Trashing the Himalaya

RAVI CHOPRA

‘O sage Naarad! Among the places on Earth, the land of India is blessed. In India, the land of Himalaya is blessed and the region in Himalaya where Ganga is born is especially blessed because this is the place where she exists in convergence with God.’

Skandapuran-Kedarkhandam,

   Chapter 149, Shloka 39-40.

 

FOR most of recorded history, physical remoteness, geological fragility, ecological diversity and the harsh climate of the central-western Himalayan region, encompassing Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, kept human disturbance low and sustained its pristine wildernesses and culture. Reverence for Nature, frugality and a welcoming attitude towards newcomers emerged as dominant cultural values.

In recent decades, however, very rapid modernization in the form of physical infrastructure construction – primarily highways, dams and railways – urbanization, riverbed mining, industrialization in the southern plains and tourism is causing massive transformations in the ecology, society and culture of the region. While this article focuses on Uttarakhand, the changes in Himachal Pradesh are similar as some examples from there make clear.

Uttarakhand’s most distinctive feature is the presence of four major longitudinal tectonic fault zones, the Himalaya Frontal Fault (HFF), Main Boundary Fault (MBF), Main Central Fault (MCF) and the Indo-Tibet Suture Zone (ITSZ), going south to north. Tectonic activity is continuously thrusting four major Himalyan ranges through these fault zones, i.e., the Shivaliks (through the HFF), Lesser Himalaya (MBF), Higher Himalaya (MCF) and the Trans-Himalaya (ITSZ). Himachal Pradesh also features four corresponding mountain ranges, the Shivaliks, Lesser Himalaya, Great Himalaya and the Zanskar range.

From a distance the Himalayan ranges appear as mighty masses of rock with verdant or snowclad slopes. Close-up, the still evolving ranges appear more clearly as the fragile, thrusted, sheared, fissured and jointed detritus of a collision that took place millions of years ago when the Indian plate rammed into the Eurasian landmass. Over geologic time as the Indian plate continued to grind under the Eurasian plate the detritus metamorphosed into rock with a ruggedly massive appearance , rising to lofty heights. But much of it also remained as soil and rubble, cloaked under forest or snow.

The towering heights of the Himalayan mountain ranges enabled them to capture pollen and seeds carried from distant regions by the winds swirling around the globe. Thus, a combination of the native species of the Indian plate, the immigrant captured taxa, and the tremendous climatic variation along the altitudinal range created a phenomenal bio-diversity storehouse.

The main forest types in the central-western Himalaya region include tropical dry deciduous, subtropical coniferous, dry temperate, moist temperate, subalpine and alpine vegetation. The tree line is about 3000 metres. At higher elevations, alpine meadows replace forests. Important large wild fauna include the snow leopard, musk deer, otter, barasingha, tiger, elephant, gharial, mahseer, monal, hornbill and the pheasant western tragopan. The limits of the distribution range of the snow leopard, Himalayan brown bear, the western tragopan and the Asian elephant lie in this region. Elephants are not found anywhere in Asia west of the Kalesar Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh.

Cutting through the mountain ranges are hundreds of glacial and rainfed rivers. Four of the five major rivers of Punjab – the Satluj, Beas, Ravi and Chenab – flow through Himachal Pradesh, with the last three originating in Himachal. Almost the entire Upper Ganga basin in India lies in Uttarakhand. Though glaciers provide many rivers with perennial flow, their annual flow volume is largely water brought down the mountains by small rainfed streams, springs and underground seepages. The lean seasons of glacier-fed and non-glacial rivers are winter and summer, respectively.

 

 

Since ancient times the central-western Himalayan states have been known as Dev Bhoomi. Traditionally people worshipped local deities or regional devis and devtas. Grateful communities built temples to their local deities and dedicated nearby land, forests, lakes and ponds to them, leading to conservation of critical natural resources. Even today, Nanda Devi, Uttarakhand’s highest peak, is worshipped as a goddess across the state. Regional deities like Mahadev, Mahasu and Nag devtas are common to parts of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This culture of worship and preservation of vast natural landscapes in pristine purity drew saintly people from all over India
to pray and meditate there. Saints, rishis and munis found ideal locations for meditation and penances and established ashrams here.

