Ignoring one of the most important lessons from the coronavirus pandemic – to let wildlife habitats remain undisturbed – the Uttarakhand government is eyeing to temporarily use at least 778 hectares area of the Rajaji National Park (RNP), which is home to rich biodiversity, for Kumbh scheduled to take place in Haridwar from January 2021.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, have been advocating for expanding the land allocated for Kumbh (in Haridwar) by including the nearby land currently used for mining.
Kumbh is among the important religious rituals for the followers of Hinduism. Considered among the biggest religious gatherings in the world, it attracts millions of visitors from across India and the world. The location of Kumbh rotates among four places in India – Prayagraj, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.
In the last week of April, news reports highlighted that Uttarakhand government’s forest department has proposed to temporarily transfer at least 778 hectares of forest land from the 107,517 hectares of the Rajaji National Park for creating temporary facilities for devotees coming to Kumbh. The proposal sought the permission of the central government to transfer the land for a period of nine months from September 2020 to May 2021.
Named after India’s famous freedom fighter C. Rajgopalachari, the Rajaji National Park was formed in 1983. It is also a tiger reserve and is among the 50 tiger reserves notified across the country. Known for its rich biodiversity, Rajaji National Park is home to at least 23 species of mammals such as elephants, tigers, leopards, bear, deer, etc. and 315 bird species.
Within days of the news reports, an online petition was also started on Change.org by an individual Sanjeev Srivastava demanding that Uttarakhand’s move to acquire forest cover of the RNP for Kumbh activities be immediately cancelled and withdrawn. The petition stressed that the forest land sought for Kumbh activities has a significant population of elephants, leopards, and tigers. Apart from disturbance to wildlife, the petition stressed that any human activity in the forest area sought will lead to felling of trees, disturbing of underground water sources and irreversible pollution through human waste, plastic and other solid wastes in the otherwise pristine forest region.
The proposal, if accepted, would violate the January 2020 decision of the central government’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) which rules that the forest land can be given for non-forest activities only for a period of 15 days, said the petition. It further demanded that the Kumbh mela, if at all organised as a low key affair, should be organised in already available areas in and around Haridwar river beds and outside the RNP. The petition addressed to the union environment ministry and Uttarakhand’s chief minister has already garnered nearly 3,500 signatures against their goal of 5,000 signatures.
However, the Uttarakhand government sought a way around the 15-day rule by pitching the event as an exceptional case, in its proposal. The MoEFCC’s final decision will establish if Rajaji’s land would be allowed for Kumbh or not.
Defending the move, Uttarakhand Government’s Forest Secretary Arvind Singh Hyanki explained that there is nothing unusual as the forest area is used for temporary camps every time Kumbh is organised in Haridwar.
“Kumbh happens every few years and forest land is used for creating temporary camps for those visiting it. The event will go on for months and thus a proposal has been sent to the government of India seeking approval for use of forest land for 6-7 months. There is not going to be any permanent structure,” Hyanki told Mongabay-India. On Mongabay-India’s query regarding the impact on wildlife in the Rajaji National Park, Hyanki said the department’s plan would address all wildlife-related concerns.
Additional land for Kumbh should be identified in Haridwar
The last time Kumbh had taken place in Haridwar was in 2010 when more than seven million people were estimated to have taken part in it. This time it is expected to start in January 2021 and conclude by the end of April-May 2021.
In 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Kumbh on the “Representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. During the festival, visitors take a dip in the sacred Ganga river which is believed to free one from the cycle of birth and death.
Swami (Saint) Shivanand Saraswati of Matri Sadan, a Haridwar-based spiritual organisation, said that the government’s mismanagement of the Kumbh area in Haridwar over the years has ensured its destruction. “Now, their actions will destroy Rajaji as well. Right now, I am not even sure if Kumbh will happen or not,” Shivanand Saraswati told Mongabay-India.
Matri Sadan has been spearheading the struggle for ensuring environmental flow and cleanliness of river Ganga in Uttarakhand. In 2018, environmentalist G.D. Agrawal, popularly known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, had started his fast at Matri Sadan for demanding a ‘nirmal and aviral’ (clean and free-flowing) Ganga. However, he had died after his fast of 111 days.
“For the government, Kumbh is nothing but a commercial event. The government has failed to free government land from encroachment which could have been used for Kumbh but they now want the land of Rajaji National Park. The temporary structures built for Kumbh could become an opportunity for land grabbers. For Kumbh, the better option is to get the land used by stone crushers vacated,” said Swami Shivanand Saraswati.
Even when there are concerns that whether Kumbh would be organised or not in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, its importance can be understood from the extensive preparations and priorities of the Uttarakhand government.
For instance, apart from seeking permission from the MoEFCC to use the forest land for Kumbh, in the middle of the nationwide lockdown imposed to control COVID-19, the government of Uttarakhand has sought over Rs. 850 million (Rs. 85 crore) from central government’s National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) for 16,075 community toilets and 20,000 urinals planned for Kumbh 2021. The proposal was deferred in the April 16, 2020 meeting as NMCG decided to firm up the proposal with more information regarding waste management. It is expected to be finalised soon.
Mallika Bhanot, who is the member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum working in Uttarkashi for environment conservation, also criticised the Uttarakhand government. “The Kumbh samiti (council) in 2010 envisaged requirement of greater area for the mela in the future, and it has been proposed to the government to extend the ksetra (area) but the government has been reluctant because that will imply stopping the mining and crushing activities in this area which are extensively happening,” Bhanot told Mongabay-India.
The demand for additional land for Kumbh goes back to 2019 when the seers involved in Kumbh preparations had stressed on the requirement of additional land for the 2021 event.
A senior official of the Uttarakhand government’s forest department, while wishing anonymity said, there are very bleak chances that this proposal would be stopped. “Forest areas have been used in the past for big events. So, it is not going to be a big issue. The forest department will take care of any human-animal interface.”
“Even if the practice of temporary lending of national park area has happened before – it is imperative that instead of continuing with this, the government considers expanding the Kumbh ksetra in Haridwar area by stopping the mining and crushing activities which are environmentally devastating and disrupts the cultural sanctity of the place,” argued Bhanot.