Is the Himalaya in deep crisis?

PREM DAS RAI

The Himalaya is in deep trouble. There is very little understanding of the multiple dynamics that are in play. In this essay I will primarily try and explore the anthropogenic conditions that exist, address the emerging trends, and look at what needs to be done to mitigate the difficulties faced by the inhabitants of the region with the rapid loss of the natural biodiversity. Nature may well bounce back and regenerate, but for people inhabitating the mountains today, it will be very difficult to adapt to the rapid change.

The Himalaya is one of the most fragile and complex mountain ecosystems in the world, extending across 3,500 kilometres, through Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, covering an area of approximately forty two lakh square kilometres. The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) stretches from the Pir Panjal Range in Kashmir to the eastern part of the Anjaw district in Arunachal Pradesh – the junction of India, Myanmar and China – crossing through twelve states and Union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Naga-land, Tripura, parts of Assam and West Bengal. Sixteen per cent of the geographical area of India is inhabited by about fifty million people, constituting nearly four per cent of the population.

Two thousand kilometres in length and between two hundred and twenty to three hundred kilometres in width, the IHR nurtures a wide range of flora and fauna, and is one of the richest biodiversity sites in the world. It is home to over 675 edible plants, 1,743 species of which have medicinal value and also, fifty per cent of the total flowering plants in India. Many animal species are exclusive to the region, including the snow leopard, the Himalayan brown bear the red panda, the Himalayan lynx, the Kashmir stag, the Himalayan musk deer, the yak, the Himalayan ibex, the Himalayan thar, and the Himalayan bearded vulture. The Eastern Himalaya has been identified as one of the thirty four global hotspots of biodiversity on the planet.

The IHR plays a vital role in ensuring water, energy, food, and livelihood security. The region accounts for about one-third of India’s forest cover, which not only acts as a ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide, but also provides a multitude of goods and services, such as timber, firewood, fodder and manure for farming, all of which help support the livelihoods of people in the region. As reported in the draft document of National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (June 2010), estimates of the annual carbon sequestration by the forests of the western and north-eastern Himalaya are computed to 6.49 mt, valued at 843 million US dollars.

The region is also known as the ‘water tower of the earth’, encompassing over 9,000 glaciers, which are the source for major river systems such as the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yamuna and Sutlej. These river systems provide fresh water for irrigation and drinking purposes, to over 1.4 billion people, both within the mountain ranges as well as downstream in the plains of India. The geographical characteristics of the Himalaya have defined the climate of the subcontinent. The formidable range prevents the cold and dry arctic winds from entering the subcontinent, ensuring thereby that the region stays warmer compared to other places that are located at the same latitudes. The mountain system checks and controls the moisture-bearing monsoon winds from travelling further north, facilitating the timely precipitation in the form of rain and snow in the subcontinent.

Without the Himalaya, India would have been a dry desert with a severe winter enveloped in the cold air blowing in from Central Asia. By regulating wind and monsoon circulation, the Himalaya plays an important role in sustaining agriculture and food production. The rivers and their tributaries carry enormous quantities of alluvium soil as they descend from the mountains, and deposit the soil across the Northern plains, making them one of the most fertile areas in the world. This ‘Food Bowl of India’, is a gift from the Himalaya.

Himalayan states that share their borders with Pakistan, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, are of great geopolitical importance in terms of national security and trade. From ancient times, these states have served as ‘sentries’ at the borders, a natural geographical barrier separating the Indian subcontinent from the rest of Asia. However, In the eastern and western most parts, India does not have a well demarcated boundary with China (Tibet), and border disputes there, need to be resolved.

The trans-Himalayan region has always been a key centre for trade and commerce in the ancient Silk Road, from the early Han dynasty (206 BC-8 AD). This route connected Central Asia with South Asia, and was a bridge for political, economic and cultural exchanges between India, China, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. Today, however, there are only three open trading border posts between China and India: Nathu La (Sikkim), Shipki La (Himachal Pradesh) and Lipulekh (Uttarakhand). A robust and positive strategy in confidence building, and by improving trans-Himalayan connectivity, opening up all the passes for trade and commerce, could provide a great impetus to economic growth.