The traditional economy in the central-western Himalayan region was based on subsistence agriculture, forest resources, artisanal crafts, some mining and cross-border trade with Tibet through mountain passes. The nature of the controlling institutions determined whether forests were exploited by the state or whether they provided livelihood resources to the community and protected the fragile environment. After 1857, British lawmakers and the Indian princely states, enacted laws to establish monopoly over forests in their territories, while curtailing the customary rights of local communities. Strong protests by Kumaoni peasants after 1911 led to the restoration of community rights in Kumaon and the establishment of van panchayats for managing community forests in Uttarakhand.

The laws and institutions devised by the British rulers for natural resources management were largely retained after independence. Indian commercial interests replaced colonial interests. Forests became major revenue generators for the state and the powers of the van panchayats were gradually reduced.

Deforestation in Uttarakhand reduced access to fodder, agricultural productivity declined and poverty increased. Since the mountain areas did not generate agricultural surpluses development planners did not invest in mountain agriculture, even though the majority of the mountain work force was involved in agriculture. Inability to produce enough food grains for subsistence in the mountain districts led to increasing out-migration of able-bodied men and greater burdens for the women left behind. Community resource management systems deteriorated. For about two decades after the early 1970s, the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand raised national and international awareness that a harmonious people-forests relationship was essential to sustain the mountain environment and its resident communities.

In the following decades, however, state governments prioritized rapid economic growth despite mounting evidence of its destructive impact on the ecology – forests, rivers and wildernesses – and on local cultures.

 

Forests are the worst victims of the present anti-environment economic growth model. In this time of climate change, the loss of natural forests – a major defence against global warming, is a manifold disaster. Natural forests are the backbone of the mountain ecology and society. They absorb CO2, release oxygen, shelter flora and fauna, minimize soil erosion and landslides and help recharge groundwater aquifers which sustain the discharge of springs and the base flows of rivers in the valleys. They provide local communities with fuelwood, fodder, food, medicinal herbs and other livelihood assets. Trees planted as part of compensatory afforestation measures take many years to mature, during which their CO2 absorption capacity is much below that of mature trees that are lost. Annual resources from trees and forests are not compensated adequately until the new trees mature.

According to the State of Forests Report – 2021, published by the Forest Survey of India, the land under the forest departments of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh is estimated to be 71.05 and 68.16 per cent of the geographical area, respectively.  Not all of it is forested. It includes glaciers, rivers and stream beds. The actual forest cover in Uttarakhand is 24,305 km2 (45.44% of the geographical area) and 15,433 km2 (27.73%) in Himachal Pradesh.

Since independence the extent and quality of forest cover in the central-western Himalayas has steadily deteriorated. In Uttarakhand, the Forest Department has developed chir pine plantations for industrial timber and resin replacing large tracts of broad-leaved banj (oak) or banj and burans (rhododendron) forests. Pine plantations do not provide the same quality of environmental services as the natural forests. As far back as 1950, Mira Behn, the well known follower of Mahatma Gandhi, living in Rishikesh in the Uttarakhand Himalaya foothills, urged the Forest Department to promote oak instead of pine.

After the Indo-Chinese border war in 1962 highways were built up to the borders to facilitate troop movements. Heavy forest-cutting followed with the availability of road transport. Clear-felling of forests above an altitude of 1000 metres was eventually halted in Uttarakhand in 1981, mainly in response to the efforts of the Chipko movement.

Data from the Union Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) revealed that 58,684 hectares (ha) of forest area in Uttarakhand was diverted for non-forest use between 1991 and 2021, mainly for road construction, power generation and its transmission, Most of it occurred in Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts. Not surprisingly, these were also the most affected districts during the 2013 floods disaster. Similar diversion in Himachal Pradesh is estimated at about 13,000 ha.

 

In addition to the authorized diversion of forest land, large forest areas lost to landslides resulting from shoddy road construction or widening practices remain unaccounted. An exceptionally high number of chronic landslides have been triggered along the central government’s controversial flagship road-widening project: the 889 km long Char Dham Pariyojana in Uttarakhand. Along a 127 km stretch on NH-125, 102 vulnerable slope sites were recorded. Slope failures at 44 locations occurred within 12 months of hill cutting. Geological investigations and slope protection measures were grossly inadequate. At many locations construction-induced landslides have killed people, destroyed or damaged homes, livelihood resources and other physical infrastructures. Many mountain springs, a major source of daily water supply, have been lost or diminished.

