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Himachal’s sacred Rewalsar Lake reports ‘mass fish death’ for third time in 3 years as pollution reaches alarming levels

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rewalsar fish death probe

The present rate of sedimentation in the Rewalsar Lake, 3.92 cm/year, was still much higher than that of the other north-western Himalayan lakes which is less than 1 cm/year

MANDI– Rewalsar Lake in Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh, India, has come into lime-light for mass death of thousands of fish in just two days. News reports even suggested that 90 percent of fish in Rewalsar are now dead. Before fish started dying, the color of the water suddenly turned muddy on April 18, 2017. For next two days, fishes continued to die. From usual green, the color changed to muddy. Leela Vashishth, a resident of Rewalsar, lodged a complaint with Balh police station on April 19 on suspicion that some unidentified person could have contaminated the lake water with chemical or other sort of poison to kill the fish. A case of mischief by killing animals has been registered.  It’s indeed a wise thing to consider this possibility as well. However, mass death of fish isn’t a surprise, and the lake doesn’t require someone to poison it to kill aquatic life. It’s already dying.

The lake has eventually reached on the verge of dying due to pollution, sewage discharge, rainwater flooding, sedimentation, siltation, excess growth of weeds, and mess created by visitors. Slumber of the administration is again apparent.

Polluted-Rewalsar-lake

Located at 1360 meters above sea level, Rewalsar, also known as Tso Pema to Buddhists, is one of the most unique places in Himachal that possesses a diverse and rich history. The lake is of great spiritual and religious importance to three religious communities, Sikh, Budhisht, and Hindus. There are monasteries, a gurudwara, temples of Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna, and saint Lomas. This pristine lake is formed in the hollow of the mountains and the history dates back to the times of Budhisht Guru Rinphoche. There is a wonderful story associated with the formation of the lake. It used to be an amazing place. But now, the pollution and siltation is killing it.

Mandi-Polluted-lake

The degrading condition of the lake was aptly brought to the attention of the district administration and authorities responsible for conservation and protection of the lake since last seven to eight years. It was not the first time that fishes have died in the lake.
Mass fish death in Himalayan Lakes
Thousands of fish had died in the Rewalsar lake in July 2014 too. The authorities had cited flooding of rainwater into lake as the reason for death of fish. Excess dispersal of feed to fish by pilgrims and tourist was another major reason, which continued despite demand of ban on this practice.

After this incident, the Pradhan of the Nagar Panchayat, Bansi Lal Thakur, had told a Hindi Daily that the Chief Minister had laid foundation stone for establishment of sewerage system on May 11, 2012. The CM had allotted budged to the Irrigation & Public Health Department, and had asked to complete the work as soon as possible. Sadly, the small township settled on the boundary of the square-shaped lake still lack sewerage system. He had also said that DPR was prepared to remove silt, but the department hadn’t move a muscle in reality.

Pollution in Himachal 's Rewalsar lake

A report had appeared in 2015 in which it was revealed that the lake is overcrowded as there is no control on population growth of fish. The area of the lake is ideally suitable for presence of not more than 15, 000 fish. However, the number of the fishes were in lakhs. The administration tried to shift thousands of fish in other water-bodies and rivers but didn’t succeed in solving the problem. The report had also pointed out that the township lacks proper drainage system and all domestic wastewater and rainwater ends up in the sacred lake. The catchment slope of the lake is such that all rainwater flows right into it.
Rewalser fish death

In May 2016, again thousands of fish were choked to death due to rise in water toxicity level. The administration stood helpless and did nothing more than burying the the dead fish. Administration didn’t bothered about this grieve crisis the lake had been facing.

Rewalsar Development Action Group, an NGO, raised the demand to take measures to prevent pollution of the lake. The NGO had also submitted a special report on conservation of the lake to the government. Save Rewalsar Lake campaign was also launched.

In April 2016, the National Green Tribunal has ordered ban on use of plastic around the lake, which was hardly followed. The NGT had pointed out complete failure of government to protect the lake. The tribunal had constituted a four-member high-level committee comprising of Secretary, HP Pollution Control Board the Secretary, Environment, and Secretary, Irrigation and Public Health. The committee was supposed to submit a comprehensive report over possible solutions for the restoration of original condition of the lake. God knows what happened to that report and the committee.

In June 2016, the issue of alarming degradation of the lake was again raised by the locals and the NGO. The community was still pleading for sewerage system and measures to prevent flood-water and domestic waste-water from draining into the lake. When an engineer of the Pollution Control Board, RK Nadda, was asked about the matter, he had simply refused to comment. District administration had told media that it’s seeking funds from the government. Again, there were only problems but no solution.

