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The Court was dealing with PIL filed in the wake of week-long wedding festivities in 2019 organised at Auli, an ecologically-sensitive mountain meadow, that left a trail of 32.6 tons of waste.
While disposing of a PIL moved in the wake of wedding-festivities organised by the 'Guptas', in the eco-sensitive region Auli last year, the Uttarakhand High Court has directed the constitution of a Committee to evaluate the "carrying capacity" of such regions and to restrict such activities in the future (Rakshit Joshi v. State of Uttarakhand and others).
Two weddings worth Rs 200 crores and ensuing celebrations, hosted by the Gupta family left a trail of 32.6 tons of waste to clean up, leading to the filing of a PIL by one, Ranjit Joshi. The weddings were slated to have been a week-long celebration, from June 17 to 23, 2019.
Justices Sudhanshu Dhulia and Ramesh Chandra Khulbe, recorded that the family's activities had significantly polluted the area and wondered at how an event on so magnificent a scale could have been organised there.
"...for anyone to plan a wedding here at such a grand scale, meant that he had to overcome heavy logistical and practical challenges. In the petition it has been stated that a large number of state of the art all weather tents, toilets, and huge ‘shamianas’ have been constructed. Apart from this, more than one helipads are also under construction at 'Auli' to ferry the wedding guests at 'Auli;", the Court added.
The Guptas through their Counsel Advocate TS Bindra, submitted in Court that they wanted to give a much-needed boost to tourism in Uttarakhand to bring Uttarakhand on the world tourist map.
This view was reportedly supported by the government, which had given the family the go-ahead to conduct their week-long celebration there.
The Court, however, found the government to have been guilty of a "grave error" in permitting an event of this magnitude in Auli, without any kind of an assessment of the possible waste generation.
Instead of staying the ceremonies, the Court had initially directed the family was to deposit an amount of Rs 3 crores, out of which half went to the District Magistrate, Chamoli, Uttarakhand.
These interim orders were duly complied with, the final order records. After computing the costs of clearing the pollution, an amount of Rs 2.5 crores was returned to the Guptas.
"But for the intervention of this Court which had set up a condition of depositing Rs. Three Crore there was hardly any mechanism in place either with the State Government or its authorities which could have recovered this amount", the Court said.
Responding to the submission that the event had the potential to generate tourism, the Court said,
Uttarakhand High Court
The question that the Court was left to determine was whether Auli was, in fact, a bugyal.
Joshi had argued that the land on which the wedding celebrations were conducted was a "bugyal", or a "herbaceous eco-sensitive" meadow that grows high above the treeline in the mountains. Auli, being ecologically sensitive, only allowed skiing on nearby mountain slopes, and did not have much tourism.
Referring to a work by Professor GS Rawat called “Alpine meadows of Uttaranchal”, as well as two reports by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun and GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development, Almora, the Court found that the area was not what was traditionally described by the local people as a bugyal.
Holding, however, that the area was eco-sensitive nonetheless by reason of its proximity to the Gaurson Bugyal and the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, the Court dictated that environment pollution concerns still persisted.
Referring to a previous judgment of the High Court's Division Bench that discussed bugyals, the Court found the directions given therein are applicable to the case at hand as well (Aali-Bedini-Bagzi Bugyal Sanrakshan Samiti v. State of Uttarakhand & others, 2014).
The directions in that case did not pertain solely to alpine meadows but to sub-alpine meadows such as Auli as well, the Court stated. The Court in the previous case had also directed the establishment of Eco-Development Committees to "protect and preserve" nature in eco-sensitive zones.
The Court also pointed out that there was no scientific mechanism available in Auli or in Chamoli district to recycle the quantity of waste generated by the Auli wedding. Moreover, concern was raised that there is no mechanism to prevent water and air pollution that may follow such events.
Therefore, the Court has directed the State Government to identify biodiversity heritage sites according to the provisions of the Biodiversity Act, to assess the carrying capacity of eco-sensitive areas, and expressly restrict activities in the area to sports and adventure tourism.
With this, the petition was disposed of.
Read the Order here: