Judiciary is scripting a new story for environment protection in Uttarakhand
Recently, the state mourned the fifth anniversary of the 2013 floods that caused massive destruction and loss to human life and property. Thousands are still missing and now reported dead. The tragedy forced the state and its people to think and discuss about the ecological imbalance taking place in Himalayan Uttarakhand. The judiciary played an active role at that time. NGT enforced penalty on defaulters which were responsible for this sad event on June 2013.
In last one week, the Uttarakhand High Court has passed three key judgments with respect to environmental conservation. This has highlighted the strict stance of state judiciary against ecological degradation taking place in the state. Such firm directives from state judiciary can form a strong base for the government to come up with a comprehensive environmental protection policy for the Himalayan state, Uttarakhand. This also serves as a strong rallying point for various citizen actions that are taking place at a micro level. People’s participation towards environment conservation is extremely needed and important.
On June 15, Uttarakhand High court in one of its landmark judgment scrapped the master plan for Dehradun, the state capital. Master plan is a visionary document dealing with the sustainable and planned development of the city. This document is drafted keeping in mind various socio-economic factors of the city. Every city has its own master plan which is prepared by urban development agencies and planning department. The plan was not approved by the central government which became the ground for invalidating the master plan of Dehradun. Additionally, a penalty of Rs. 5 Lakh was imposed on the officers who passed the master plan. The master plan also suffered from various other loopholes like inadequate provision with respect to water management and improper utilization of 124 acres of land consisting mainly of lush green tea estates.
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Second judgment was passed regarding the encroachments in Dehradun. One of the biggest priority for Trivendra Singh Rawat’s government in Uttarakhand is the revival and rejuvenation of rivers Bindal and Rispana. Moreover, the CMO has also launched Mission Rispana to save the river from pollution and make it habitable again for various marine flora and fauna. Under the mission, the government has launched a massive tree plantation drive and is also planning to build a riverfront. But, the judiciary seems to address the exact issue by ordering the removal of all the encroachments present alongside the rivers. There have been rise in construction of unauthorized structures on the bed and banks of Bindal and Rispana. Three months deadline has been granted by the High Court of Uttarakhand for demolishing the same.
Removal of encroachments from footpaths and roads in Dehradun and Mussoorie have also been ordered by the high court. Four weeks’ time has been granted for this.
Lastly, the high court has banned all the watersports and camping activities in the state on the account of violation of several environmental norms. Poor sewerage management, waste dumping in river, illegal erection of temporary structures were some of the instances on which court observed that all of this is causing severe damage to the riverbed. Thus, activities like white water rafting, paragliding and other water sports have been banned till the state government is able to prepare a policy addressing these environmental concerns. The court observed that these activities are polluting the riverbed and ecology. Two weeks of deadline is given to the state government for preparing and presenting the policy before the court for review. Not to forget that this is a very sensitive issue for the state as large number of people are employed in this sector of watersports. Also, during the tourism season it remains one of the largest source of revenue for the government. It will be interesting to see how state government handles the entire situation.
Role of judiciary has always been extremely important when it comes to natural resource management. The Doon valley case was one of the landmark judgments (passed in the year 1986) in the Indian legal history where the Hon’ble SC ordered the closure of all the limestone quarries operating the Mussoorie ranges, resulting in environmental degradation. In coming times, it is only going to get tough for courts to resolve the matters involving conservation of environment. But with same spirit and determination, the courts in India seems to be well equipped in implementing the environmental laws on ground and strengthening the framework of environmental governance.
(The writer is a policy analyst with the Dehradun based think tank, Gati Foundation)