From Ranikhet in Kumaon, I received reports of Chir Pheasant eggs being destroyed in their grassland nests and Barking Deer reported as being found in the remains of the forest, with all four of their legs burned and just their bodies remaining.
Mountaineers trekkers and outdoors folks all have one thing in common. They want to step in as close to uninhabited spaces as possible, sharing the valleys or heights only with peaks, trees, rivers and wildlife, and their fellow trekkers or maybe a scattering of local inhabitants and the odd flock of sheep! So, we are essentially a breed of loners. We want the mountains to ourselves. We want to own them for a time, share them with none. We have even become sage in our years, having overcome the hubris of the past in which we sought to ‘conquer’ summits! We now merely seek to be permitted access to exist on the heights for a brief moment, and then to emerge back in the midst of our brethren in their heaving masses in our cities below…
Easy access to the Himalaya is the oxygen that has fuelled generations of Indian explorers. Our mountains have always maintained their position in our lives as the go-to place for happiness and the regular break from urban ennui.
But things are changing and the Himalaya is becoming just a little too accessible, leading to over-crowding, and other negative effects of mass tourism. The ‘Maggi Point’ masses have also discovered this panacea, but without the responsibility of treading the mountains with caution and care…The Himalaya was never meant to be a mass tourism destination. The Char Dham yatra circuit of Gangotri-Badrinath-Yamunotri-Kedarnath were originally trekking destinations where only the fit could make it and the elderly were carried up on dandies. Nowhere in our Indian traditions was there any expectation for multi-lane highways to carry pilgrims to our riverine sources in luxury, or choppers to help them meet their religious obligations!
While Badrinath and Gangotri have been motorable for a while, the other two remain trekking pilgrimages. But the Government of India has ill-planned an ambitious Char Dham road network that has already had disastrous environmental consequences in the higher Himalaya, even in its early stages. Massive land-slides have been triggered by the widespread road building plans that are just as ill- advised for our seismically and geologically active mountains. The ambitious deadlines set for such projects further set aside any sense of caution of environmental responsibility. After all, there are no watchful eyes on road crews working at 3658 m altitude in off season months. Trees are cut, massive bonfires are lit to keep the plains- people warm, and huge landslides and rock-falls triggered with the massive JCB, Hitachi and Kobelco machinery handed to ill-equipped and poorly-trained labourers from the plains, all essentially daily wage workers who have no sense of where they are, or any sense of place, leave alone any environmental ethics. Their focus remains on their daily wages, work, and returning to a warm tent, booze and beedis. The mountains be damned. Meanwhile, the contractors have huge deadlines and pressures from their departmental bosses and leave everyone to their devices, so long as the road-building targets are met.
Grim as this may sound, the reality is worse. Mountains springs, hot sulphur springs and stream channels are being bombarded with missiles of debris and malba from road-building, permanently blocking their flow and channels. Enormous swathes of virgin Himalayan forests are wiped down the slopes by falling boulders that descend with the power and force of an earthquake, what to say of bird nests and breeding that take place in the shrubbery and tree cover below…Everything is wiped out in the path of destruction. India’s past has taught our communities the link between forests and water. Then why are we forgetting this today, in the race for religious appeasement, political gain and popularity traction?
Even the Char Dham destinations themselves are lacking in carrying capacity to absorb the human waste of thousands of additional pilgrims that these new roads will supposedly bring in. Whatever happened to the modesty and ‘high thinking simple living’ preached by all the religious strains in India? Does the Himalaya really need four lane highways? Do we really need to play god and inter-link our rivers, causing inter-mixing of species that were never meant to co-exist?
Why do we always have to expect attention from courts alone? Indeed, some road-building activity is necessary for roads along the border, for defence prerogatives. But the 800 km Char Dham project had to attract flak from the Supreme Court for willfully flouting environmental guidelines, in order for the Court to reduce the width of the balance roads being constructed.
