New Delhi: On February 18 this year, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami met Union Environment and Forest Minister Bhupender Yadav in New Delhi. The meeting concerned four rivers flowing through his state.

Monsoon was approaching. Excessive rains were becoming a regular event every year. Human-battered rivers of Uttarakhand were lying low, waiting to hit back with disastrous flash floods. Dhami’s government should naturally have been worried about safeguarding people of the ecologically fragile state from the blowbacks of nature.

But what Dhami wanted was – urgent permission to continue mining the four rivers flowing through the state’s hills and forests as the permission to mine was set to expire. What dazzles the Uttarakhand government is the profits from sale of dug-up minerals, sand and stones, no matter its environmental costs. According to official records from 2016, the state made Rs 100 crore annually from mining one of these rivers.

Five days after the personal meeting between the two leaders of the BJP, the state government was granted permission to mine, sidestepping critical legal requirements to conserve forests and protect rivers, documents accessed by The Collective reveal.

One of the four rivers is Gaula, which is a lifeline for the state’s populous and commercially prosperous city of Haldwani. The river is dying. During the lean season, most of its length is hardly more than a shallow and sometimes bone-dry due to deforestation, excessive mining and pollution. Between December 2020 and March 2022, 3 people died by drowning in mining pits in Gaula river. The river flooded in October 2021, leading to the collapse of a bridge and loss of agricultural lands of farmers.

Documents show the Union government repeatedly approved mining in Gaula despite the state government’s failure to comply with terms to protect the environment.

Moreover, the permission to mine was granted overlooking the errant miner’s history of flouting multiple norms as it dug up boulders, sand, gravel and other minerals from the rivers for the past decade.

The Union government also went against multiple guidelines and court orders by giving in to the state’s greed to earn more from the river. The state sought permission to mine Gaula in June a monsoon month during which mining is prohibited to help the rivers recuperate from the deep scars of incessant mining. They got permission for that too.

While bending law and greenlighting clearances through opportune interpretations of regulations is nothing new, it's rare for a chief minister to boldly proclaim his role in peddling influence to bend environmental laws. 

This approval, secured at the eleventh hour, becomes even more remarkable considering the long gestation period typically associated with decision-making within the environmental ministry.

“I thank the honourable union minister for assuring swift action on my request,” Dhami wrote on Facebook immediately after the meeting. Five days later, Dhami thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Minister in a Facebook post: “Under the leadership of the ‘double-engine government’, we are always working towards the development and prosperity of the region.”

Gaula is one of the many rivers that feed the Ganga. During its course, the forest-fed river of the Himalayas rolls stones, boulders and other minor minerals down the mountains to the plains. In January 2013, the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation, a statutory body created by the state, was granted clearance to collect mountain debris from the bed of Gaula river flowing through the forestland of Nainital district

Though its mandate is to achieve conservation through judicious mining of riverbeds in forests to protect the forest land from floods, the state government’s company has succumbed to the allure of profit arriving through excessive mining. The chief minister himself had wished for the windfall the state could earn by mining in the prohibited monsoon month of June. 

But as miners unscientifically scoop away tonnes of boulders, gravel and sand, they end up removing stones that stand in the path of the water, which is now free to barrel down the river during the rains, take unprecedented paths, swallow up farmland, smash bridges and create treacherous pits.

Before the last assembly elections, the state even relaxed the need to assess environmental impact when mining on private land and also allowed stone crushers to operate at illegal sites for longer. It has also allowed excessive mining, to train the course of rivers, in the name of disaster management and flood protection.

Experts have often warned that excessive and unregulated mining for short-term economic gains leads to long-term damage to life, ecology and property in the fragile Himalayan range. 

Despite a bad track record and operating in such fragile zones -- two red flags for any environment ministry – the corporation has had it easy with green clearances.

Easy approvals, repeatedly

In 2013, forestland measuring 1,497 hectares was diverted for mining the Gaula river. The permission to use the forest land for river mining (forest clearance) was granted for 10 years, till January this year. Forest land usage in India requires prior approval or clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The approval is subject to conditions minimising environmental impact.

