Saving Hills Is A Shared Responsibility

Saving Hills From Human Influx Is A Shared Responsibility

Dr Sudhanshu Joshi, an associate professor at the School of Management, Doon University, Uttarakhand, says unchecked highland tourism can result in a cascade of adverse outcomes. His views:

With their awe-inspiring landscapes, rich biodiversity, and distinct ecosystems, hills are natural treasures that require utmost care and protection. In addition to regulating water flow, sustaining diverse flora and fauna, and even acting as carbon sinks, they provide essential ecological services. However, the rapid influx of tourists, frequently motivated by economic interests, can threaten the very attractiveness and integrity that attracts tourists in the first place.

Unchecked highland tourism can result in a cascade of adverse outcomes. Trampling and habitat devastation can upset the delicate equilibrium of an ecosystem. Foot traffic, unregulated camping, and infrastructure construction can degrade soil, harm plant life, and disrupt animal habitats. This can lead to biodiversity loss, with species being driven to the brink of extinction due to human disturbances.

In addition, the unregulated development of hotels, resorts, and other facilities can result in deforestation, land degradation, and habitat fragmentation. These impacts impair the environment and diminish the hills’ distinctive qualities that attract tourists. In addition to contributing to air and noise pollution, the influx of vehicles disturbs fauna and alters natural soundscapes.

To secure the hills and preserve their individuality, a comprehensive strategy is required:

1. Carrying Capacity Evaluation: It is essential to determine the number of visitors a hill area can accommodate without suffering irreparable damage. This involves comprehending the ecological boundaries of the environment and establishing visitor restrictions accordingly.

2. Sustainable Infrastructure: Any hillside development should adhere to stringent sustainability guidelines. Low-impact designs, using locally sourced materials, and eco-friendly building techniques can help reduce environmental footprint.

3. Waste Management: Establishing efficient waste management systems is essential. This includes encouraging visitors to take their trash, promoting responsible refuse disposal, and implementing recycling programs.

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4. Community Involvement: It is essential to involve local communities. They possess beneficial environmental knowledge and play a crucial role in managing and preserving their surroundings.

5. Education and Awareness: It is essential to educate both tourists and locals on the significance of preserving the highlands. The fragility of these environments can be brought to light through interpretive centers, informative signage, and guided excursions. Media and films can also be used as an effective medium to increase awareness about the grim result of excessive pressure on hills.

6. Implementing and enforcing regulations that regulate tourism activities can help prevent the hills from becoming overburdened. This may entail entry permits, restrictions on particular activities, and compliance monitoring.

7. Encouragement of Sustainable Practices: Encouraging responsible tourism practices, such as minimal-impact trekking, wildlife observation, and respect for local cultures, can reduce damage while allowing people to appreciate the hills.

Thus, protecting hills from the adverse effects of tourism is a shared responsibility among government entities, local communities, businesses, and visitors. By employing a comprehensive strategy that incorporates carrying capacity assessments, sustainable infrastructure, waste management, community engagement, education, regulations, and promoting sustainable practices, we can ensure that the character of hills is preserved for future generations.

The narrator teaches Supply Chain Management with a focus on sustainability and climate change. He is also the regional coordinator of the PM Gati Shakti National Plan

As told to Deepa Gupta

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Joshimath Cracks

‘Joshimath Paid The Price For Our Environmental Sins’

Anoop Nautiyal, a social worker from Uttarakhand, says successive state govts chose to pay heed to the hydroelectric lobby but not ecologists and scientists

The tragedy of Joshimath took decades to be scripted. Since 1975, experts and environmentalists have been raising alarm over the fragile ecology but they remained neglected. These warnings are in the public domain, so successive state governments cannot wash their hands of the responsibilities.

This is the price of our own collective ‘sins’. Citizens, local contractors, and municipal authorities are as much to blame as the government. The present situation is one of fire-fighting after the flames have engulfed. We have lost a hill town forever. There is no option left than to shift the entire population to another settlement as was done in Tehri when the entire villages in the dam belt were shifted to New Tehri town.

An old saying goes: There is no greater disaster than greed. This adage fits well into the Joshimath subsidence. And it won’t stop at Joshimath. Many other towns will have the same fate in near future. Those in line with a Joshimath-like fate include Karnaprayag and Gopeshwar in Chamoli district, Ghansali in Tehri, Munshiyari and Dharchula in Pithoragarh, Bhatwari in Uttarkashi; Pauri, and Nainital in Kumaon region.