In physiographic terms, the IHR is grouped into (a) Western Himalaya (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh); (b) Central Himalaya (Uttarakhand); and (c) Eastern Himalaya (Darjeeling and the Northeastern states). Latitude, altitude and continentality are three key influencers of the climate across the Himalayan region. The Eastern Himalaya, which is at a relatively lower latitude, closer to the equator and the sea (Bay of Bengal), exhibits tropical influence; whereas the Western and Central Himalaya, that are located at a relatively higher latitude, exhibit a temperate influence. The combined influence, of proximity to the Bay of Bengal and the unique direction of the monsoon originating from both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, ensures that the Eastern Himalaya receives more rainfall than Western and Central Himalaya. While the Eastern Himalaya contains some of the wettest spots on earth, a vast expanse of cold desert lies within the Western Himalaya.

Climatic variations are observed not only in different parts of the Himalaya, but also on different slopes within the same range. What is lost in latitude is made up in altitude, ensuring a myriad microclimates that harbour ecological biodiversity some still undiscovered.

Tribal communities, with their traditions and knowledge of conservation and natural resource management, have contributed immensely in maintaining the ecological diversity of the Himalaya. Eco-cultural landscapes, such as Demazong (in Sikkim) and Apatani (in Arunachal Pradesh), have a highly evolved structure of resource management that is ecologically and economically efficient (MoEF, 2009). The Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia people have a tradition of environmental conservation based on religious belief. The Nishi Tribe in the East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh have established protocols for the conservation of forests around lakes and on hilltops, while the Nagas in the Mokokchung district, have historically divided their forests into blocks, of which some are designated primarily to be conserved.

The Himalaya is, additionally, a highly seismic zone buzzing with seismic activity as the Indian plate continues to be lifted by the Eurasian plate. This tectonic movement resulted in the formation of the Himalaya, the youngest, highly seismic prone, mountain range. Earthquakes continue to occur, and with a dramatic increase in populations that live in the mountain cities, these areas are disaster prone. In September 2011, an earthquake in Sikkim took many lives and caused widespread destruction to roads and property especially old monasteries and schools.

The entire Himalaya, and its inhabitants, are under severe stress – climate change induced by global warming; loss of biodiversity due to anthropogenic activity; migration of people both from the mountains to the plains and vice versa; geopolitical issues ranging from border skirmishes with China and more; as well as the influence and injection of new technologies.

There has been a rapid change in cultural values too, of what life should be in the mountains. Lifestyles and living patterns are changing with the influence of television and social media. Aspirations and changing as well. Political narratives are shifting. Tourism seems to be the new mantra, playing a core role in livelihood patterns and income generation. A new elite is being spawned in India as development funds flow in. This is bound to have a long-term impact and cost. Ranging from water shortages to a loss of ecological biodiversity that is damaged to make way for construction and infrastructure development, this destruction is bound to increase. The financial capital flow will increase and the vulnerable natural environment ravaged for immediate commercial gain. To stem this onslaught, there must be countermeasures within a legal framework in place.

To quote from an article in the magazine Mongabay, titled ‘North India’s hills are feeling the heat too, but differently’, written by Archana Singh on 27 May 2022.

* India recorded the hottest March in 122 years, there has been hardly any relief from heatwave conditions.

* To seek relief from severe heat, tens of thousands of tourists either visited or are going to the hill stations in northern India, causing massive traffic jams.

* The rush of tourists from plains to hills has highlighted environmental issues plaguing the fragile Himalayas ecosystem such as water shortage and plastic pollution.

* Experts say that tourism beyond the carrying capacity of such ecologically sensitive regions could cause irreversibly harm to the fragile ecosystem of these areas.

Rishi Raj Singh, the CEO of Kaudia Estate, states, ‘We are a luxury villa (Rs 85,000 per night) based out of a slightly obscure place in Kanatal (Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand). We are completely sold out until June. We are forced to refuse new bookings. We have never seen this kind of demand.’

