The Uttarakhand High Court permitted the State to undertake the activity of dredging entirely on its own, without the involvement of private agencies, and with the involvement of State departments.
The Division Bench of Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Ravindra Maithani disposed of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the Government Order dated 07.01.2022, and the subsequent permission granted for mining/ dredging of Nandhaur River in the Eco-Sensitive Zone of Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary. The petitioner also seeks a direction to the respondents to notify and categorize the zones, where mining is prohibited in the State of Uttarakhand, in consonance with the guidelines issued by respondent no. 1 (the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of the Union Government).
By order dated 07.01.2022, the State Government had permitted a private limited company to carry out dredging in the Upper Nandhaur Chorgalia Area for a period of six months, and also to remove the silt and RBM, which is dredged.
According to the petitioner, the activity of removing the mineral, which is dredged, tantamounts to mining, which is prohibited in the Eco-Sensitive Zone, which Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary is.
The Court noted that the activity of dredging is essential, and should be carried out in rivers and streams from time to time, so that the riverbed levels are maintained. This is essential to prevent flooding in rainy season, which also causes environmental degradation and loss of life and property along the path of the river, or the stream concerned.
At the same time, it cannot be that under the garb of dredging, what is permitted, and what is actually carried out, is the activity of mining for commercial purposes. The impugned communication permits a private agency, to carry out not only the dredging activity in the Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary, but also to win the mineral, which is dredged. For this, undisputedly, it would be essential for the said agency to send its tools and tackles, men and heavy machinery, as well as trucks into the Wildlife Sanctuary to carry out the activity. Thus, what the impugned order dated 07.01.2022 permits a private company to carry out is not merely the activity of dredging, but also the activity of mining. There is no denying the fact that the activity of mining cannot be carried out in an Eco-Sensitive Zone.
Another aspect that the Bench noted is that the grant of a contract to a private agency for the purpose of dredging, and also winning the dredged mineral, would lead to carrying out of the said activity purely for commercial purposes. The private agency would have its commercial interest in mind, and not the environmental interest, which is the rationale for carrying out the dredging activity in the first place. The dredging activity – which is carried out for environmental reasons, would be limited to the extent it is necessary for achieving that limited objective. However, once the activity is entrusted to a private agency, and that too with a right to carry out mining activity i.e. to win the mineral which is dredged, the extent of dredging that may be carried out on the site is very difficult to monitor or control. The moment the dredged mineral is removed for commercial purposes, the nature of the activity would change from merely dredging to mining, which is clearly prohibited in an Eco-Sensitive Zone.
“Aforesaid being the position, we cannot permit the respondents to act in terms of their order dated 07.01.2022. The State departments, namely the Forest Conservation Department, and the Agriculture Department, of which the Soil Conservation Division is now a part, should have an active role to play in the carrying out of the activity of dredging in the river in question on its own, without the involvement of a private agency. The activity of mining, i.e. the winning of the dredged mineral, in any case, cannot be permitted. We, therefore, permit the State to undertake the activity of dredging entirely on its own, without the involvement of private agencies, and with the involvement of the State departments aforementioned,” the order reads.