As the end date of the mining permission drew close, the state government sent a proposal to the Union environment ministry in April 2022 seeking an extension of the forest clearance. But the proposal didn’t go through in time as there were shortcomings.

Meanwhile, the state's clearance expired on January 23. Nevertheless, the environment ministry permitted river mining till February 28 by issuing a Temporary Working Permission (TWP). Such permission is granted in cases where a state government fails to apply before forest clearance expires. The state submitted the complete proposal three days late, on January 26.

But the Union environment ministry flouted regulations in granting stop-gap working permission to the BJP government in Uttarakhand. Prior to granting temporary permission, the Union government should know if the applicant has a history of breaking forest conservation rules during its decade-long operation. The ministry was unaware of this because the state had filed an incomplete compliance report. 

In the Temporary Working Permission, the Centre asked the state to submit its latest status of compliance.

Still, the ministry went ahead and granted a temporary extension despite knowing well that the toughest part of the environment clearance process is to ensure compliance with environmental safeguards.

Even within what the state submitted while seeking extension, the ministry observed violations of environmental conditions. They found the state was lagging in compensatory afforestation, which is one of the most important conditions accompanying the Forest Conservation Act.  It says the loss of forest due to any non-forestry purpose should be offset or compensated for by planting trees in an equal area of non-forest land or twice the area of degraded forest land.

 The ministry also observed that there was construction in the areas where compensatory afforestation was supposed to be carried out, which is also against the condition that the land set aside for compensatory afforestation can only be used to grow trees.

The Centre highlighted that the state had not completed compensatory afforestation in time.

“Sometimes approvals become negotiating tools depending on which company is on the other side. These can then allow for discretionary approvals for short or long term. And these become political or economic negotiations rather than conservation tools,” said Kanchi Kohli, a senior researcher on environmental law and policy.

Dhami met Bhupender Yadav to request speedy action on the state’s proposals to continue mining in forest land.

Ten days before the temporary approval was about to expire, chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, who also handles the mining portfolio, met the Union minister of Environment and Forests on February 18. On February 23, despite acknowledging the poor compliance with previous conditions, the Forest Advisory Committee recommended the state's proposal for extending the previous lease.

Five days later, Dhami got the opportunity to thank his fellow partymen at the Centre.

The committee assesses and advises the environment ministry on proposals related to non-forest use of forestland. The recommendations are not binding on the Union government.

As it gave the state its go-ahead to mine Gaula, the committee again highlighted incomplete compensatory afforestation efforts and the state's lack of interest in preparing a District Survey Report. Though it is a prerequisite for obtaining mining leases, the state hadn’t bothered to prepare one.

The Committee also highlighted that due to poor complance with forest conservation norms the validity was being extended for only 5 years instead of the 10 years the state had sought.

As it recommended the state’s mining request, the Forest Advisory Committee noted its poor compliance of the conditions under the forest law.

“The violation of a compliance condition under the forest conservation law can amount to the violation of the law itself. What is the purpose of law if it's openly flouted?” said Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer who works with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment.

“There is no use of forest conservation and environment protection laws and policy if those going against them are allowed to exploit resources and are given relaxations to do that,” said Choudhary.

To summarise words from the (sidenote)book 'Development of Environmental Laws in India',[Development of Environmental Laws in India by Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon](/sidenote) environmental regulations don’t actively work to prevent damage to the environment but legitimises them by assigning economic values to it, like the Compensatory Afforestation Fund and District Mineral Fund. Uttarakhand too, was specifically required to utilise proceeds from the sale of riverbed material for forest conservation. But it faced scrutiny when it attempted to scrimp on even the modest obligation by reducing the funds allocated for afforestation. The Forest Committee intervened and asked Uttarakhand to withdraw the orders and stressed that all the money should be used for forest conservation.

Additionally, while granting the five-year extension, the committee maintained that the state was supposed to use 50% of its net profit for river training activities and forest conservation but this compliance condition had also not been verified. Despite gaping gaps in meeting these conditions, the state was granted approval to continue mining and three months’ time to file compliance reports.