In March 2017, the Rewalsar Development Action Group approached the Chief Secretary, VC Pharka and the Deputy Speaker, Jagat Singh Negi requesting intervention to save the lake. President and Secretary of the Group briefed them about the plight of the lake and need to remove rising siltation. They again pleaded for the sewerage system. 

A research study by the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Dehradun and Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad tittles “Rapid sedimentation history of Rewalsar Lake, Lesser Himalaya, India during the last fifty years…”

The study carried out using Pb and Cs dating on the top 2 meter (below lake floor) core of the lake. They found an average sedimentation rate of 3.35 cm/year during the last 50 years which is found to be the highest in comparison to the other lakes in the north-western Himalayan region.

The study concludes,

“During 1995 to 1963 AD, the Rewalsar Lake experienced a rapid sedimentation rate of 3.92 cm/year while it reduced to 2.78 cm/year after 1995 AD. At the Rewalsar Lake, the natural parameters, such as lithology, catchment area and slope, rainfall, etc. do not appear to be the limiting factors controlling the rate of sedimentation.”

The study further added,

“Rather, human interference, in terms of civil constructions and growth of township in the lake catchment area appears to be the most plausible factor controlling the sedimentation rate during the past fifty years.”

Siltation in Rewalsar lake

Comparison of Rewalsar Lake and some of the north-western Himalayan lakes

The study also said that,

“The present rate of sedimentation in the Rewalsar Lake, 3.92 cm/year, was still much higher than that of the other north-western Himalayan lakes which is less than 1 cm/year.”

“An early action plan is required to be followed up by the concerned authority to arrest the extremely higher sedimentation rate Rewalsar Lake and to protect the water body from faster degradation,” further suggested the study.

Rewalsar lake contamination

As we know, on April 17, locals were shocked to see sudden change in the color of the lake water. It turned muddy and suggested possible contamination. In next two days, thousands of fish were seen struggling to breath as soluble oxygen levels dropped to critical 0.8%. Aquatic life requires minimum level of 4-15 mg/L to support aquatic life (Fish). Thousands of fish died in next couple of days. The administration had to collect the dead fish and dispose of them to prevent health hazard.

Lake pollution in himachal pradesh
Nearly, 5000 fish were rescued by shifting to other water bodies, claimed the administration. For media, the reason for mass death of the fish was low-level of oxygen. However, no one commented about the reason behind depletion of oxygen levels. Now, a ban has been imposed on feeding the fish and shopkeepers are directed not to sell fish-feed. Public is prohibited to visit the lake due to health hazards.

The government has again formed a committee to examine the issue of possible adverse effects on the natural aquifer and assess the chances of possible contamination of water. Committee is supposed to submit a report regarding the whole situation in detail, pinpoint reasons for fish mortality and suggest remedial measures.

The committee will be headed by Divisional Forest Officer, Mandi and Environment Engineer, HPSPCB, Bilaspur, Assistant Director, Fisheries, Mandi will be is members while Shri Kamraja Kaisth, Principal Scientific Officer-I, State Council for Science, Technology and Environment as its Member Secretary.

Additional Chief Secretary Environment, Science and Technology Shri Tarun Kapoor said the committee will assess and will submit its report to the Government within seven days.

Madan has studied English Literature and Journalism from HP University and lives in Shimla. He is an amateur photographer and has been writing on topics ranging from environmental, socio-economic, development programs, education, eco-tourism, eco-friendly lifestyle and to green technologies for over 9 years now. He has an inclination for all things green, wonderful and loves to live in solitude. When not writing, he can be seen wandering, trying to capture the world around him in his DSLR lens.

Environment

Govt Legitimizing and Legalizing Environmental Violations for Business by Amending EIA Rules: Activists  

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Himachal pradesh EIA Notification 2020 Amendments news

Shimla-While in statements, the politicians in power at the Centre and State Governments have been expressing concerns over environmental issues and ensuring the people that they are committed to protect and preserve the environment, the reality is contrary to it. The most recent evidence is the proposed 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification. With these amendments, the process of environmental assessment before granting permission to execute commercial projects, like hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, would be reduced to merely a formality.

Environmental activists and people’s organisations from across Himachal have written to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to scrap the 2020 draft amendments to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification proposed by it.