In this fast changing situation we are testing our inherent resilience. Hoteliers and travel agents are making up for what they lost during the lockdown, pandemic years of 2020 to 2021. But there is little solace in this celebration. The influx of human traffic in huge numbers is taking its toll on the region. From plastic pollution to shortages of all manner, shape and kind, have impacted the lives of local residents. All these unthinking interventions add to fossil fuel pollution. This will also cause more carbon deposits on our fragile mountain tops and glaciers, that will compel a faster melt down. It will cause major changes in the micro-climate which will then fail to support traditional practices of agriculture
and horticulture. Considerable die-back diseases afflict cash crops like mandarin oranges and the large cardamom, that have been the main-stay of the people in Sikkim for centuries, diminishing production and therefore livelihoods.

 

 

Apart from all this, there are internal issues with the young population who have not been schooled as they should have. The two years of Covid lockdowns have hit our education system the most. Rural children could not access schooling and therefore their education for two years. This reality puts them back in time. No one, and especially no one in government, accepts this truth. Nothing is being done to address this need. Children are now no longer in the education system. The growing numbers of unemployed adults who are aimless and do not know where to go or what to do will soon swell in numbers. This will pose serious social and societal problems in the region compelling crime, drugs and alcoholism, finally leading to severe mental illness. Much of this is contributing to a migration from the scattered mountain villages, where many young people do not see any future in the mountains, to other parts of the country in search of learning and jobs.

In the Himalaya, infrastructure development has added many basic amenities like health clinics and hospitals; internet; roads especially PMGSY ones; hydropower; schools and colleges, universities and the like to the area. This, on the plus side. But on the other face of the coin, the largesse of government in the form of cheap rice and pulses, support this living in the villages. The question that needs to be asked is whether any of this is leading to environmental sustainability. Ultimately, if we do not want our Himalaya to be destroyed, it is imperative that we sustain the existing and fragile ecosystems that will continue to provide the ecological services, so vital for the survival of all creatures, biodiversity and humanity. This is perhaps the central question now.

The multitude of people invading the mountains to get away from the summer heat of the plains, is altering the economic and social landscape. The rapacious character of the financial and political capital in play here, will ensure the destruction of many  social systems that have helped us survive for centuries. It will change the culture of the Himalaya forever, leaving us concerned about the endless existential problems that lie ahead. The cultural and spiritual basis of our societies is being challenged in the most insidious of ways.

The development paradigm that has been unleashed over the last 75 years in the Himalaya saw that we led so-called comfortable lives, but it has come at a huge cost. We have the internet and are able to connect to the world on demand. We have running hot water in our toilets and we sleep on comfortable beds. We are able access so much more of the world and there are plenty of players who are more than eager to fulfil all our demands and aspirations. We have players like Amazon who reach us at our doorstep with a tube of toothpaste if we need it. But it comes at a cost.

We are abdicating our identity and extending our personal details and profiles into the unknown. Additionally, every convenience we indulge in leads to a greater carbon footprint. Tackling this is the real challenge. The geopolitical environment has not only deteriorated, but for the foreseeable future we seem to be in an ongoing state of tension with Tibet, China, Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. All that happens in our immediate neighbourhood impacts us. These are the real dangers for the Himalayan states of India.

During my growing years my father would narrate a special story to us, a story of survival. It was told to us during Maghe Sakrati (usually 14 January) a season when tubers and roots of all kinds like sweet potato and tarul (yam) were eaten. He would  tell us how the Gorkha soldiers, withdrawing from Burma during the Japanese onslaught, managed to come back alive because of their intimate knowledge of these wild foods on which they survived; even as they made their way back, traversing through thick jungles.

I served as a Member of Parliament from 2009 till 2019 in the 15th and 16th Lok Sabhas. I represented people of the state of Sikkim as a member of the Sikkim Democratic Front Party. As a lone member from a small regional outfit, it was difficult to make myself heard. Our party was aligned to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 15th Lok Sabha and to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 16th Lok Sabha. I had to skilfully use these alliances to get our party’s views heard and appreciated, as well as insert the multiple voices of the people of Sikkim into parliamentary debates and discussions. Whenever there was debate on the issue of Himalaya or the mountains, I had the pleasure of bringing forth our views in the debates.

