"Tourism should not be seen merely as a development activity or as a revenue earning sector. Tourism means "sustainable tourism". We can afford to ignore this principle only at the cost of our environment. We should keep high mountain terrains in their pristine glory and beauty."
The Uttarakhand High Court on Monday directed the State Government to constitute an Expert Committee within four weeks, to examine whether there is a need to identify biodiversity heritage sites in Uttarakhand under Section 37 of the Biodiversity Act.
The Committee, the bench comprised of Justices Ramesh Chandra Khulbe and Sudhanshu Dhulia said, shall consist of Secretary Tourism, Secretary Forest and Secretary Environment, who will co-opt at least two experts with them.
The order has been passed in a PIL filed by Advocate Rakshit Joshi, against grant of permission by the Government authorities to South Africa based Indian businessman, Ajay Gupta, to hold a week long extravagant wedding ceremony of his son at Auli.
He was concerned about violations of environmental laws at the hands of the private respondents, and had contended that activities of this nature, at such a large scale, cannot be permitted on a "Bugyal", which is an eco sensitive place.
"Bugyal" is the name given in Uttarakhand for Alpine meadows. A "bugyal" is a soft grass cover on land, high up in the mountains, beyond the tree lines, and is an ecosystem in itself.
Significantly, the High Court refused to pass any interim order and it did not stay the impugned wedding ceremony while observing that disrupting the events at such a "belated stage" (as the events were scheduled to commence on the same day) may result in the marriage being called off, causing irreparable injury to the families concerned.
However, after conclusion of the wedding, it took stock of the pollution that had resulted due to the event and it proceeded to consider (ii) whether Auli is a Bugyal; and (iii) whether such events may be permitted to be conducted in the valley, in the future.
On a perusal of several reports and other material and records, the bench answered both the queries in the negative and it observed,
"Auli is not an "Alpine meadow" and may not be a "bugyal", but it is still a sub-Alpine meadow. Moreover, being a part of Dhauli Ganga Catchment area, and in the periphery of "Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve", it is a rich reserve of our biological resources, particularly of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants or MAPs., and for this reason alone it needs to be protected, from excessive tourist inflow, over exploitation of its biodiversity, culture and fragile environment."
The State Government had argued that permissions for such "mega weddings" shall boost tourism in Uttarakhand.
The Court opined that any attempt to attract tourists has to be "balanced". Emphasizing on the need for promoting "responsible tourism" the bench said,
"Tourism certainly needs to be encouraged and in a State like Uttarakhand tourism industry can also be an important source of revenue for the State and an area which has huge potential for generating employment. But a balance has to be made.
…While developing tourism sector, the environmental aspect and the social and aesthetic needs of the people, where these tourism centres are to be developed, has to be taken into account. For alpine and sub alpine meadows, which are rich in biological diversity such as "Auli", which is in close proximity and periphery of "Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve", the Government should have been more circumspect before giving its approval for this mega wedding."
Auli is eco-sensitive place where heavy tourist congregation cannot be permitted
The bench was of the opinion that Auli can "never" be viewed as an exotic tourist destination or a wedding destination for the following reasons:
- Auli lies in extreme close proximity to one of the most well known and environmentally sensitive Bugyals called "Gaurson Bugyal";
- Auli falls in the "Dhauli Ganga Catchment Area" which is a rich source of medicinal and aromatic plants and herbs, i.e. MAPs, and is thus a rich biodiversity site of the State and the nation;
- Auli also lies in the periphery of the famous "Nanda Devi National Park" which was notified as a national park in the year 1982 and was also declared as a world heritage site by the UNESCO;
- Auli is not an Alpine meadow and may not be a bugyal, but it is still a sub-Alpine meadow.
It was held that the directions issued by the Allahabad High Court in Om Prakash Bhatt & Ors. v. State of UP & Ors., AIR 1997 Allahabad 259, for protection of Bugyals when Uttarakhand was a part of the erstwhile State of Uttar Pradesh, shall equally apply to Auli since it is too an "eco-sensitive place".
Further, reliance was placed on the judgment of a division bench of the Uttarakhand High Court in Aali-Bedini Bagzi Bugyal Sanrakshan Samiti v. State of Uttarakhand, where the State Government was directed to restrict the number of tourists visiting the alpine meadows/ sub-alpine meadows/ Bugyals to 200.
State Government should have never given its permission for holding this large event at Auli
In the petition it was stated that a large number of state of the art all weather tents, toilets, and huge 'shamianas' had been constructed for the event. On a perusal of the report submitted by the State Pollution Control Board, the bench observed that the event "left a long trail of waste and garbage" of approximately 32.6 Tons, including 15.41 Tons of non-biodegradable waste.
"This is the result of just one single event at "Auli". In case such events are permitted by the State in future, what level of garbages and waste will that result is not difficult to imagine," the bench remarked.
It emphasized that no scientific mechanisms are available in or around Auli that have the capacity to recycle this large quantity of waste.
"There is also no mechanism in place to prevent water and air pollution which result as a consequence of the kind of activity, we are presently dealing with.
It is clear that the Government was in grave error in granting its approval to this mega event without having any kind of assessment of waste and garbage which would be generated due to the event. It failed to have any checks for the collateral damage caused by the event to the environment," the order states.
Carrying Capacity of Auli
The High Court has held that it if at all the Government plans to develop Auli into a tourist destination, it will have to assess the "carrying capacity" of the valley and limit the number of tourists that can gather at a time, so as to protect its fragile environment.
"There has been no previous planning, scheme or even a standard procedure with the Government to hold an event of this nature in an eco-sensitive area.
…What is the "carrying capacity" of "Auli", has still not been determined. It ought to have been done by now, considering that the State seeks to develop "Auli", which is in an eco sensitive zone, as a place for adventure and sport tourism," the bench said.
A direction was hence made to the State Ministry of Tourism to get the carrying capacity of Auli determined by the same expert Committee, within four weeks.
"The expert body shall examine all the relevant aspects and fix a carrying capacity of "Auli" within 3 months thereafter. The Government may also undertake the same exercise for all such "tourist destinations" which lie in a biodiversity sensitive zone, such as "Auli"," the bench ordered.
Further, it remarked that the Central Government should take measures for identification and monitoring of areas which are rich in biological resources, and declare them as Biodiversity heritage sites, in terms of Section 37 of the Biodiversity Act.
"This Court has, however, been informed that no site has yet been declared as a Biodiversity heritage site under Section 37 of the Biodiversity Act by the State Government.
The protection and improvement of environment and safeguard of forests is one of the Directive Principles enshrined in Part IV of the Constitution of India9 and in Part IV A of the Constitution of India, it is a fundamental duty of every citizen to "protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures," it said.
Case Title: Rakshit Joshi v. State of Uttarakhand & Ors.
Case No.: WP PIL No. 74/2019
Quorum: Justice Ramesh Chandra Khulbe and Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia
Appearance: Advocates Rakshit Joshi and MC Pant (for Petitioner); Deputy Advocate General NS Pundir with Standing Counsel SR Joshi (for State); Central Government Standing Counsel Atul Bahuguna (for Union of India); Senior Advocates RP Nautiyal and Arvind Vashistha and Advocates Aditya Pratap Singh, BS Koranga, TS Bindra, Kaushal Pandey, Monika Pant and Rajesh Sharma (for Private Respondents)