Auli: Ash and smoke hang heavy over the Himalayan ski resort of Auli two weeks after two Indian businessmen brothers based in South Africa arrived here for the wedding functions of their respective sons. The Auli weddings of Ajay and Atul Gupta’s sons, Suryakant and Shashank, respectively, were a grand Rs 200-crore affair.
The functions took place from 18 to 22 June and had in attendance Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and Yoga guru Ramdev among other bigwigs, besides Bollywood star Katrina Kaif who performed at the nuptials.
But the festivities ended with what activists describe as a disaster for an ecologically-sensitive area.
Tonnes of plastic and other kinds of waste — 33,000 kg to be precise — were left strewn about, as was human excreta, because workers making the arrangements were not provided with toilets.
“There was no facility of sanitation for the workers who managed the function. There were just 4-6 toilets and that too reserved for the guests of the wedding… The rest of the people had to excrete in open,” said civil society activist Mahadip Pawar. “Even the sewage lines for guest toilets were found to be leaking once the wedding got over.”
In the clean-up that followed the wedding, a lot of the garbage was set on fire in the Joshimath Municipal Corporation dumping ground that overlooks the bank of Dhauliganga, one of the two main source streams for the Ganga river.
The resulting smoke casts a dystopian shadow over Auli, one of the few skiing areas in South Asia and the only one in India that has hosted an international winter game.
Local residents, meanwhile, complain about cattle deaths from ingesting the trash that has not been picked up so far.
Speaking to ThePrint, workers involved in the post-wedding clean-up, carried out by the state administration and to be funded by the Guptas, said they were struggling to round up all the trash since the wind kept blowing it far and away.
Auli, a hill station in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, is located at a distance of 16 km from Joshimath, on the famous Chardham-Badrinath route.
It provides skiers with clean stretches of up to 10-20 km without any obstacle, and at any point boasts of a 500m descent. It also serves as a vantage point for breathtaking views of several Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi, Kamet, Mana Parvat and Dunagiri.
In the local tongue, Auli is also referred to as ‘bugyal’, which translates to ‘meadow’. The meadows are home to several endangered flora and fauna, which is why night stays are forbidden in the higher meadows following an August 2018 order of the Uttarakhand High Court, as is commercial cattle grazing.
No wonder then that reports of the state government allowing a big-ticket wedding here elicited protests, and even a legal challenge.
On 18 June, hearing a PIL claiming that the wedding preparations were damaging the environment, the Uttarakhand High Court asked the Guptas to deposit Rs 3 crore with the Chamoli district magistrate as security money for the possible harm that may be inflicted.
A division bench comprising Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and Justice Alok Kumar Verma also noted that the state government’s permission for the wedding would set “the wrong precedent”.
The court barred “the use of plastic, thermocol bags, glasses, plates, cups, and saucers”, but the violation of the order was evident in the garbage scattered near the wedding site, which included plastic bottles.
According to civil society activist Pawar, the prospect of ecological damage was completely overlooked in the wedding arrangements.
“The only helipad was transformed into a mandap for the wedding and there were plans to construct eight helipads in the eco-sensitive zone but the court struck it down,” he added.
The meadow takes at least 40 or 50 years to replenish once it’s disturbed, said Vivek Pawar, an Indian skier who has represented the nation at various international games and is the president of the Adventure Association of Uttarakhand.
“During the 2011 South Asian Winter Games, machines were deployed to maintain the ski slopes, and the meadow hasn’t recovered completely from that damage yet,” he added. “Now, this wedding has added more disruption to the international skiing ground.”
Pawar said the meadows are an essential part of the water table of the mountains as they absorb water to prevent soil erosion and landslides. He also expressed worry that the human excreta lying around may get washed away and into the local water supply.
The damage to the nature apart, locals have their own stories of how the weddings hit them.
Surinder, a local mule owner who ferries people and luggage to the ski resort, told ThePrint that his business “has been disrupted for over weeks now”.
“We were promised compensation, but paid none. I’m on the last of my savings and I fear that my cattle may die because of eating the plastic and other waste left behind from the wedding,” he said. “Eight-10 cows have already died after consuming plastic and broken mirror pieces around the venue.”
Speaking to ThePrint earlier this week, Joshimath Municipal Corporation chairman Shailendra Pawar gave an assurance that the clean-up would be completed soon. “Most of the waste has been cleared out of the venue and the place will be cleaned in a couple of days,” he added.
Chief Minister’s ‘wedding destination’ dream
Meanwhile, questions remain as to how the weddings were even permitted to be organised in the eco-sensitive zone.
Ahead of the weddings, Chief Minister Rawat had sought to dismiss environmental concerns, saying it would help promote Uttarakhand as a wedding destination.
He was quoted as saying by news agency PTI that he had told businessmen at an investors’ summit last year that they should explore Uttarakhand as a wedding destination instead of foreign locales.
A municipality office-bearer told ThePrint that the district magistrate and subdivisional magistrate along with the municipality head had objected to the event but were silenced after the chief minister voiced his support.
In court, the Joshimath Municipal Corporation had washed its hands of any role, saying they had merely issued a no-objection certificate for the waste management system and not permission for the wedding. It also told the court that the land in question belonged to the tourism department.
The legal tangle surrounding the case has not ended. The Uttarakhand High Court will hear the matter Monday to decide the environmental implications of the twin weddings and the fate of the sum deposited by the Guptas with the Chamoli administration.