Hydroelectric projects have contributed the most in increasing the current episode. The present calamity must force us to deliberate and brainstorm on how to save other towns. The state system, by its natural responsibility, which becomes more prominent in a hilly state like Uttarakhand, has not been able to develop a solution. From the great earthquake of Garhwal in the year 1803 to the disaster of 2013 and the current disaster of February 2021 and Joshimath… this process continues to be ‘man-made’ than ‘natural’.

ALSO READ: ‘Not Just Joshimath, Entire State Sitting On A Powder Keg’

Scientific and social organizations have been continuously giving suggestions and warnings. Environment Ministry committees, CAG, High Court, and Supreme Court have intervened several times. The media has been highlighting the irregularities time and again, but the governments have always looked at it casually. A large part of society and scientists concerns remained neglected.

For example, in 1982, considering the scientific arguments of the ‘Chipko Movement’, it was decided to stop the construction of the ‘Vishnu Prayag Project’ or shortly before the construction of three hydroelectric projects in the upper reaches of Bhagirathi was stopped. But the hydropower lobby has been influencing the politics of the country. As a result, these projects never paid enough attention to the environment.

It’s high time that we woke up as a race and as a society – or in the near future, we will be left with no such place to admire and adore.

As Told To Rajat Rai

Joshimath Disaster

‘Not Just Joshimath, Entire Uttarakhand is Sitting on a Powder Keg’

Suresh Nautiyal, a veteran environmentalist based in Uttarakhand, says consecutive governments have systematically blown away the gains of Chipko Movement

They have torn apart the heart of the hills in Uttarakhand. And this has been going on for decades, under all governments, be it the Congress or BJP. Indeed, the entire state is sitting on the brink of a man-made catastrophe.

Governments have cared two hoots for the vulnerable ecology of the hill state and willfully aligned with corporations, contractors, industrial companies and the construction mafia to irretrievably damage the inherent balance of nature. Roads, big dams which displaced thousands, real estate and mindless constructions violating all norms, unknown tunnels and aggressive religious tourism has all turned the clock to its current, tragic fate.

The murder of natural streams and rivers, the massacre of trees, the non-stop destruction of the organic eco-system in the relentless race for a capitalist model of unplanned development, blindly copying big cities in the plains, has ravaged the pristine ‘Dev Bhoomi’.

Joshimath is located on a ridge cut through by streams that descend from Vishnuprayag where Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers converge. Serious apprehensions were expressed in 2013 that the tunnels of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydropower Project of the NTPC could cause huge damage.

A recent report by geologists and scientists like Dr SP Sati, Naveen Juyal and Shubhra Sharma was ignored. They said the slopes around the town were in delicate and unstable condition. Predictably, their concerns and warnings were overlooked.

Nautiyal (inset) believes Char Dham Project is another disaster in the making

The government-appointed Mishra Commission’s report, submitted in 1978, had clearly stated that no major construction work be carried out in Joshimath, as well as in the Niti and Mana valleys, since this region is situated on moraines.

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Several authoritative reports predicted this impending catastrophe. But, they continued to build tunnels, structures and digging, to appease their masters, and to legitimize the big thermal power plant project. Now the entire town, a major landmark in the pilgrim and adventure route, is sitting on a volcanic moment of destruction, with thousands of people and homes under threat, and the authorities are pretending that they had no clue!

The 125-km Rishikesh-Karnaprayag railway line, being constructed reportedly at a whopping cost of Rs 20,000-crore, will lead to the construction of 35 bridges and 17 tunnels. The project cost will inevitably increase in the years to come. Hence, one can see the ‘real reason’ behind this project!

This has been a pattern in the entire state from Harsil to Karnaprayag, which is literally sitting on perennial landslides. So much so, pleas by civil society groups have been dumped in the garbage can. We have been pleading for so long for an alternative eco-friendly approach to development because of the special conditions in the hills, but they refuse to listen.

Several towns like Gangotri, Uttarkashi and Gopeshwar are sinking. Landsides, cloudbursts and flash floods are inevitable and have become part of the tragic lives of the condemned people of Uttarakhand.

Now, they have cut lakhs of trees for the expressway and multi-lane for the ‘Char Dham Yatra’, the pet project of the prime minister. This has effectively destroyed all the gains of the Chipko Movement and after. This will certainly have an extremely damaging impact on the fragile Himalayan eco-system.

The central and state government, therefore, should treat the situation as an emergency, and immediately stop all construction work in the state, including thermal power projects. And this must include the PM’s pet project. Indeed, we need a serious rethink. Or else, one Joshimath would follow another!

(The narrator is a member of the Uttarakhand Chintan Group founded in 2007)

As told to Amit Sengupta

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