Despite being termed as “destructive” for water resources by the union ministry, the Uttarakhand government has stuck to its zonal master plan of the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) that proposes to open up the fragile area for hydropower projects above 2 MW, mining, and roads. The last pristine stretch of Ganga flows through this ESZ.
At a meeting on Thursday with the union ministry for water resources, and union ministry for environment and forest, a posse of Uttarakhand officials justified these projects and objected to water ministry’s reservations.
The meeting was convened as per National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) directions which asked water resources secretary Shashi Shekhar to sit down with Uttarakhand government and environment ministry to find a way ahead on the contentious zonal master plan. Members of the ESZ expert monitoring committee and two environment ministry officials were also present during the meeting. The Tribunal is hearing a plea on effective implementation of the Bhagirathi ESZ and on compensation for victims of 2013 Uttarakhand disaster.
During the meeting, Uttarakhand chief secretary S.Ramaswamy and power secretary Umakant Panwar submitted to Shashi Shekhar that they were not in agreement with the water ministry’s opposition to the hydropower projects and riverbed mining as it will hit investments. According to sources present at the meeting, Uttarakhand officials said that there was little anthropogenic pressure on the resources and even population density was low, thus making it ideal for hydropower projects.
They argued that small hydropower projects are ‘white’ projects that are non polluting in nature. The state government wants Centre to allow ten hydropower projects of 82MW total capacity. In August, the environment ministry agreed to consider these projects for approval and also allowed riverbed mining up to 2m depth and road construction on steep slopes.
But, DNA reported last week that these decisions were termed “disastrous” by Shashi Shekhar in a letter to the secretary, environment ministry, as they were against the provisions of the ESZ notification.
Pointing out to the restrictions on road building on steep slopes and riverbed mining, the officials also said in the meeting that “special rules” were being applied to Uttarakhand, sources added. To this, expert committee member Ravi Chopra said that the restrictions were in place since the stretch of Ganga between Gaumukh and Uttar Kashi is sensitive.
Responding to the state government’s submissions, water resources secretary Shashi Shekhar said that in the present form the zonal master plan is in violation of the ESZ notification and any amendments could only be done only with the approval of the union cabinet and the Parliament. Interestingly, the environment ministry, which has agreed to consider Uttarakhand government’s proposal to allow ten hydropower projects in the ESZ did not make any submission during the meeting.
“The zonal master plan violates the ESZ notification and the Uttarakhand government never wanted to prepare this master plan. There is no rationale in studying the impact of hydropower projects as the notification does not allow for such kind of development,” said Mallika Bhanot, member, ESZ expert monitoring committee.