<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>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.
<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>The differences between the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Ministry of Water Resources was revealed in a letter sent by Water Resources Secretary Shashi Shekhar to his environment ministry counterpart.Dated October 13, the letter, which has been accessed by DNA, has Shekhar pointedly questioning his MoEF counterpart on why had his ministry permitted 10 hydro projects and mining to come up in the Bhagirathi valley. These projects, he said, would dilute the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone, located in the upper reaches of the Ganga. The Bhagirathi eco-sensitive area was notified in 2012 to protect the 100 km Gaumukh to Uttar Kashi stretch of Bhagirathi, spread across 4,179 sq.kms.In his letter, Shekhar said, “Permitting large scale activities like hydro power projects, construction works, mining etc. will severely compromise the environmental concerns and its sensitivity and will have far reaching environmental consequences in the days to come.”Shekhar added that throwing open this eco-sensitive area for hydro power projects would signal, “impending environment disaster in the ecologically sensitive area.”It is not the first time the Ministry of Water Resources have taken up this issue. Sources say that that following Shekhar’s letter, Water and Ganga Minister Uma Bharti, too, spoke to her counterpart Anil Dave and expressed her concern on plans to allow dams in the eco-sensitive area. These sources added that despite repeated reminders to the MoEF but so far nothing has been resolved.Speaking to DNA, Shekhar said, “You cannot shove in anything through the back door, this is a fundamental mistake and it is illegal. They need to realize that this is the last pristine and free-flowing stretch of the Ganga.”The letter comes in the wake of the MoEF’s meeting on the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone in August. In that meeting, the Uttarakhand state government had sought relaxations in activities allowed in the 4,179 sq km eco sensitive area. The state government argued that since 10 hydropower projects with a cumulative capacity of 82MW were approved before the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone was notified in 2012, they should be approved for construction.In the minutes of the meeting, it was stated that the “MoEF & CC could consider inserting a transitional clause to permit the 10 HEP’s (hydro power projects) which were approved prior to the date of notification.” Along with plans to permit hydro power projects, the MoEF said that river-bed mining up to 2m depth could be allowed in the eco-sensitive area.The MoEF is defending its decisions on grounds that the projects will be approved only after a carrying capacity study is done by scientists. “The Uttarakhand government presented the Zonal Master Plan, but it has defects and requires a lot of changes. We will look into all aspects before approving hydro power projects in the eco-sensitive area,” said Amita Prasad, additional secretary, MoEF.Meanwhile, the water ministry has panned the Zonal Master Plan. “It is (Zonal Master Plan) is fundamentally wrong because it is not prepared by experts. We have prepared a draft joint affidavit to be submitted in the NGT that has been sent to the environment ministry. We should have experts visit the ESZ,” said Shekhar.Currently, the NGT is hearing an ongoing matter on the issue pertaining to Zonal Master Plan of the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone.
Bodies of 15 persons, including a child, have so far been fished out from river Bhagirathi where an overcrowded boat sank on Saturday night.Burdwan district magistrate Saumitra Mohan told PTI that the bodies of seven men, four women and a girl child were recovered during search operations since last night.The bodies were found within 1-1.5 km radius of the spot where the overcrowded boat had capsized, he said.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>Photographs of the bodies have been sent to Kalna and Shantipur police stations to enable their relatives to identify them.The accident had sparked violent protest in Nadia district yesterday during which several boats were torched and police fired tear gas and lobbed rubber bullets to quell the mob.The boat ferrying at least 55 people, much above its capacity, overturned in the river on Saturday night as the people were pn their way back to Shantipur in Nadia district on the opposite bank from a fair at Kalna in Burdwan district.Nadia District Magistrate Vijay Bharti had said last night that the body of a 35-year-old woman was recovered from the river bed near Shantipur.The Burdwan District Magistrate said search operation was still on to “find out if ther are any more victims”.On the alleged delay in rescue operations, Mohan had said the river current, depth of the river and the muddy water had made the job of the divers “very difficult”.The Burdwan DM had said “overloading” was one of the suspected causes which led to the incident.