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Above: Environmentalists fear the lavish weddings will wreak havoc on the sensitive ecology of the picturesque ski resort of Aulis/Photo: www.tourmymind.com

Controversy follows the Gupta brothers even to twin weddings in the family, as the Uttarakhand High Court lays stringent conditions and orders the district administration to monitor the festivities

By Govind Pant Raju in Lucknow

For those on the lookout for a perfect locale for a destination wedding, there are few to rival Aulis. Situated at an altitude of 9,000 ft in the Garhwal hills of Unitarians, it is known for its natural beauty, and is heaven for skiing lovers in winter. Aulis has been at the centre of a storm for the last few weeks, triggered by the grand wedding ceremonies of two sons of the Gupta brothers—the controversial NRI family involved in political corruption in South Africa. The three brothers are Ajay, Rajahs and Atul Gupta.

The two weddings and attendant festivities, spread over five days, cost an estimated Rs 200 crore. Comparisons with the recent Mumbai weddings of the Amandi family became inevitable. As soon as the local administration granted clearances to the family, lavish arrangements began for the twin events. These included hiring 200 helicopters to assist in ferrying guests from the Jolly Grant airport in Dearden, and the construction of temporary helipads for the convenience of the guests, flowers worth over Rs 5 crore being flown in from Switzerland to decorate the venue and over a hundred priests being in attendance to officiate the proceedings. A number of props and sets, similar to the ones used in the magnum opus Bahaullah, were also set up at the ski resort. The icing on the wedding cake was the presence of a number of Bollywood stars led by Katrina Kaif, who along with her troupe danced to her hit song Sheila Ki Jawani.

Worried about the environmental damage this event can cause to the Himalayan region, social activists and environmentalists objected to the lavish weddings, claiming that the noise pollution, massive crowds and construction work carried out for the events will prove to be detrimental to the environment. But the state government believes that the potential of Uttarakhand as a wedding destination has to be tapped and that the crores spent on these marriages will help the state’s economy. There are reports that the Ambanis too wanted to hold some of their wedding functions here, but the plans did not materialise. The state government was thus determined not to let anything come in the way this time.

The question is: Who will compensate for the damage to the environment thanks to this spectacle? According to Ramesh Chandra Sati, president of Pankhanda Sangharsh Samiti: “Auli is situated in the high Himalayan region. The wedding activities will have a bad effect on the environment. It is the spot for international winter skiing events. Holding such weddings here will cause huge damage to the environment, the bugyal and slopes.”

It was amidst such concerns that the Uttarakhand High Court, on June 18, 2019, allowed the events on condition of a Rs 3 crore security deposit for compensating for any damage at the pristine ski resort. Disposing of a Public Interest Litigation filed by Rakshit Joshi, a Kumaon-based advocate, the High Court said the first instalment of Rs 1.5 crore can be deposited within two-three days. The court has directed the Chamoli district authorities and the State Pollution Control Board to monitor the weddings. Another instalment of Rs 1.5 crore can be deposited at a later date, if required, the court said.

The High Court was highly critical of the environmental issues related to the wedding ceremonies and disallowed any helicopters and construction of helipads. The order, issued by the division bench of Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and justice Alok Kumar Verma, said: “If as contended on behalf of the petitioner, there is no helipad at Auli, and prior to this event, helicopter services were not provided to the said place, the private respondents shall neither construct a helipad nor extend helicopter services to such places as that would have an adverse impact on the environment.”

It has, however, allowed the family “to use the nearest helipad after obtaining the requisite permission from the authorities concerned”. Meanwhile, the Gupta brothers have promised to deposit Rs 28 lakh with the local authorities for cleaning up Auli after the marriages. The judges had questioned the reason for the choice of venue and asked if there was not anywhere else the family, based out of South Africa and Dubai, could organise the weddings.

The court’s reference to South Africa is because of the fact that controversy has been the Gupta family’s co-traveller for long. The three brothers, Ajay, Rajesh and Atul, all in their 40s, are under investigation for their connections with former South African president Jacob Zuma, who resigned as head of state on February 15 this year following corruption scandals.

The Guptas arrived in South Africa as ordinary immigrants from India in the 1990s, and established the family business, Sahara Computers. Later, they went on to buy stakes in mining and engineering companies, game lodges and interests in the media, including a 24×7 TV channel. The family once owned a string of businesses in that country but their alleged dubious business dealings—corrupt deals and using their influence to win millions of dollars worth of government contracts—ensured that their accounts with a number of banks were frozen. Three years ago, they moved to Dubai. The South African investigation agency, the Hawk, claims that they will bring the Guptas back with the help of Interpol. In South Africa, their immovable properties, aeroplanes and cars have been seized. Last September, South Africa succeeded in making an extradition treaty with the UAE which has multiplied the difficulties of the Gupta brothers.

The brothers also own property in Dehradun, including a palatial house in the city’s Curzon Road locality. All three brothers were given ‘Y’ category security by the Congress government, and last year the BJP regime upgraded it.

Though no charges against the brothers have been proven yet, they have been involved in philanthropic work in South Africa. In India, they have built a gold roof at the Badrinath temple. In their hometown of Saharanpur, they are constructing the Shivdham temple in memory of their father, Shivkumar. The brothers were accused of pumping illegal black money into the construction.

All the controversies, festivities and hoopla aside, it is imperative that the state prioritises environmental sustainability. While on the one hand tourism centres like Nainital get stepmotherly treatment, sensitive zones like Auli are used as bait to attract high-flying wedding parties. The government must come clean with a tourism policy that looks at environmental concerns as well.

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