. In any case, it argued, these hydropower projects could severely damage the environment in that area. Water Resources Minister Uma Bharati had, at that time, written to Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave flagging these concerns.