These activists and environmental protection groups are of the opinion that the EIA Notification, first issued in 1994 under the Environment Protection Act 1986, is a critical mechanism that regulates clearances granted to all kinds of development projects and economic activities in the country. It is one of the environmental decision-making processes that makes it mandatory for project developers to not just study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections, thus, ensuring the process of a free, fair and informed consent. However, this notification has been amended and read down several times in the last two decades, in favour of ‘easing the norms’ for business. The latest draft continues to move in the direction of rendering the EIA process a mere formality. 

The submission made by HP groups states,

“In the context of the already vulnerable and sensitive Himalayan region, flouting of various provisions of even the present EIA notification has heavily impacted the local ecology and livelihoods of the people. The new amendments will only legitimize and legalize these violations and this will mean irreparable damage to the Himalayan ecosystem”. 

The key objections raised are around exemptions of a variety of projects from the mandatory  Public Consultation’ process as well as the dismantling of this process itself.

“The reduction of the time prior to public hearing from 30 to 20 days is also highly objectionable. In the given 30 day period itself, the information about Public hearings does not reach all the affected areas which are often spread out widely in case of mountains with some project-affected communities residing in remote and inaccessible terrains. Here accessing information takes a long time and reducing this time to 20 days will completely exclude such people from raising their grievances and suggestions in the public consultation. This is a clear attempt to block their participation in the environmental decision-making process”

said R.S Negi of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur. 

 

“It is shocking that the amendments include allowing post-facto clearance, which means that the project proponent can start work and before they have obtained environmental clearance. If the basic precautionary principle on which the EIA notifications is grounded is itself not followed it can lead to a disastrous situation for the ecology and local people. In this situation who is going to be responsible for the losses? If the project proponent is not in a position to pay for losses, will the MoEF&CC take the responsibility of losses? This provision will encourage project developers to bypass the process of environmental decision making. We absolutely oppose this amendment”,

said Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective.  

The 2020 draft also dilutes the guidelines for monitoring and compliance of Environment conditions.

“Already the system of monitoring is weak, the conditions lose, the pollution control board and companies non-accountable, thus, leading to widespread destruction of local ecology and impacting health, lives, and livelihoods of project-affected communities. In the case of hydropower projects, for instance, the illegal and unmonitored dumping of muck along river beds, in forests and on common lands, has damaged pastures, disrupted the flow of the rivers, and caused massive disasters when floods occur. The proposed changes will give a free reign to those profiting from extractive and polluting projects,” 

according to Kulbhushan Upmanyu of Himalaya Bachao Samiti. 

It is ironic that on one hand, the global COVID crisis has thrown up several studies showing that pandemics like COVID emerge from ecological degradation and forest loss, and on the government is pushing for policy changes which will accentuate the environmental crisis that the country is already reeling under.  

“If the MoEF&CC wants to change the environmental laws, it should carry out countrywide regional consultations”,

added Uma Mahajan of Himachal Van Adhikar Manch.

The country, especially ecologically diverse yet climate-vulnerable regions like the Himalayas need a robust and strong environmental regulatory and governance regime that makes project proponents accountable and keeps the affected communities and ecological concerns at the centre of the EIA and environmental decision-making process. 

Notably, MoEF&CC had called for citizen’s comments before May 11 but this deadline was extended upto  June 30 and now August 11 as environmentalists and concerned groups expressed outrage that calling for public inputs on this critical law amidst the COVID led lockdown was unjustified. The MoEF&CC has in this period received thousands of objections highlighting the new draft as anti-people and environment.

The demand is to scrap these proposed amendments for the sake of the environment. 

Submission Made to Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change by Activists and Organizations

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Environment

SC’s Forest Diversion Regulation a Blockade on Forest Rights Act Implementation in Himachal: Himdhara

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Supreme Court On Forest Diversion in Himachal Pradesh 2

ShimlaHimdhara Collective, a Himachal-based environment research and action group, has released a report on the implications of the regulation imposed by the Supreme Court on forest diversion under the Forest Rights Act 2006 in Himachal, through a series of orders passed last year. This brought to a screeching halt the implementation of Section 3(2) of the FRA which grants powers to gram sabhas and Divisional Forest Officers to divert upto 1 hectare of forest land for 13 types of village welfare activities like roads, schools, community centres, PDS shops etc. 

The court orders were based on the conclusions drawn by a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, headed by a retired PCCF, V.P Mohan, that the diversions were leading to green felling and deforestation in the state. Initially, a stay was imposed on all green felling in the state (in a matter of forest diversions under FCA 1980 and FRA 2006) on 11th March 2019. This stay was partially relaxed but the Supreme court sought all FRA proposals to be brought before it for further diversion.

