Renting out the Himalayas: Uttarakhand allows controversial billionaires, accused of $7 billion South African loot, to pay and have mega wedding in ecologically fragile region

Chief Minister Trivendra Singh has called it an "investment opportunity". The June 17-23 wedding celebrations are underway at Auli (8,218-feet above mean sea level) in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Auli is also the location of one of the world's best ski slopes, which are under stress from climate change and environmental decay.

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   19 Jun 2019 12:49 PM GMT

Here is the message coming out of Uttarakhand: if you are mega rich, you can rent yourself a pristine and sacred expanse of the Himalayas for a royal-style wedding celebration, allegedly defying court rulings and ruining the environment. Government officials will clean your muck for you later, also for a fee.

Uttarakhand state's Auli region, home to some of the world's best ski slopes, is set to host a wedding extravaganza for the family of controversial Dubai-based businessmen Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta in a fragile ecological region where even trekkers are not allowed to stay overnight.

The state's Chief Minister Trivendra Singh calls it an "investment opportunity". His government is using a technicality to defending the permission to hold the wedding.

The June 17-23 wedding celebrations have already started at Auli (2,505 metres above mean sea level) in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Auli is also the location of one of the world's best ski slopes, which are under stress from climate change and environmental decay. Media reports say the two weddings would cost Rs. 200 crores. Gaon Connection has no independent confirmation of this figure.

On June 17, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Nainital barred the wedding organisers from building helipads for guests.

'The wedding organisers had planned to build eight helipads'

"Apart from setting up luxurious tents in Auli, the wedding organisers had planned to build eight helipads to bring guests to the venue," Rakshit Joshi, an environmental lawyer based in Nainital who sought the court's intervention, told Gaon Connection in a telephone interview. "In its June 17 order, the high court has shot down the construction of any helipad, for which no official permission was taken."

According to the court's division bench August 2018 order in a separate case, construction of any permanent structure in Himalayan meadows, locally known as bugyal, is banned across the state. Any overnight stay in bugyal is also banned. The number of people/tourists visiting meadows is restricted to a maximum of 200. The earlier order directed the state government "to ensure that no encroachment is made in these alpine meadows/bugyals in any form, even in the name of religion".

The court asked the state government to inform whether Auli was designated as meadow-land. On June 18, the state informed the court that "while Auli may have Bugyals, the land, on which the marriage event is taking place is not a Bugyal, and the nearest Bugyal is located 4 kilometers away."

The court, it seems, wasn't satisfied with the state's submission. In its June 18 order, of which Gaon Connection has a copy, the court said: "While the venue of the event may not itself be a Bugyal (meadow), it is not known what steps the State Government has taken to ensure that the marriage celebrations do not affect the Bugyal, nor has the Joshimath Nagar Palika Parishad issued any directions to ensure that no damage is caused to the Bugyal." The June 18 order goes on to note that "it is also not known whether one has to cross the Bugyals in Auli area in order to reach the venue, or whether, for beautification of the area, the respondents have, in any manner, interfered with the Bugyals thereat."

Auli is considered ecologically fragile

Auli, located in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, is a globally renowned hiking and skiing destination that is considered at par with the Swiss Alps. It is considered ecologically fragile. Between June to October, Auli valley has one of highest numbers of flower species, with 520 species of high altitude plants, 498 of which are flowering plants with significant populations of endangered species.

Last year, an international skiing race at Auli, the first such international event in India, had to be cancelled because of lack of snow in Auli in January. Ninety-two Indian skiers and 21 foreign ones registered for participation. Kavita Upadhyay reported in The Indian Express that "between January 7 and 26 [last year], temperatures in Auli were so high that even making artificial snow was impossible."

Gaon Connection has access to photographs and videos that show brisk construction activities going on in Auli to prepare for the two grand weddings for which guests are coming in from across the world. As per news reports, flowers for the wedding are being imported from Switzerland, and helicopters hired to ferry the guests including politicians, business leaders, Bollywood personalities and other dignitaries.

"Even if the state claims Auli is not meadow-land, our petition clearly says the area is ecologically fragile with no system of sewage collection and treatment, no solid waste management plan, no plan to manage traffic during such grand social events," Joshi told Gaon Connection.

"Historically, the entire area of Auli is known as Auli bugyal. The state government is only trying to evade the issue by getting into technical classification of meadow-lands. How can the state government of BJP [Bharatiya Janta Party] allow such ecological destruction in the Dev Bhoomi?" questions Ramamurthi Sreedhar, a geologist and member of non-profit, Environics Trust, which works on environmental research and protection in the Indian Himalayan region.

The high court order of June 17 (the case was heard on both June 17 and June 18, and orders issued on both days), of which Gaon Connection has a copy, reads that "the state government and its instrumentalities must ensure that these mindless pursuits of holding large scale marriage celebrations at exotic locations in such a large number, and at places where such mega-events have never been conducted earlier, do not result in irreparable environmental degradation".

"Even if officially the area is not declared 'ecologically fragile zone', hill areas are sensitive to impacts of large groups of people and activities around them. There is no carrying capacity study of Auli to show how much people it can support without having an adverse impact on the local ecology," said Mallika Bhanot of the Uttarakhand-based non-profit Ganga Ahvaan. She is also a member of the Bhagirathi eco sensitive zone monitoring committee. "There is a need to make a comprehensive master plan of Auli, which should also include carrying capacity study, sewage and waste management plan," she added.