Destructive Relaxation

The Union government continued to go to great lengths to help the state government of the same colour leapfrog over regulations and multiple court orders meant to safeguard rivers and livelihoods, and squeeze more money out of the river.

The most destructive among the relaxations granted is the permission to mine the Gaula river bed in the monsoon month of June even though the state was allowed to mine the river only from October 1 to May 31 according to the forest clearance given to it.

The Centre relaxed Uttarakhand’s mining prohibition for June.

A halt to mining during the rains allows the river to naturally deposit sediments, recover itself, and in turn prevents destruction caused by an unprecedented change in the course of the river.

Prohibition of riverbed mining in monsoon has been reiterated by the environment ministry through its guidelines, and also courts. As per the Sustainable Sand Mining Guidelines, 2016 and the Enforcement and Monitoring Guidelines for Sand Mining, 2020, riverbed mining shouldn’t be permitted in the rainy season.

For Uttarakhand, the 2016 guidelines earmark monsoon from June 15 to October 1. The latest District Survey Report for Nainital district also shows, over the years, the highest rainfall in June up till September.

But the state wanted to squeeze in more months into the mining calendar because, in its own words, mining in June will add up to Rs 50 crore profit.

On June 7, the Uttarakhand government wrote to the Centre asking it be allowed to mine Gaula in June. The next day, the forest division relaxed the restriction, no questions asked.

In September 2015, the National Green Tribunal had directed that no mining be allowed in the rivers of north India during the rainy season. It instructed the environment and forest ministry to incorporate the condition while giving clearances.

More recently, in May 2021, the Karnataka High Court cited the 2016 sand mining guidelines to disallow riverbed mining during monsoon.

Ironically, while erasing the compliance condition, the Centre said that the state could continue mining till June 30 “subject to the compliance of stipulated conditions”.

“During the monsoon, the flow of the river increases and runs on a specific course. But if mining is happening and the course is disturbed then the river can change its path and wreak havoc along the way,” Bhim Singh Rawat, Associate Coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) explained.

 State apathy

Uttarakhand has been constantly pushing to increase its riverbed material extraction from Gaula. Since it started mining the river, it was allowed to collect 11.7 million tonnes of minor minerals from the river every year. To increase the uptake, the state also tried to dilute other conditions of conservation.

Originally, the state was only allowed to mine the middle half of the river, while preserving "one-fourth of the width of the riverbed along each bank." In the new proposal seeking to extend the mining lease on forest land, the state government intended to mine 70% of the riverbed's width, surpassing the 50% it was allowed to. This was red-flagged by the union ministry.

 Additionally, the state was instructed to limit the depth of mining to a maximum of 3 metres at the river's centre. This depth should gradually decrease as it mines away from the river's midpoint. Previous reports indicate that workers involved in river mining were unaware of this regulation.

 In January 2016, the National Green Tribunal imposed a ban on river mining in Gaula, in accordance with an earlier order that prohibited mining within 100 metres on either side of the Ganga River and its tributaries. Several months later, Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation faced a contempt case for illegal mining in the river, in violation of the Green Tribunal’s ban.

Consequently, the corporation incurred a fine of over Rs 10 crore for illegal mining of the river.

“Gaula’s health, ecology, fish-life, whatever you want to call it, has been totally decimated. The labour rights of miners are violated. The river is mined excessively and it’s considered only a gold-mine for the state that has totally given up on the river’s protection,” Rawat of SANDRP opined.

 “It is not a river anymore, it has just become a mining site,” he said.

*Forest Development Corporation’s Response :

The Reporters' Collective sent detailed queries to the Union Environment Ministry, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister's office and Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation on July 12. The corporation replied on July 22, which is five days after the story was published.

It informed The Collective that due to incomplete compliance with the previous forest clearance, the Union Environment Ministry has directed its Integrated Regional Office in Dehradun to monitor the project and submit reports every year. The approval has been given keeping in mind local employment and revenue generation.On the question of extending mining permission to June, it said that due to excessive rains and friction between transporters and stone crushers mining suffered and people lost employment days and the state its revenue. It led the state government to request an extension.

See the full reply here.