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Above: The Gupta weddings in Auli had left over 220 quintals of waste and garbage to be cleared/twitter.com/ANI

Though the Uttarakhand government proposes to impose a levy on pilgrims, sports lovers and celebratory events to get revenue to protect the environment, its sincerity is being questioned

By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

After being complicit in allowing the picturesque Auli to be turned into a garbage dump by Ajay and Atul Gupta, South Africa-based controversial businessmen brothers, the Uttarakhand government and its Pollution Control Board have awakened to the increasing pollution in the hill state.

Not only did the state government allow the famous ski resort to be used for a wedding hosted by the Gupta brothers, Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, yoga guru-turned-businessman Ramdev and some Bollywood stars were among the VIP guests. The weddings of Suryakant and Shashank, sons of Ajay and Atul, were held over June 18-22.

Ironically, Uttarakhand now proposes to impose a “green tax” on pilgrims, sports lovers and celebratory events. The issue was raised by the state’s Pollution Control Board at a meeting with Harak Singh Rawat, the minister for environment and forest. The tax to be imposed on tourists will be decided by urban local bodies of different districts which will use the revenue thus earned to improve and protect the environment.

Member-secretary of the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board SP Subudhi, however, denied that “green tax” was discussed at the meeting. “Under the Solid Waste Management Rules, local and municipal bodies are empowered to levy a fee for collection of solid waste under the “polluters pay” policy. As tourists are known to litter garbage, they will be charged by the civic bodies of different districts. This was the point emphasised at the meeting,” he said.

The high influx of tourists, including those visiting the Char Dham, is said to be damaging the region’s ecology, prompting officials to take up the issue with the tourism minister. A report of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry placed the number of domestic tourists visiting the hill state in 2015 at 2.25 crores. Over one lakh foreign tourists visited Uttarakhand during the same period.

There is no word yet on how much levy will be charged. Will it be a uniform tax, higher for pilgrims and those visiting reserve forests and lower for trekkers and mountaineers? Will the highest slab be reserved for celebrations like weddings? It is also not known if a tourist will be taxed multiple times by the Kumaon and Garhwal districts if he visits both places, besides the revered Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri pilgrimage sites.

Although the argument in favour of green tax may be strong given the high tourist influx, proper implementation of the proposal may not be easy. For instance, the government’s earlier plan to register pilgrims going to Kedarnath has been a flop, with only those going on ponies or helicopters being registered. Those trekking go unregistered. Going by the estimated daily footfall of 20,000 -25,000 at the shrine against its capacity of less than 5,000, the number of unregistered pilgrims could be fairly high.

Awareness dawned on the Pollution Control Board following widespread criticism in the wake of over 30,000 kilos of waste left behind by the Guptas, their family and friends. While one report said that the garbage was about 32,000 kilos, another report estimated it to be around 40,000 kilos. An IANS report said that “over 220 quintal was collected from the wedding site between Sunday and Monday noon (June 23-June 24)”. It quoted an official of the Joshimath municipal body as saying that seven to eight trucks had been deployed to ferry the solid waste to Haridwar for disposal, with each truck fetching anything between Rs 50,000 and Rs 70,000.

For littering the wedding site with garbage, the South Africa-based businessmen have to pay a penalty of Rs 1.5 lakh and another Rs 1 lakh for open defecation, a hard-to-believe act when the practice is said to have ended. SP Nautiyal, executive officer of the Joshimath civic body, is reported to have said that “a bill of Rs 8.14 lakh was being prepared for collecting the garbage left behind by the wedding party”.

Despite the accumulation of solid waste in such a large quantity, the sub-divisional magistrate, Vaibhav Gupta, reportedly said there was no controversy regarding the weddings as a team of 13 officials monitored and video-recorded the events as per the Uttarakhand High Court’s order. The Court had also directed against helicopters landing at Auli, besides restricting the maximum number of guests to 150. On the Court’s orders, the Guptas had deposited a security of Rs 3 crore with the Chamoli district officials, under whose jurisdiction Joshimath falls.

In a letter to Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar against the wedding, lawyer and environmentalist Akash Vashishtha voiced his concern for the region’s ecology. He wrote: “The Garhwal Himalayas are already battling for pristinity and existence with no mechanism yet for enforcement of Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, no sewage system, no assessment of carrying capacities… and no assessments of Cumulative Impact and any such unmindful and reckless personal event would cause irreversible damage to the fragile ecology of the whole Himalayan landscape.” The letter had no effect.

With regards to Chamoli district’s fragile ecology, the High Court in 2018 had restricted the number of tourists to alpine and sub-alpine meadows to 200. The Court had ordered the removal of all permanent structures to prevent night stays and even banned cattle grazing. The Court said that fibre huts constructed with concrete base “adversely affect the environment and ecology of the area. The bugyals (Garhwali for high altitude meadows) are maintaining the ecosystem”.

According to retired IFS officer Srikant Chandola, whether there has been any damage to the ecology of the wedding site “is difficult to measure as not many are aware of the required parameters”. Vashishtha described as “unfortunate and unwarranted” the promotion of “the ecologically-disastrous affair” by the Uttarakhand government.

But for Chief Minister Rawat it was an “investment opportunity”. “This should be seen as an investment opportunity and as an exercise to promote Uttarakhand as a wedding destination,” he was quoted as saying. Obviously, conservation of ecology is of lesser concern to the chief minister who would be well-advised to take a few lessons from Switzerland which has promoted itself as a tourist destination without any threat to the environment.

Politics plays a major role in environmental degradation. In 2017, Sri Sri Ravishankar with political patronage organised a World Culture Fest on the Yamuna floodplains, causing “extensive and severe damage”. With the Uttarakhand chief minister looking at the wedding as an investment opportunity, more such big-ticket events could be on the anvil, pushing environment down the priority list.

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