Shrinking habitats due to construction of roads, dams and expanding urban areas have enhanced wildlife-human conflicts. Leopard attacks killed 34 people and injured 367 others between 2004 and 2017 in Himachal Pradesh. In retaliation an estimated 60 leopards are reportedly killed every year in Himachal and Uttarakhand. The High-Powered Committee (HPC) Report on the Char Dham Pariyojana in Uttarakhand warns that rare, endangered and threatened (RET) species will be at even higher risk of being killed due to speeding traffic on roads through forested areas in the plains districts of the state.

The benefits of hydroelectric projects (HEPs) are very well known and advertised by governments in power. But HEPs in the central-western Himalaya have also shown severe life cycle environmental and social impacts. These include deforestation, disruption of river flows, ecosystem damages, reduction of ecosystem services, destabilization of slopes, water, air and noise pollution and
loss
of lands, homes and livelihoods during the various stages of construction and post commissioning. Mitigation measures like sustenance of environmental flows, compensatory afforestation, construction of fish ladders to minimize disruption of fish migration patterns and resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced populations are neither adequate nor satisfactorily implemented in practice.

The HEPs in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have been designed to extract the maximum amount of water, often leading to dry riverbeds between the dam and the powerhouse – a distance stretching from two or three km to almost 30 km. They totally destroy the biota and the riverine biodiversity. On many large rivers in the region, a series of dams or barrages have been planned or built, without any comprehensive assessment of their combined environmental impacts, such as fragmentation of the river. Thus, a series of barrages and dams on River Bhagirathi between Maneri in Uttarkashi district and Koteshwar in Tehri Garhwal have disrupted the Bhagirathi’s free flow over half its course from its origin to Devprayag, where it meets the Alaknanda to form River Ganga.

 

Serial dams on a river limit the populations of migratory species to specific stretches.  At one time mahseer, the popular game fish, could be found in the Alaknanda as far upstream as Karnaprayag. The Chilla HEP downstream of Rishikesh has already restricted the mahseer’s access to its main spawning stretch on R. Nayar, a rainfed tributary of R. Ganga. If the HEPs currently planned upstream of the Nayar-Ganga confluence and upstream of Devprayag get built, mahseer will effectively disappear even in Srinagar (Garhwal), 70 km downstream from Karnaprayag.

Loss of free-flowing water degrades natural water quality. A comprehensive study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) revealed that the Tehri dam has severely diminished the very high self-purifying capacity of Gangajal in the Bhagirathi, attributed to the presence of sediments brought down from the Higher Himalaya. Another independent study conducted by the late Dr. G.D. Agrawal and scientists at People’s Science Institute, showed a cumulative negative impact of multiple dams on the self-cleansing and self-purifying capability of
R. Bhagirathi. Scientists of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) bio-monitoring 11 rivers in Uttarakhand concluded that barrages ‘have drastically changed the ecological sustainability of rivers in the state’.

Large volumes of overburden, muck and debris generated while building approach roads, quarrying for construction materials, tunnelling and dam construction are routinely dumped in rivers, in open violation of rules in the Environmental Protection Act. They increase the water’s turbidity, cut off light to deeper levels and reduce the abundance of the river’s biota. The Experts Body set up by MoEF & CC on the direction of the Supreme Court to assess the environmental and social impact of HEPs during the June 2013 floods disaster in Uttarakhand cited several such examples.

Mass-wasting or landslides are frequent manifestations of Himalayan fragility. Blasting through rocky slopes with explosives during road construction, quarrying and tunnelling, adds to the natural slope fragility and often causes slope failures, damage to extant civil structures and disturbance to ground water resources. In November 2007 a large arch-shaped section of the slope slid about 5-7 m at Chãyeen village, near the mouth of the head race tunnel of the 400MW Vishnuprayag HEP, during pre-commissioning tests. The slope failure destroyed houses, trees and fields, caused a road collapse and threatened the power house downslope. Twenty-five families were rendered homeless. Villagers blamed subsurface leakages and seepage from the tunnel for the disaster, as in the case of similar failures at other projects. News reports said that the project developer had deposited Rs 80 lakhs with the district administration without clarifying whether this was payment of a fine or compensation for the damages.

