New Delhi: Four years after a government ban on mining and dam-building on a 100-km stretch of the Ganga, an environment ministry panel is considering a dilution of its provisions, documents seen by Mint show.

In 2012, after years of struggle by environmentalists, the ministry notified the entire stretch of the Ganga’s tributary Bhagirathi from its origin at Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ).

The notification prohibited new hydro-electric power plants and expansion of existing plants on this stretch, except micro or mini-hydel power projects up to 2 megawatts (MW), which would serve the energy needs of the local communities, subject to the consent of village councils and other clearances. It also banned all types of mining of minerals except for the domestic needs of residents.

The ministry “could consider inserting a transitional clause to permit the 10 HEPs (hydroelectric projects) less than 25MW capacity of a total combined capacity of 82.3MW which were approved prior to the date of notification," the minutes of the panel’s 31 August meeting said.

“The committee after deliberations noted that river bed mining up to a depth of 2 meters could be allowed and may not affect the ecology as river beds change dynamically. Due to frequent accumulation of materials in river bed, mining up to 2m could be permitted; however, deeper mining should be restricted. River bed mining should be limited to meet local needs only. Undue mining beyond 2m of river bed shouldn’t be undertaken," the minutes said.

The Gaumukh-to-Uttarkashi stretch is the only free-flowing, pristine part of Ganga, which is otherwise heavily polluted. The zone is ecologically fragile and has suffered several natural calamities in the last decade.

Environment ministry additional secretary Amita Prasad, who chaired the meeting, mentioned a scientific basis is needed for proceeding further on the issue. “She asked the state government of Uttarakhand for commissioning a study on the carrying capacity involving field experts. Based on the submission of the report of the study on carrying capacity the expert committee would take a decision," the minutes noted.

The committee’s comments came while it was considering the zonal master plan of Bhagirathi ESZ submitted by the Uttarakhand government. The plan was prepared following a case in the National Green Tribunal regarding non-implementation of the 2012 notification.

Ever since the 2012 notification, Uttarakhand has opposed it, repeatedly seeking central government permission for hydroelectric power projects. It says due to the notification, the state has lost investment opportunity of Rs17,000 crore with a revenue loss of Rs2,000 crore every year.

Mallika Bhanot, a member of the monitoring committee that oversees the implementation of Bhagirathi ESZ, criticized the move. “This is completely ruining the spirit of notification and it is not going to help conserve the Bhagirathi which was the very basis of declaring the area as ESZ," she said.

Documents accessed by Mint also show the Uttarakhand government has always opposed the notification while the centre has supported it, irrespective of which party is in power.

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