The report titled ‘Missing the forest for Trees’, assesses the ground reality behind the conclusions drawn by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee based on which these diversions have been restricted.

“We have found that the Supreme court’s orders need to be reviewed because the alarm raised by the V.P Mohan committee with regard to FRA was a false one”,

stated authors of the report which is based on analysis of RTI information as well as field research.

RTI data sought from the Forest department for all cases under section 3(2) of the Forest Rights Act 2006 from 2014 to 2019 (up to January 2019), was analysed to reveal that 17237 trees were felled in an area of 887.56 hectares for 1959 activities in 41 of the 45 forest divisions of the state.

Roads, followed by schools and community centres dominate the type of activities carried out. Of the total land diverted 91% is for roads. It was found that almost 64% of these diversions showed ‘nil’ trees felled. The average number of trees felled per hectare is very low (19.52) and it may be induced that most activities have been carried out in areas with open forest or no trees.

Rohru (Shimla), Nachan(Mandi), Kinnaur and Chopal were some of the divisions which had a large number of diversions, again mostly for roads.

Case studies we carried out in Mandi and Kangra district showed the desperate need for amenities like village link roads and schools. In Himachal, there remain about 41% villages that have no road connectivity which affects access to health, education and market centres.

On the other hand, large development activities like four lane highways, hydropower projects and transmission lines, have had a much larger ecological footprint in terms of tree loss in the state compared to the very minute, incomparable diversions under FRA.

The report also finds that as far as green cover is concerned in the period corresponding to the high number of forest diversions under FRA (2015-2019), the forest survey of India’s statistics show a 333 sq.km increase in the forest cover.

Why development rights under FRA important for Himachal?

1.No Land available with revenue departments and panchayats for ‘welfare activities’ thus forest land only option

The report concludes that given the fact that 2/3rd of the geographical area of the state is recorded ‘forest area’ where strict forest laws have restricted non-forest use, the FRA provides relief for communities to access basic welfare facilities, which should be seen as their fundamental right and therefore should not be hindered.

2.Cumbersome, costly and lengthy process under FCA 1980

Before FRA it was the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 which governed forest diversion even for small local development activities. This required not only permission from the Central Government (MoEFCC Regional or Delhi Office) but also warranted that user agencies deposit funds (Net Present Value of trees) to carry out Compensatory Afforestation. The whole diversion process under FCA was cumbersome, lengthy and costly, and thus a major hurdle in providing the rural areas, especially remote areas, access to basic welfare development facilities.

 “The section 3(2) of the FRA provides relief for both governmental departments and local communities as it overrides the FCA and puts in place a simple and decentralized process for diversion”states the report.

3.FRA is meant to correct the problems that were posed by strict central forest laws

The Forest Rights Act was passed by the parliament of India in 2006 recognising that across the country there are lakhs of communities dependent on land which is legally categorised as ‘forest land’ and are unable to exercise their basic livelihood and development rights due to extremely strict forest laws. Under this act’s Section 3(1), forest-dependent communities can file claims for their individual and community rights exercised before the cut-off date of 13th December 2005.

“As it is Himachal has been sluggish with FRA implementation and only 136 titles have been issued under section 3(1). But atleast the government was proactive with the implementation of section 3(2). With the Supreme court orders regulating this provision, there seems to be an impression amongst the implementing agencies and officials that there is an over-all blockade on FRA in the state”

added members of the collective.

The report has recommended that the state government and nodal agency for the Act – the Central Ministry of Tribal Affairs, put forth the case in favour of section 3(2) of the FRA strongly in front of the Supreme Court and also move swiftly to ensure implementation of all provisions of this law in Himachal.  

 

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HP Govt Exempts Use of Plastic Straws Attached with Beverages for 6 Months

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Plastic straws in himachla pradesh

Shimla: The use of integrated plastic straws attached with tetra pack of beverages are exempted temporarily for a period of six months in Himachal Pradesh, informed a spokesperson of the state government on January 31, 2020.

He informed that the exemption would be a subject to the implementation of Action Plan submitted by M/s Tetra Pack India Pvt. Ltd., AARC under Extended Producer Responsibility.

During the relaxation period, the manufacturers and producers are to come out with an alternative to plastic straw, which is bio-degradable, he informed. A notification in this regard has been issued recently.

He said that other provisions of the notification issued by Department of Environment, Science and Technology of HP on September 20, 2019, which imposes complete ban on plastic cutlery such as spoons, bowls, katories, stirring sticks, forks, knives, straws made of plastic, would remain banned.

He said that this notification will come into force with immediate effect.

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