The rim of the Tehri reservoir is riddled with landslides due to slope collapses as the reservoir water level rises and falls during the year. In 1999 the Geological Survey of India identified vulnerable zones around the reservoir rim. THDC, the project developer, chose not to implement the report’s finding, resulting in much suffering for the local people. Most of the affected communities demanded that they be relocated at safe and desirable locations in the plains districts of Uttarakhand. But the state government and THDC, the project developer, have found it difficult to provide new lands there.

Resettlement and rehabilitation of projects-affected populations has been a continuing problem, because the policy-making has never involved the affected people. This is particu-larly true of controversial projects that have had long gestation periods like the Renuka dam in Himachal Pradesh and the Lakhwar-Vyasi HEPs in Uttarakhand.

Pilgrimage to the sacred shrines in the region began increasing gradually after Adi Shankaracharya (c. 8th century CE). These traditional teerthyatris were austere. The ascetic and single-minded pilgrims came with just what they could carry over long distances and left little more than their footprints. They stayed in temples along the routes, bathed in temple kunds, absorbed spiritual knowledge from saintly persons and gradually prepared for a divine union at the shrine. They sustained and spread the region’s Dev Bhoomi reputation.

The early pilgrimages to Kedarnath, Badrinath and Kailash Mansarovar were synchronized with the Indo-Tibet trade. Indian traders from the Higher Himalaya reached Tibet in June or July and returned in October. The women and children who stayed behind, provided hospitality to the pilgrims who may have annually numbered only in double digits.

Temporary chattis or community inns emerged during the 15th or 16th century when local rulers began to endow land to the villages to meet the temple and chatti expenses. Thereafter the annual number of pilgrims to Kedarnath and Badrinath rose steadily into hundreds. Tribal Bhotiya traders continued to organize the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimages.

After World War I the number of annual pilgrims rose into thousands. Holy persons like Baba Kali Kambli Wale and rich patrons built dharam-shalas along the Char Dham routes. Until the 1950s, however, only wandering ascetics and devotees who could afford a travelling entourage undertook the arduous Char Dham yatra.

In the 1960s, after the border conflict with China, access to shrines in the region increased with the introduction of motorable roads. Soon buses, jeeps and cars brought devotees who could afford the trip to the nearest points of the shrines. Today, vehicles ply up to the Badrinath and Gangotri temples while Yamunotri and Kedarnath are only 6 to 14 km from the nearest motorable road. For more than a decade now wealthy visitors fly in helicopters from NH 109 to Kedarnath, rather than walk the last 14 km from Gaurikund.

India’s unfolding transportation and communications revolutions have energized a booming religious tourism. The number of believers and tourists visiting Badrinath swelled from 75,000 in 2006 to over 595,000 in 2012 and over 1.2 million in 2019. Tourism has overwhelmed the sacred pilgrimage.

Ironically, the Char Dham Pariyojana in Uttarakhand, designed to promote religious tourism may end up as the biggest desecrator of the Nature conservation culture and traditions in the state. In the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone – from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, nearly 10,000 deodar trees could be felled in one 11 km stretch if current plans are finally sanctioned. In local belief this forest represents Bhairav Nath, the sentinel of the Gangotri temple. In Lohaghat and Champawat towns, bypasses are being unnecessarily routed through avoidable deodar forest routes, despite recommendation to avoid doing so by most members of the HPC. The Lohaghat forest which helps recharge the town’s ground-water supply has been sustained by the Kali village Van Panchayat. Slashing through it will discourage communities from undertaking nature conservation and protection initiatives.

Many local roads are routed through forests even when shorter routes that avoid the forests or minimize tree-felling are available, as planned once. At a recent meeting, I learnt that the people’s protest in Dang village had successfully forced the local authorities to build the road through the shorter route and thereby ensure minimal tree-felling.