India needs to commit to stay away from all forms of development near glaciers and other water sources, at high altitudes. Making enormous cemented walk-ways and covered spaces around Kedarnath temple is another ill-advised move. We are already encroaching on a live alpine meadow at Kedarnath temple. How can we even think of cementing up an entire alpine meadow, and depriving Himalayan wild flowers and herb plants of their rightful breeding grounds? We need authentic Environmental Impact Assessment surveys (EIAs) and public hearings instead of doing away with them or turning them into a farce.
The Mussoorie parking lot collapse this past spring is another example of the larger picture of tourism malaise. In our race to attain large tourist numbers and make Himalayan tourism a numbers game, we have lost the plot when it comes to carrying capacity. A ‘hillside covered incongruously with rampant constructions’ or what we call a hill station only has the ability to withstand so much defecation and urination. When that capacity has been exceeded, no amount of soak pits will do the job, and the monsoon nullahs will contain nothing but bathroom run-off which is the case around Mussoorie, Nainital and Shimla. Even the Nainital lake is headed for a complete drying off.
Himalayan villages were always located in places where water was in easy supply during the dry months, and cultivation could take place close at hand, usually along stream valleys. Villages never expanded beyond their capacity and more habitations were created at a distance, in suitable conditions. There were no super-sized villages!
While many of the early settlers of the Himalaya were the British, they typically created the precedent of building along the ridges, and invented the concept of hill stations and these were expandable and scalable. They even managed to pipe and pump water to them from river valleys. In recent times, our hill stations in India have been decaying not just for lack of sanitation and sewerage, but also for lack of water and parking. The streams around our hill stations simply cannot support the demand for thousands of tourists in peak season, that too during the dry summer months! So while Mussoorie is trying to do multi-stage sequential pumping for tens of kilometes to bring Yamuna water up to it, this would end up depriving the already low- flowing Yamuna of precious water to also support mahseer and other fish populations in the summer months. It would also deprive the aquifers along the course of the Yamuna river from summer-time recharge. Our hill-stations need to put a full stop on any further growth. The multiple Maggi Points coming up between Dehradun and Mussoorie, for example, as stilted restaurants with fancy western sounding names, all on forest department land, are drinking up water from the streams, and dumping sewage back into them. And the creeping development means they grow from being Maggi Points to full-fledged hotels with bars and restaurants, and parking lots, all under the watchful gaze of local corporators.
In turn, and in order to park the thousands of Fortuners and Innovas brought up by tourists from Punjab and Delhi, the creation of multi storeyed ramps and parking lots have led to a complete abandonment of the concept of ‘load on land’. The enormous iron girders of the new Mussoorie parking lot at Kincraig, built incongruously over the Dehradun-Mussoorie road itself, gave way this spring and collapsed onto itself. The tens of thousands of steel and iron simply could not be supported by the hillside.
Worse, when that massive magnitude Himalayan earthquake does strike, such ill-planned structures will act like missiles heading down our mountain slopes, as will thousands of five and six storey hotels and commercial complexes built along the Shivaliks and lower Himalaya from Punjab and Himachal right through Uttarakhand, West Bengal, and further east into Arunachal. We are sitting on a mega earthquake in the works and what we saw in Kathmandu some years back was only a small warning sign. We have not taken that warning, and multi-storey development continues along the Himalaya, not on pre-existing plinths and bed-rock as is the rule, but on stilts along slopes that have been cut to accommodate these new structures, in geologically and seismically ill-advised ways.
