Problems of a model state

KULBHUSHAN UPMANYU

Himachal Pradesh is India’s western Himalayan state with a population of 70 lakh. It is hailed as a model state for having attained important developmental goals. The state borders Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest, Ladakh in the north, Uttarakhand in the east, and Punjab in the southwest, along with Haryana in the south. The districts of Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal share their borders with Tibet.

The state has a diverse climate ranging from tropical, subtropical, temperate, cold temperate, to trans-Himalayan dry cold desert. Himalaya, as is well known, is the youngest mountain range which is still in the making, hence very fragile. Most of the areas of the state fall under zone IV and V that are seismologically most active. The high seismicity of the Himalayan region is rooted in its recent orogenic evolution, as a result of which the Himalaya is still rising. The estimates of this uplift vary between two and 10mm/year. While designing any development or construction activity in the Himalaya, this seismic constraint and its fragility needs to be taken into account.

In general, the Himalaya is a fragile, inaccessible, marginalized and glacial-outburst prone zone, along with the attributes of diversity and  adaptability. The only development model suited to the ecological sustainability of the zone, is one that does not play havoc with its fragility, and does not disturb the ecology of the seismic zone.

The attributes of diversity, adaptability and niche can be used to plan sustainable activities. Due to its inaccessibility the local communities evolved a sustainable model of development based on frugal resource use. The economies were low input, low output but sustainable. With increased accessibility, new technologies were introduced that disempowered the local communities, as decision making shifted from the local communities to the intellectuals and technocrats sitting in the state or national capitals with little knowledge of mountain ecosystems.

Before getting statehood, Himachal Pradesh was part of a Union Territory, ruled by the Centre. This period heralded favourable governance as the political leadership was the product of India’s independence struggle. However, things changed drastically after the reorganization of the state, as Punjabi dominance in bureaucracy resulted in a changed mindset leading to increased corruption. This permeated deeply into politics and the bureaucracy as vested interests gained prominence over the interest of the state. There is no ideological difference among the political parties ruling the state; it is subservient to the interest of national parties. This myopic view has made it difficult to chart a different developmental strategy that is required to address the challenges of the physical, ethnic and ecological diversity of the state.

This state of affairs paved the way for the introduction of a development model borrowed and copied from the plains. Later on, when the state government took charge, they too continued with the same parochial technocratic view of the plains, rather than adapting it to the needs of a hill region. The Himalaya had to compete with the powerful economies of the plains. This was justified through the development of infrastructure of their choice that resulted in unabated exploitation of fragile hill resources – water, forests and minerals.

This led to the destruction of local livelihoods upsetting environmental sustainability. Local communities opposed these anti-people, anti-ecology developmental polices. Grassroot movements emerged spontaneously against hydro projects, reckless road building, mining and pollution by industries. Despite the opposition, the narrative of a mainstream development model remains strong.

While implementing large infrastructure projects, those causing minimum disturbance should have been the priority. In cases where the scope for alternates was not feasible, the strategy should have been to adopt those projects that cause minimum damage to the fragile ecology. For example, the occurrence of landslides due to steep slopes and seismic activity is common in the Himalaya and any careless intervention can aggravate the situation. The construction of roads to counter inaccessibility has emerged as a major activity across Himachal, raising developmental aspirations on a false model that is self-destructive.

Unfortunately, reckless road construction without improvising a suitable technology for its fragile ecology has played havoc. The debris generated by such activity is dumped downstream in the valleys. This has led to destruction of greenery and precious top soil that is already very shallow in mountain areas. One can find the scars of reckless road construction activity all around Himachal. Despite claims of improved technology for the cut-and-fill method, practically nothing has been implemented. Alternate means of transport have not been considered to reduce the pressure of building roads. Ropeways could become a part of mainstream transport systems in steep and tough terrains, but have only been used to meet the needs of tourism rather than local people.

A report of the expert group of the Planning Commission under the chairmanship of S.Z. Qasim in 1993, had given appropriate recommendation for road construction in the Himalaya: ‘No geological disturbance, no land degradation or soil erosion, no interruption in drainage pattern, no unnecessary loss of forestry and vegetation, no aesthetic degradation, no such activity leading to flash floods or leaching of soil nutrients.’

