Uttarakhand’s zone of discomfort

The watershed of a stretch of the river Bhagirathi,running 100 km from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi and spanning 4179.59 sq km,has been declared an eco-sensitive zone — a Central decision that bothers the Uttarakhand government for a number of reasons.

Written by Sanjay Singh | Dehradun | Published: April 30, 2013 1:42:15 am

The watershed of a stretch of the river Bhagirathi,running 100 km from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi and spanning 4179.59 sq km,has been declared an eco-sensitive zone — a Central decision that bothers the Uttarakhand government for a number of reasons.

On Monday,a meeting of the state cabinet resolved that the government would oppose the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests’ gazette notification on the classification. Sources said Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna will meet the Prime Minister soon and take up the matter. Uttarakhand says the new status will restrict development while requiring the state to take up programmes it says are difficult. There is a political aspect as well. With both the current and the previous governments having resisted such a declaration,the Congress now finds the BJP taking up the issue against it.

The zone includes part of the Char Dham route (Badrinath,Kedarnath,Gangotri and Yamunotri) and attracts four lakh pilgrims every year. This presents the state with a twin set of difficulties. “Because of religious sentiments,it will be difficult to curb pilgrims’ activities,” said a bureaucratic source,pointing out that pilgrims set up camps and cook on stoves,and many leave behind plastic waste. The other side is that guidelines issued with the notification call upon the state to develop “walking” tourism and pilgrimage. “This means the government will need to make arrangement for dolis and palkis for carrying people,” the bureaucrat said.

Road construction comes with riders that the government finds prohibitive. “Because of the new status,you aren’t allowed to use bitumen and tar,” said an official. And debris is not to be dumped down slopes but to be subsumed. Rehabilitation in landslide-hit Bhatwari,one of 88 villages in the zone,will face curbs on construction. Hotels and resorts are to follow traditional rather than modern architecture. Major hydro-electric projects are out,while smaller plants to serve local needs,and expansion of existing ones,will be subject to the consent of the gram sabha. “There is already resentment among locals against the government’s failure to start power projects,” a government source said.

Ajai Bhatt,Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly,calls the decision shocking. “Since Bahuguna holds the forest portfolio,he must explain how the Centre took a unilateral decision on such a sensitive matter,” he said.

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