Someone sh*t on the Himalayas: Billionaire baraatis have trashed Auli and left — with government permission

The controversial billionaires Guptas' multimillion-dollar wedding in Auli, Uttarakhand is over. They, along with their high-profile guests, have left after a week-long celebration leaving behind at least 25 tonnes of waste and sewage. But cleaning it may be an uphill task, warn experts

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   25 Jun 2019 7:11 AM GMT

The billionaire baraatis are gone. What's left is a bad feeling and a Himalayan meadow trashed by rich people with government permission.

The ski slopes of Auli, an ecologically fragile bugyal (meadow land) located 2,505 metres above mean sea level in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, are strewn with wastes, including plastics, as stray cattle feed on them.

A group of Nagar Nigam workers are busy sorting the waste and cleaning up the area where a mega wedding for the family of controversial Dubai-based businessmen Ajay Gupta and Atul Gupta, alleged to be worth Rs 200 crore, was organised between June 17 and June 23, under the watchful eyes of the Uttarakhand high court hearing a petition on the matter.

The event was supported and promoted by the state chief minister, Trivendra Singh Rawat, who said: "They could have held this wedding anywhere in the world but they chose Auli… the Gupta family has contributed to turning Auli into a tourist destination by doing the wedding here….".

But, local people aren't pleased with the manner in which their traditional bugyal was 'marketed' as a venue for multi-crore destination wedding. Between June and 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.

"Auli is our traditional bugyal. The mega wedding has spoilt our region by leaving behind heaps of waste, including non-biodegradable plastic wastes. The Nagar Nigam is now trying to clean up the bugyal," Ramesh Sati, a resident of Dado village, three kilometre downhill from Auli told Gaon Connection. Ramesh is a local reporter who has kept a close watch on the Guptas' wedding.

"Till June 25, we have collected about 235 quintals [25 tonnes] of waste from the wedding site in Auli. In another two to three days, we should be able to clean the area," Shailendra Pawar, president of Nagar Nigam Joshimath told Gaon Connection. According to him, dry waste will be recycled at waste processing plants in Dehradoon and Haridwar (more than 150 kms away), whereas waste flowers will be used as compost in the local agricultural fields.

Apart from tonnes of solid waste (more than 3 tonnes per day waste generated in the week-long wedding), the mega wedding also generated sewage. And, Auli does not have a sewerage.

"A large number of luxurious tents, with attached toilets, were erected on the slopes of Auli to accommodate the guests. Behind each tent, a temporary non-lined pit was dug to hold the toilet waste and wastewater. These pits were covered with black plastic sheets," informed Ramesh. "They have destroyed the natural slopes by digging soak pits. With rains just around the corner, all the muck and wastewater from those pits will flow downstream to reach our village," he feared.

Sewage may flow to Joshimath

An August 2018 court order bans construction of any permanent structure in Himalayan meadows across Uttarakhand. Any overnight stay in bugyal is also banned. The number of people/tourists visiting meadows is restricted to a maximum of 200. Also, state government has "to ensure that no encroachment is made in these alpine meadows/bugyals in any form, even in the name of religion".

The danger of waste and sewage pollution due the mega wedding may not remain limited to Auli alone. According to Ramesh, the sewage may further flow down to Joshimath and eventually end up in the Alaknanda river. Alaknanda is one of the two headstreams of the Ganges river whose basin supports 43 per cent of the country's population.

In order to ensure post wedding clean-up of Auli, the Uttarakhand high court at Nainital had asked the Guptas to deposit Rs 3 crore with the state government. This money is to be used to restore the bugyal.

But, environmentalists and waste experts claim that may not be sufficient.

"By allowing the Guptas to hold a wedding extravaganza in Auli, the state government has set a very bad precedence, which will lead to destruction of natural grasslands and the forests in the Himalayas. We must understand some areas must remain pristine and protected," said Manoj Misra, former IFS (Indian Forest Service) and convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. "Tomorrow, will the government allow a destination wedding to be held at India Gate or Rashtrapati Bhavan against a cost?" he questioned.

"It is not a matter of Rs 3 crore or Rs 5 crore deposit. None of the costs in such a mega event in the Himalayas should be externalised," said Bharati Chaturvedi, founder director of New Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a non-profit that works on waste management.

"Firstly, these events should be zero plastics events, as a lot of single-use plastics cannot be recycled and end up polluting the land, the forests and the water bodies," said Chaturvedi.

Secondly, costs should be calculated based on the entire process of clean up. For instance, the wedding organisers should pay for their waste right from its generation to collection to transportation and its final processing and treatment. Similar costs should be calculated for impacts of the event on the local forests, the wildlife, the ski slopes, air, noise and light pollution. Organisers of such events should also financially compensate local villages/panchayats for using their traditional lands such as the bugyal, said Chaturvedi.

Court matters

Earlier this month, 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 environmental impacts of 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.

But, there was no response from the environment minister.

Rakshit Joshi, an environmental lawyer based in Nainital, then approached the Uttarakhand High Court at Nainital and filed a public interest litigation (PIL). In response to his petition, the high court came down heavily on the state government and the local authorities for granting permission for such an event at Auli.