Much of the good work, as I understand it, is done outside of Parliament by taking the problems to the ministers of relevant departments like the Ministry of Environment & Forests and Climate Change; or Rural Development Department. Panchayati Raj institutions were also important as they remain the line ministries that ensure the progress on many of the fronts that we are addressing here. However, there is a real need to have an institution that will evolve and establish an inclusive, pan-Himalayan vision, to work on integrating the views and voices of the mountain states of India.

The Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) was one such attempt. It was registered in 2013 as a society, and has been doing stellar work for the mountain agenda.1 Foremost in this initiative has been the organizing of mountain legislators to come together to constitute a working group focused on mountain development. This was facilitated by the then Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, Montek Ahluwalia, Thus, the disability affecting mountain areas was studied by a committee headed by B.K. Chaturvedi, Member Planning Commission of India.2 The late Dr Tolia was a member of the committee. The Chaturvedi Report recommended that two per cent of the Gross Budgetary Support be given to the mountain states as an additional devolution of funds. Other such systemic approaches will enable the sustainable development of the mountains.

The Sikkim Wellbeing of Generations Bill 2017 was a far reaching state level legislation that was sought to be enacted. The preamble states, ‘to establish an appropriate legal frame-work to guide and direct Sikkim’s development agenda towards people and planetary well-being in consonance with the principles of sustainable development, integration of environ-mental, social and economic dimensions, inter-generational and intra-generational equity, shared responsibility, equitable conservation and efficient use of natural resources, stewardship, transparency and accountability.’ Due to a variety of reasons, primarily political, it did not see the light of day.

There are other ways of assisting the Himalaya survive the onslaught of man and machine. As we find newer and better ways of dealing with the process of mobility, we have to embrace them. Electric cars will be a boon for the mountains. The initiative of ‘Carbon Neutrality in the Tourism Destinations’ is an outcome of the study to find out if Sikkim was carbon neutral. This was done in 2017 with data points up until 2015. The good news is that we were carbon negative then. But, the bad news was that we are sliding rapidly into becoming carbon positive. With the deluge of tourists in 2022, we can be reasonably certain that we may have already entered carbon positive territory.

Can tourism ever become carbon neutral? The strategy to decarbonise our tourism sector has to be given a boost. Stakeholders like transporters, hoteliers, homestay owners, travel agents and others have to accept that we have a massive problem do deal with. Business as usual will ruin everything and there are enough examples of ruination of destinations from around the Himalaya and in the nation at large. Once we accept this we have to find ways and means of decarbonising, which is by using renewables in our energy mix. The one thing that Sikkim and other mountain states have is hydropower. We must use this to ensure that our transporters are weaned off fossil fuels. We have to rapidly convert to electric vehicles and build charging stations. 

In conclusion, I would like to say that we are at a crossroad, reaching the limits of growth in the Himalaya. The ecosystem of the Himalaya mountain range, as we know it, may not survive another century. We are, therefore, at a very critical juncture in Himalayan history. Whether we will have the foresight and the will, especially political will, to do something about this and correct the pitfalls leading to a degeneration in an effort to renew and regenerate ecosystems that have sustained us for millennia, is an open question.

When one looks at all the drivers of the change that have beset the Himalaya for the last five decades one wonders why ‘development’ went the way it did. If we want to unravel this problem and try and find solutions within a framework like, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals, then we will have to find a political solution. We will have to find ways to ensure a political imperative because only then, and then only, will we be able to find solutions at scale that
will positively impact the Himalaya, including the restoration of its degraded and collapsed ecosystems, renewing and recharging the mountain springs for example, for a sustainable future.

 

Footnotes:

1. See Integrated Mountain Development (IMI) website: www.mountaininitiative.in for reports, work completed and ongoing.

2. Rita Pandey and Purnima Dasgupta, ‘Development Index for Hill States in India’. Working Paper no. 2014-134. National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi, April 2014.