Forest fires are the next damning truth and reality, and it’s not just the wild fire of Europe and California any more. Unseasonal drying up of Himalayan hill slopes is increasingly leading to grasses browning and turning slopes into vast tinder fields. In the relatively cooler months of March and April, forest fires are raging in an unprecedented scale and fashion, consuming entire districts and mountain sub-ranges, with the local Forest department and Fire authorities ill-equipped at best. I personally lost tens of acres of precious and nurtured forests this spring, with fires that leapt fifty feet vertically in a single second, fed by massive dry wind circulation that fed the blazes. From Ranikhet in Kumaon, I received reports of Chir Pheasant eggs being destroyed in their grassland nests and Barking Deer reported as being found in the remains of the forest, with all four of their legs burned and just their bodies remaining. They ran till their legs burned out… One half- burned cigarette in the careless hands of a tourist driving to Dhanolti or one bidi in the reckless hands of a gaon-wallah is all it takes for a wildlife and habitat tragedy of untold proportions to occur, and barely get reported in the national mainstream press, until it becomes an epidemic and even then little administrative action can prevent the high energy wild-fires that simply cannot be put out.
The British originally contributed the basis for some of these fires, with their mono-culture plantations of pine trees, in order to feed the apple crate industry and the demand for pine resin or lisa. Wild fires race through pine, fuelled by the needles on the ground and the resin in the tree trunks. Singed along the trunks and even blackened from the intense blaze, the Pine trees often survive, but the soil is ruined for years to come, robbed of undergrowth first by the pine trees, and then by the heat of the wild fires. And when Eco task forces and forest departments often plant in the Himalaya, we err by putting in Eucalyptus, Jacaranda and Silver Oak along roads, instead of planting Oak and Rhododendron.
Climate change is a much-touted phrase, but it is not out of place to ascribe a lot of the blame here, for it is a self-fulfilling two-way street. Forest fires may be caused by climate change but in turn forest fires themselves propagate climate change, with the intense heat causing, drying up of sub-surface soil and killing off of endemic and sensitive species. Even worse, these forest fires are hitting at the peak of the Himalayan bird, animal and butterfly breeding seasons, damaging wild populations and causing much harm to potential speciation…
Poachers often stand watch at the edge of the fires, waiting for easy prey in the form of panicked goral and kakar who fall at their feet with exhaustion.
Water management in the Himalaya is another huge problem. And floods and flooding have become an all-too-frequent feature. The natural world is signaling us to make a course correction. The most recent debacle on 7 February, 2021, at Tapovan in Chamoli, itself a repeat of events from 2011 and 2013, tell us that we would have been better off without riverine diversions, dams and other human controls on the fluvial geomorphology of the Himalaya. Had two dams and roads not been repeatedly developed so close to the glacier which is itself suffering from climate change, many lives would have been spared, besides savings funds repeatedly locked up in useless projects. The free flow of water in an unconstrained river-bed would have surely resulted in reduced flooding and siltation at Reni and downstream.
Some 70 hydro projects amounting to 9000MW of power capacity are envisaged for the Ganga basin, which would affect nearly 80 percent of the river, denying its natural flow in the lean season. The villagers of Reni had previously complained about road construction and dumping of waste in the river, to no avail. The Supreme Court had stopped dam construction following the 2013 debacle, but this was not followed through.
In the Indian Himalayas, some 10000 glaciers are receding at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade. The runoff can form glacial lakes which can then burst their banks in spectacular and destructive fashion like what happened at Chorabari Tal above Kedarnath.
More recently, vast swathes by way of hundreds of acres of prime elephant and tiger habitat forests within Chilla National Park were diverted for use as parking lots and massive toilet complexes for the now-rightly-maligned Kumbh Mela of 2021, for its COVID super- spreader contributions. To facilitate expansion of Dehra Dun airport in Uttarakhand, the state de-notified the entire Shivalik Elephant Reserve of over 5000 sq. km. to clear this smaller proposal for the acquisition of 87 hectares of forest land. Instead, a greenfield airport development below Haridwar would better accommodate future air traffic. Given the ecological importance of the forest to be done away with in the Shivalik-Himalaya connector and the existing use of this forest by elephants, surely, we can develop projects with alternatives.