'An extravagant destination wedding will generate huge solid waste'

According to Sreedhar, the Auli region has been undergoing changes for the last few two decades, starting with construction of about four-kilometre long ropeway connecting Auli with Joshimath. Also, there are choppers regularly transporting people. "Because of growing tourism, construction mania has already started in Auli. These hills and meadow-lands are sensitive to such changes," he said.

"An extravagant destination wedding, which will see hundreds of people gather at Auli and spend a week there, will generate huge solid waste, including plastics and disposable waste, and sewage. Hills have no system of collecting such wastes and disposing them of in a scientific manner. There are no sanitary landfills or waste processing plants. These wastes and untreated sewage will pollute the valley, the forests, and the local water bodies, warned Sreedhar.

The organisers have informed the court that they would be using "thirty

Mushroom Heaters, four Generators of 125 KVA each, and one Generator of 62 KVA". Apart from that, 50 to 60 gas-cylinders are intended to be used for the event. Also, the number of persons staying at the venue, in connection

with the event, would exceed 300, notes the June 18 order. There are allegations that Cliffton Hotel, which was sealed more than a year ago, has been illegally opened to cater to the mega wedding event.

Keeping in mind the possible ecological impact of the destination wedding at Auli, the high court has directed the NRI brothers to deposit Rs 3 crore with the state government before June 22, the date of the proposed wedding. The first instalment of Rs 1.5 crore has to be submitted by June 19 and the remaining Rs 1.5 crore by June 21. The money is to be used for post wedding clean-up works and rehabilitation of the area.

"As the private respondents are residents of South Africa and Dubai, and it may not be possible for this Court later to recover the costs required to be incurred for restoration of the area", the money should be deposited with the state government before the event, the court ruled.

"This case is similar to the Art Of Living events in March 2016 on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi, which had attracted strong criticism from a section environmentalists and river activists… Seeking deposit of Rs 3 crore for post event restoration of Auli is just like in case of Art Of Living, in the teeth of the polluter pays principle, which prohibits any further pollution once detected and fined," said Manoj Misra, former IFS (Indian Forest Service) and convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

Supporting Misra's concern, Sreedhar said: "It is the state government that has been promoting this mega wedding in an ecologically fragile area. And, the state government only has to clean-up post the event with Rs 3 crore deposit by the organisers. Does it make any sense?"

Since it was already too late to cancel the wedding, the high court has directed officers of the state pollution control board to be present at the wedding functions and keep a check on activities that may have an adverse impact on the ecosystem of Auli. These officials have to prepare a report and submit to the court, which will oversee the clean-up activities. In spite of repeated efforts, S P Subudhi, member secretary of the state pollution control board was not available for comments.

"The recent order clearly shows the court is concerned about the environmental impact of the mega event for which there is no environmental impact assessment or environmental clearance," said Joshi.

Meanwhile, the state government sees no problem in promoting a mega wedding in Auli. On June 18, after the high court's order, the state chief minister, Trivendra Singh Rawat said: "The environmental issues concerning Auli are not justifiable as it is not an alpine meadow. Auli is simply a tourist place where there are hotels of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) and others."

Rawat went on to inform that last year, at an investors summit, the state government had itself called for developing wedding destinations in the hill state. An event like Gupta brothers' son's wedding should be seen as "an investment opportunity", he said.

Rawat's statement has angered the environmentalists.

In a letter to Rawat, Akash Vashishtha, a lawyer and environmentalist based in Ghaziabad, has said: "… such a stand and a statement coming from you is highly irresponsible, uncalled and disrespectful towards the Hon'ble High Court and the ecological sanctity of this beautiful state…. why the state government must indulge in such kind of reckless, unmindful, unreasonable, environmentally deleterious and ecologically unsustainable activities in the fragile Himalayan landscapes, which are already under unprecedented and unbearable anthropogenic pressures."

In the last week on June 12, Vashishtha, had also written a letter to Prakash Javadekar, Union environment minister, bringing to his notice the grand wedding being organised at Auli, which is in close proximity to the snow-covered Himalayan peaks such as Nanda Devi, Mana Parvat and Kamat.

"Any such unmindful and reckless personal wedding event would cause irreversible damage to the fragile ecology of the whole Himalayan landscape," Vashishtha wrote in the letter to Javadekar. "Even as the Garhwal Himalayas are battling for pristinity and existence, with no mechanism yet for enforcement of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, no sewerage systems, no assessments of the carrying capacities, no water harvesting systems, no framing of the zonal plans and no assessments of the Cumulative Impact Assessments."

'The organisers had planned to do landscaping in Auli for the event'

The letter warned that if the minister failed to take an action, "we would be compelled to seek judicial review and damages towards the environment from the parties concerned".

There was no action on this letter, and the matter is now before he high court, Vashishtha told Gaon Connection.

It is claimed that the wedding organisers paid a fee of Rs 30 lakh to the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam in lieu of holding the weddings at Auli. The Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam granted permission not only to put up huge tents, but also run helicopter services.

To address possible environmental impacts, Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has prohibited use of all types of plastic and Thermocol bags, plates, glass, cups, saucers, etc. It has also prohibited discharge of effluents into the Ganges, and its tributaries, drains and ponds. Burning of waste is prohibited, and the use of sound instruments/orchestra is banned after 10 pm in the ecological fragile area of Auli.

The organisers had also planned to do landscaping in Auli for the mega wedding event. The court, in its June 18 order, has "directed not to

change the nature of the land at Auli, in any manner… any JCBs have been brought to the location, they shall not be permitted to be used…"

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