These suggestions remain on paper. Increased vehicular traffic is pressing for wider roads which are not feasible in many areas. Heavy rainfall aggravates landslide damage all the more in areas of construction activity. Kinnaur is an example of such colossal damage, where a great number of hydropower projects have come up with heavy excavations, tunnelling and widening of roads, destabilizing the entire region. Areas like Urni Dhank have been converted into permanent landslide sites that are active even without rains, reshaping the terrain, and made normal transportation difficult and risky.

The recommendations of the Avay Shukla committee formed by the High Court of HP were also not heeded. It suggested that no hydropower projects should be built above 7000 feet elevation. Possibly, the introduction of alternate technology like vortex-technology or hydro-kinetic technology could have given a boost to safer micro-hydro projects with minimum damage to the ecology.

Unfortunately, the present technology of harnessing hydropower has adversely affected the ecological balance and hill livelihoods. Long diversion tunnels, called safer projects, are termed as ‘run-of-the-river’ projects. These have played havoc with fragile terrain and river ecology. The disputes over water sharing in small rivulets between the micro hydel projects vis-a-vis irrigation and drinking water needs have started showing up. However, a number of such projects were cancelled or stalled due to the opposition voiced by people’s movements. The Allain Duhangan project in Kullu was fined nine crore rupees for destroying forests. In most cases the micro hydro projects were diverting the only water source available for meeting the needs of farmers and horticulturists. Project construction agencies do not care to implement the rules and regulations that need to be followed to meet the minimum ecological flow of the stream or river.

Huge projects like Bhakra and Pong have caused enormous suffering and deprivation. Lakhs of people were forcibly displaced with nominal compensation and without any rehabilitation package. The lands allotted to the displaced families in Rajasthan and Haryana are still under litigation in the courts. Some of those who were allotted land faced threats and their holdings were grabbed by hook or crook with the connivance of revenue authorities. Displaced people found officials of state governments in Rajasthan and Haryana unhelpful.

 

There is great enthusiasm for the cement industry among the ruling class in Himachal Pradesh despite the industry being counterproductive due to its harmful effects on air quality, scenic beauty, and tourism. There are already nine units producing cement in Himachal, and yet more are planned. Though cement production has increased over the years, the high cost of production makes it uncompetitive, besides the deleterious effects on people, including lung disease, silicosis and tuberculosis.

Unbridled tourism development has become counterproductive. A government report in 1993 stated that ‘the lush green valleys, emerald meadows, vast ice fields, have now started showing abrasions due to increasing human activity. Hill resorts like Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Shimla, Kangra, Dalhousie,  now more or less look akin to modern day slums during the peak summer season. The ecology of the hills is paying the price of mega tourism. Different types of tourism like eco-tourism, religious, health, rural, and adventure tourism need to be properly promoted to reduce pressure on the existing tourism hubs.’ We need to promote ecologically responsible and socio-economically beneficial tourism.

Glacial outburst is another cause of floods, causing enormous damage to life and property. Himachal has faced disastrous floods in the Sutlej in the 1990s due to the outburst of a glacial lake in the Parchhu River, a tributary of the Sutlej, causing great damage to life and property in Kinnaur and Shimla districts. In the winter of 2021, Kinnaur witnessed two major landslides in Batseri and Sangla Valley. Many people have lost their lives due to landslides and road mishaps.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in collaboration with the Centre for Climate Change, researched the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi River basins. It found that the size of glaciers is changing at a faster pace and the melted glacial debris is forming new dams in the gorges, thus forming new lakes.

The Bara Shigri Glacier spread over 137 square kilometres in 1906 had shrunk 4.33 sq kilometres by 1995. The ratio of glacial melting has increased by 10%. At this rate it is feared that there will be no glaciers left in the next 40 years. The reason for this increase in melting ratio is the outcome of a failed model of development which generates a lot of greenhouse gases and causes atmospheric warming. The ratio of this warming is higher in Himalaya.