In Sikkim, after the earthquake in 2011, there was a state-wide debate on the kind of runaway development path the state is on, specifically hydropower investments, with 28 projects amounting to 20000MW under development. These large dams, primarily on the Teesta and Rangeet rivers, have created enormous environmental problems. The poster child of such projects is Teesta Urja’s Teesta III 1200MW project at Chungthang, now majority-owned by the Government of Sikkim, the construction of which has seen, besides embarrassing financial shenanigans, landslides from road construction, deaths of labourers in the tunnel during the 2011 earthquake, collapse of a bridge by an overloaded truck carrying materials for the projects, disputes over non-construction of fish ladders, issues around e-flow of river water, shareholder disputes, takeover by the state government…a long list of social and environmental failures. Mismanaged projects get away with it, as the cost is borne by the environment and voiceless, isolated local communities.
The Sikkimese have enough dams for a small state, and certainly do not need any more power, with less than 100MW used in-state. And, yet, even after Chungthang, developers are eyeing another project on the Teesta, which already has over a dozen large projects operating, with Teesta VI (500MW) recently transferred from bankrupt Lanco to NHPC for completion. This is the Teesta IV project in Dzongu, the Lepcha reserve. Predictably, there is near-total local opposition that has coalesced around this project in a protected location.
Ladakh has strong and sensitive ecological traditions, with people who have adapted to life in a cold desert. And yet, even after the welcome formation of the UT, there is no progress on a very old idea to expand the protected areas to include the Changthang Cold Desert / High Altitude National Park, which would protect the nesting areas of the Black-Necked Crane at Hanle Plains, Tso Kar, and Tso Moriri lakes, all sacred to the Ladakhis. The onslaught of tourism, with images of tourist vehicles driving over the Astragalus and Caragana bushes on the edges of the lakes, obliges a well-supported sustainable model of development based on local culture. Surely Bhutan cannot get away with the crowning glory of caring for nature when we have similar customs and no less deep ecological thinking.
India’s Himalayan region has a tradition of respect for nature. The scrapping of the Nyamjangchu hydro project in Zemithang in Arunachal, to save the Black-necked Crane and pilgrimage sites of the Monpas, the recent move to save Raika forest in Jammu, are examples of success stories for us to build upon, citing our heritage and traditions as easy fortifications against modern day agendas and ambitions!
Indeed, environmental considerations are not a check on development as India needs its fair share of it to cater to the aspirations of 1.30 billion individuals, but rather it is a chance to do advance planning and then make course corrections. Perhaps we can head into a new phase of super sensitivity for the Himalayan environment which would really translate into sensitivity for the human condition, as for us nature is seen as being human-centric. We would be doing ourselves a favour, and our future generations too.
Rupin shares with us his concerns for the Himalayan environment (with much inspiration from the sage thoughts of Himraj Dang), and offers ideas about protecting the Himalayan environment and ecology.
Rupin Dang spent his early years in Darjeeling, and then moved base to the north, dividing time between Landour in Uttarakhand and Delhi. While he was an ‘early birder’ compared to the current birding landscape, his work on Himalayan birds was a clear precursor to better work being done by a whole new breed of ornithologists and photographers. Having spent decades trying to re-discover the Himalayan Mountain Quail, he then decided to acquire tracts of the bird’s erstwhile habitat and protect indigenous flowering plant and tree species, in order to save the bird’s last known habitat, in the hope of finding it one fine day. Alongside came a crazy botanical project to create a Noah’s Ark of Himalayan plant and tree species, around the twin mountain estates of Jabbarkhet and Motidhar in the Mussoorie region. Nearly four decades of expeditions to the higher regions of Ladakh and Zanskar, Spiti and the rest of Himachal, Garhwal and Kumaon, the Nepal Himalaya, Bhutan, Sikkim and Arunachal, have yielded a fabulous wealth of Himalayan flora, fauna and avifauna (and discovery of a new simian, the only new monkey species to have been discovered in a hundred years), all documented in video and now shared with the world through the wild films india platform, including the botanical learnings and collections from these expeditions.