In its June 17 order, the high court demanded details of the "use of pollution causing equipment, such as heating equipment, generators, gas-stoves and gas-cylinders, etc". It struck down the proposed construction of about eight helipads to transport the guests.

The court also listed possible sources of pollution due to the wedding event in Auli. These included solid/plastic waste generation; sewage generation; air/noise pollution due to diesel generator sets and fire crackers; and noise pollution due to band/ orchestra. The court sought details of the "measures to ensure that the adverse impact of this event, on the ecology of the area, is kept to the barest minimum". The Uttarakhand state pollution control board was directed to closely monitor the wedding.

In its June 18 order, the high court made a special mention of managing wastes. It prohibited use of all types of plastic and thermocol bags, plates, glass, cups, saucers, etc; prohibited discharge of effluents in the Ganges, and its tributaries, drains and ponds. It asked for the segregation of bio-degradable and non-bio degradable dustbins; prohibited burning of waste; and banned the use of sound instruments after 10 pm.

According to Chaturvedi, wildlife in and around the forests gets affected by the use of artificial lights and noise. "Ban of loudspeakers post 10 pm works for cities and towns in the plains. In hills and around forest areas, such activities must be prohibited after 7 pm," she said.

Ramesh informed that Auli has snow leopard and wild bear and a lot of other fora and fauna. "Massive events such as the Guptas wedding cause noise pollution, which directly impact the local wildlife," he said.

Local people allege other court directions were also not followed. "The entire area is strewn with plastic wastes and Nagar Nigam is now trying to clean up the mess," said Kamal Raturi, a resident of Joshimath.

"Our bugyal slopes are pockmarked with soak pits. None other than the state government has allowed plundering of our bugyal," lashed out Ramesh. It is claimed the wedding organisers deposited Rs 3,000 per day basis with the local authorities for waste disposal.

The next high court hearing is on July 8.

"We are collecting information about the wedding and its impacts on Auli bugyal. We will file a supplementary affidavit in the court. The state pollution control board, local municipality and the district magistrate will also file their counters in the court," the petitioner Joshi told Gaon Connection.

In spite of repeated efforts, S P Subudhi, member secretary of the state pollution control board; and Swati S Bhadoriya, Chamoli's district magistrate was not available for comments.

Bugyals are traditional community lands

Locally, the entire Auli is known as bugyal, informs Atul Sati, a social activist based in Joshimath. He is also a member of the political party CPI(ML). "In the Garhwal Himalayas, wherever tree line ends, meadows start, which we call bugyals. These are our traditional grasslands since the British time and we have community ownerships rights on them though now officially the government has taken them over," said Atul, who claimed the local people had been fighting for the last few decades to protect bugyals in the state.

Way back in 1998, in response to a petition filed against the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam's construction of a concrete guest house on Chopta bugyal, the Allahabad High Court had ordered demolition of the permanent structure and protection of the Chopta bugyal.

"Thereafter, we approached the state government to notify other bugyals in Auli, including the place were the Guptas' wedding was held, and protect them. But, the state government has made no effort to notify the bugyal and legally protect it," alleged Atul.

Interestingly, on June 18, in response to Joshi's petition, the state government informed the Uttarakhand high court "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 kilometres away".

"How can the state say it is not a bugyal? People living in that area for generations refer to it as a bugyal. The state cannot randomly classify some area as bugyal and leave the rest," said Misra.

According to Chaturvedi, even if the area in question isn't classified as bugyal or a 'protected area', there is enough scientific evidence to show a lot of wildlife exists outside of such formally notified zones. "We need to safeguard these zones even if they are not legally protected. Carrying capacity studies must be conducted before allowing any such activities," she added.

Raturi stressed on the need for proper guidelines to host any such events in the region: "The state government wants to develop the state as a wedding destination. But, it cannot allow such events on an ad-hoc basis. There have to be some strict guidelines that must be followed by all and sundry."

S Vishwanath, advisor with Bengaluru-based Biome Environmental Trust, which conducts research on water and sanitation, claims that strict sanitation guidelines must be followed while permitting such events in the hills.

According to him, on an average (a conservative estimate), one person residing in a tent at Auli would have generated 30 litres per day (lpd) of wastewater from the toilet and 50 lpd of bath and grey water. Thus, 80 lpd of wastewater per person per day.

There are serious dangers with non-lined soak pits, as have been dug in Auli for the wedding event. "Non-lined soak pits are outright unacceptable… Faecal coliform and nitrates are a concern. For former, about one kilogram urea can be put into each soak pit. But, nitrates will remain an issue," said Vishwanath. There is a risk of both surface water and groundwater contamination.

He suggested for such events, portable toilets should be used, whose collected waste and wastewater should be transported in trucks to the nearest working sewage treatment plant for treatment.

Meanwhile, the state pollution control board has to submit its pollution report on the Auli wedding to the high court on July 8. Chaturvedi claims that apart from the pollution control board, an independent third party auditor should be involved to monitor such events, along with active participation of the local people.

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