The dammed rivers create large impoundments, leading to the formation of methane emissions which contribute more to global warming than carbon dioxide. This may be one of the main reasons for the higher ratio of temperature rise in the Himalaya than the national average. According to analysis done in 2018, it was found that the number of glacial lakes increased by 127 in the Sutlej basin and 72 in the Chenab basin since 2015, posing a threat to life and property and also long-term water availability from these rivers.

An increased emphasis on horticulture has played a positive role in ameliorating local livelihoods in a big way. This was in tune with local needs and ecosystems as amenable climate conditions helped horticultural corps and vegetables. The horticulture boom has remained concentrated in three districts – Shimla, Kullu, and Kinnaur. Later, Solan emerged as a vegetable hub, while Lahaul-Spiti and Shimla progressed in growing off season vegetables using their niche potential wisely.

Other regions could not find niche produce because they are lowlying areas and have to compete with the mainland. The lack of research suitable for these areas is another reason for their lagging behind. Recently, work on aromatic crops for these areas was launched under the aroma mission, a programme of the central government.

Further research in this sector is needed to explore new crops and market opportunities so that a year-round cropping system is evolved to ensure livelihood security. In the horticulture sector, apple is the major crop, which faces competition both from global players and climate change. Therefore, crops diversification is the need of the hour. The universities of Palampur and Nauni Solan are moving in this direction but it has yet to reach the farmers.

Animal husbandry and livestock is a major contributor to augment cash incomes. This sector is under great stress and faces multiple problems. Himachal Pradesh has 67% forest area. Permanent grazing lands are 33.1%. Agricultural land is a mere 12%, i.e. 6.5 lakh hectares and 18 lakh hectares is permanent grazing land. Even so, enough fodder can be grown to feed the livestock population if managed properly.

Unfortunately, faulty forestry policies of monoculture plantations (pine and eucalyptus) have taken a toll of productive grazing lands. Post the Green Revolution, the spread of exotic weeds has destroyed at least 50% of the grazing lands, creating a huge scarcity of fodder, compelling livestock holders to import costly wheat chaff fodder from Punjab and Haryana making this profession economically unviable. This year Haryana has banned the export of fodder making the problem more complicated. As a consequence, the problem of stray cattle is increasingly causing damage to the crops.

The per capita availability of milk is 600 grams which is sufficient to meet balanced dietary norms for the state’s own consumption, but for meeting the needs of tourists we must double the production as approximately one crore tourists visit Himachal every year. A well planned, decentralized dairy industry has the potential for self-employment. Sectors like pasture development, cattle rearing, and responsible tourism can potentially generate huge employment opportunities for local people.

Agriculture has its own problems. An overemphasis on chemical agriculture has damaged the shallow hill soils. Fortunately, the government is promoting alternate organic farming practices that need to be implement with caution based on scientific methods. This should be a gradual process,
giving sufficient time to the farming community to change mindsets.

The major threat at present is the human-animal conflict. The destruction of mixed forests bearing fruits, fodder, fibre, fuel, fertilizer and medicine has damaged the supply of food for wild and domestic animals, along with the destruction of livelihoods of mountain communities. Therefore, animals like the monkey, wild boar, bear, antelope and rabbit are damaging crops, with stray cattle adding to the problem. This has led to many areas being kept under permanent fallow and loss of farmer’s income and livelihood.

Himachal has around 70% marginal farmers with holdings of less than one hectare. Almost 80% of the agricultural land is rain fed, making it a risky activity. This explains the heavy dependence of hill farmers on forest land. Even organic farming demands more farmyard manure that in turn requires better cattle, sheep and goat management. Increasing fodder yields from the forests are essential to meet local demand.

Rain fed agriculture must be given a better deal. Himachal Pradesh’s economy is growing at 7% which is encouraging in comparison to the national level. Though the state fares better on the development index, its future prospects are in doubt as it faces ecological disasters due to adopting the path of short-term economic growth without caring for ecological stability. An overemphasis on developing hydropower, setting up polluting industries and mining will only accelerate destabilizing of the fragile ecology.

‘Ecology is the permanent economy’ is a reality and should not be overlooked in the case of the fragile Himalayan region. It is vital for the supply of ecosystem services including water, top soil, pure air, and climate restoration. Socio-politically, intra- and inter-generational equity is also under threat as we are overusing vital resources and overlooking local livelihoods.