Exploding urban growth and tourism are overwhelming carrying capacities in the cities and popular summer tourist destinations. Summer water crises in Shimla, Dharamsala, Mussoorie and Nainital among other towns make national headlines year after year. On 12 May 2022 the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered that the Draft Development Plan, Shimla Planning Area 2041 be put on hold, stating that it would damage the rule of law and have disastrous consequences for environment and public safety. The plan proposes to permit construction of additional floors and new constructions in areas, forbidden by earlier NGT orders.

State governments are widening urban roads with a vengeance, decimating tree-lined avenues. In Dehradun city about 13,000 trees, including mature sal and fruit-laden trees are being cut. This is in addition to the planned felling of 10,000 trees for expanding the Dehradun International Airport. Stay orders have temporarily halted tree-felling at some locations.

 

 

Climate changes such as decreasing snowfall in the winter and reduced summer discharge in rivers, decrease water available for domestic use, irrigation and power generation. Himachal  once generated surplus power from rivers fed by melting glaciers and snow during the summer season. Now it often has to purchase power. Changing climate and rising temperatures are adversely impacting the flowering of apple trees, leading to a gradual decline in apple production, a major contributor to Himachal’s rural economy.

The sharp increase in landslides and avalanches in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in recent years is an ubiquitous indicator of the changing climate. While many are due to poorly constructed infrastructure projects, the number of random disasters has also risen rapidly in recent years. According to official data for Uttarakhand in 2015, 33 landslide incidents claimed 12 lives. That number skyrocketed to 972 incidents in 2020, with 25 deaths. In Himachal Pradesh, the number of landslides doubled in 2021 over the previous year.

Thousands of hectares in forested area are affected by fires every year, beginning as early as February and March and desiccating the soil which runs off during the first heavy rainfall. One reason is that mixed forests have been systematically replaced with chir pine plantations. In Himachal, pine is now said to cover 30% of its forest area.

The economic model implemented in the central-western Himalayan region is the same as elsewhere in the country. It ignores regional strengths and frailties. A powerful nexus of greedy thekedars and corrupt or timid officials led by short-sighted politicians, whose horizons are limited to a maximum of five years, is driving an economic growth juggernaut. They conveniently bypass thoughtful policy measures, like the Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs), to protect critical ecology and wildlife areas or measures to ensure clean and adequate water flowing in the rivers, often by falsifying data. Most regulatory agencies established by MoEF&CC are mere rubber stamp bodies.

In Uttarakhand’s Char Dham Pariyojana, engineers armed with modern technological weapons have slashed through pristine forests, wounding vulnerable Himalayan slopes, to excessively widen highways. Their argument of excessively wide highways for national defense is a false one. The final report of the HPC, accepted by the Supreme Court in September 2020, revealed that the Union Ministries had themselves stated on the basis of ground experiences that defence needs in the fragile Himalayan region are better served by narrower highways that are disaster resilient.

The state’s quest for rapid economic growth is nothing short of declaration of war by the state on the Himalayan environment and heritage. It must be seen in conjunction with various legislations being pushed through Parliament by the Union government to weaken existing laws, rules and regulations that safeguard the environment. Emboldened by the Centre’s disregard for environmental security, state governments in the region are also violating environmental rules with impunity.

But what about the people of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh? Why are they not rejecting this myopic approach to economic growth? Perhaps it is a combination of several factors: demoralization at their inability to sustain successes like the Chipko move-ment, or the day-to-day necessity of putting food on the table and ensuring jobs for their children or, perhaps, the lack of effective and inspiring leadership among environmentalists.

Equitable economic development with sustainable environmental security in the mountain region begins with forest conservation and regeneration of local water resources like springs. Along with adequate credit and promotion of science-based climate resilient practices like the system of crop intensification, it can enable remunerative agriculture and horticulture. Trained youth can reap economic benefits from geographical diffusion of home stays and nature tourism. Of course, the latter can only flourish if forests and rivers are healthy. Environment conservation is a sine qua non for equitable economic growth in the Himalayan region.

The growing protests against tree-felling in and around Dehradun are being led by younger people. Realizing that today’s ecological destruction will be their problem tomorrow, they are taking matters in their own hands. But their protests must expand quickly and strategically among the common people to be effective. Association with older activists could bring political maturity to sustain such nascent campaigns.