The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on 18 July 2020 approved the Zonal Master Plan (ZMP) for the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone which stretches from Gaumukh to Uttarakashi, an area covering 4179.59 sq. km. The ZMP, which the Uttarakhand government was required to frame under the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone notification, aims for the conservation and ecology of the area and at the same time, empower the government to undertake development activities in the region.

Background to the notification

To give a brief background, it was in 2006 that a huge public outcry was raised against the three hydropower projects on the stretch of the river Bhagirathi and Ganga. It was after much deliberation that the central government decided to cancel all the three hydro projects. The then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that the government has not only canceled these projects but has also declared a stretch of around 135 km from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The government notified the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone notification on 18 Dec 2012.

Amendment to the notification

The opposition leaders in Uttarakhand objected to the 2012 notification and labeled it as ‘anti-developmental’. Since then there were discussions for creating a Zonal Master Plan by the state government which will balance the pace of infrastructural growth without affecting the rights and privilege of the local population.

In view of the objections raised an amendment was made to the notification in 2018. According to a Hindustan Times report, the 2018 amendment states, “a number of representations have been received from various stakeholders to allow activities that promote sustainable development while ensuring environmental protection in the Bhagirathi Eco-sensitive Zone, and hence it approved land-use change to meet the local needs including civic amenities and other infrastructure development in the larger public interest and national security with the prior approval of State Government with due study of Environmental Impacts. It also allowed cutting of hills in eco-sensitive areas with proper study and construction on steep slopes in exceptional cases for the benefit of the community.”

What happened now?

The Zonal Master Plan prepared by the state government has been approved by the Environment Ministry. The approval of the zonal plan has come in the midst of a review meeting of the Chaar Dham All-Weather Highway Project. The meeting was called for the quick disposal of pending issues which includes land acquisition and environmental clearances to expedite the project, which has been under a critical scanner.

It is being said that the zonal plan is based on a watershed approach and includes governance in the area of forest and wildlife, watershed management, irrigation, energy, tourism, public health and sanitation, road infrastructure and others.

It has been further claimed by the government that the approval of the zonal plan will give a boost to conservation and ecology of the area and also to undertake developmental activities as permitted under ZMP.

Have we forgotten the Himalayan tragedies?

The said approval has received the initial criticism too. It is being said by the environmentalists that the Himalayas remain a sensitive area and any new construction for any project and hill cutting for the same will further destabilize the region.

It is important to note that the Himalayan region has witnessed several disasters so far. To name the few, in 1991 earthquake affected about 30,700 people in 1,294 villages of Uttarkashi, Tehri and Chamoli. 768 people died in the same. The Varunavat landslide of 2003, Bhatwadi land sinking in 2010, Assi Ganga flash floods of 2012 are other such incidences. The 2013 Kedarnath tragedy is the most recent of all which claimed the lives of 197 people, leaving 236 injured and over 4,000 went missing (which are now presumed to be dead) in the flash floods.

(Author works with the Research & Communications Team at the Foundation. He tweets at @stoic_gautamkr)

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