Himalayas made into marriage hall: Govt allows multimillion-dollar wedding extravaganza in fragile Uttarakhand area

Himalayas made into "marriage hall": Govt allows multimillion-dollar wedding extravaganza in fragile Uttarakhand area

The June 17-23 wedding celebrations have already started at Auli (2,505 meters 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   18 Jun 2019 12:42 PM GMT

It is the mother of concept weddings: allegedly breaking the law, Uttarakhand's state government has allowed controversial billionaire brothers Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta, based in South Africa and Dubai, to organize a week-long wedding bonanza of their two sons in a fragile ecological region where even trekkers are not allowed to stay overnight.

The June 17-23 wedding celebrations have already started at Auli (2,505 meters 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 crore. Gaon Connection has no independent confirmation of this figure.

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

"Apart from setting up luxurious tents in Auli, the wedding organizers 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."

The court has directed the state government to inform the court within a day if Auli is designated as meadow-land or not.

'Auli is ecologically fragile'

According to the court's August 2018 orders in a separate case, construction of any permanent structure in 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".

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 country.

"Even if the state claims that 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.

Court asks for details of pollution causing equipment

A court order of June 2017, of which Gaon Connection has a copy of the order), 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…".

Keeping in mind the possible ecological impact of the destination wedding at Auli, the high court has directed the NRI brothers to deposit an amount of Rs 2 crore before June 22, the date of the proposed wedding.

"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.

The court has also asked for details of pollution causing equipment, such as generators, gas stoves, gas cylinders and heating equipment, along with the number of guests and family members expected to attend the wedding functions.

Since it was already too late to cancel the wedding, the 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.

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

"Even if officially regions like Auli are not declared 'ecologically fragile zones', hill areas are sensitive to impacts of large groups of people and activities around it. 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.

Activists had warned the government

Other activists had tried to warn the government about the wedding plans.

In the last week on June 12, Akash Vashishtha, a lawyer and environmentalist based in Ghaziabad, wrote 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. "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 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 state government 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. The court, in its June 17 order, has stated that if Auli turns out to be meadow-land, "then both the Nagar Nigam and the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam must be held to have accorded permission contrary thereto".

(This is a developing story. It shall be updated as and when events unfold)

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