Char Dham Project an Ecological Mess

Divine Disaster-I: ‘Char Dham Project an Ecological Mess for Uttarakhand’

Dr Shiwani Pandey, a researcher and scholar on environmental politics, says the establishment has learned no lessons from the sinking of Joshimath. Her views:

In January last year when sinking of Joshimath appeared on the media, we as Himalayan environmentalists were all shocked by this Uttarakhand calamity which had been caused by religious tourism and unbridled, unchecked commercial construction of real estate, hotels, etc in the region. Several reports were written by experts, the entire issue was documented painstakingly. The media highlighted the issue in January 2023 but the residents had been protesting over the cracks since 2022. In fact, they had opposed the hydro power project ever since its was launched in 2004.

However, it took us great effort to make these authoritative reports public. The government tried its best to skirt the issue with fake explanations, and suppress the reports. The destruction is widespread and all-round. The railway project underway will further add to the serious ecological crisis. The hill state is sitting on a minefield.

Consider the fact that the small hill state of Uttarakhand supplies water to the cities in the entire northern plains. Yet, the people of this state, especially those in far-flung rural areas in the mountains, have been suffering with acute scarcity of water. People have to trek long distances in many places in search of water. Now, compare this to the current situation: in just about ten days of rain, look at the flooding, the landslides and the destruction around the hill districts.

It is not difficult to search for the reasons behind this disaster. The government is encouraging commercial and religious tourism, ignoring blocked roads, heavy traffic, multiple-jams which continue for days, with thousands stranded on small, mountain roads.

The policy-makers in the state and central government are obsessed with the Char Dham project, a pet venture of the prime minister. Thousands of trees have been cut, leading to widespread destruction of precious forests. The tunnel crisis near Uttarkashi in which miners were trapped was part of this project.

Mind you, these dhams in the hills cannot be compared with the Tirupati dham where lakhs may visit routinely. These four religious venues are precariously situated at high altitude in a hill state where the Himalayas are fragile and vulnerable to mindless human or mechanical onslaught. Yet, the government is obsessed with the project.

ALSO READ: ‘Entire Uttarakhand is Sitting on a Powder Keg’

Clearly, they want to showcase Char Dham as the pinnacle of religious tourism. This is a misnomer, because, before this project, the whole country knew about Char Dham, and this yatra was always important for Hindu worshippers. But now, helicopters are flying to the religious sites at high altitude from early morning, till late night. How is this going to help?

Take for example, Badrinath where a reckless establishment is trying to make a replica of Ayodhya, with a grotesque concrete jungle in the lap of a pristine Himalaya! If we had learnt from the experience of Joshimath, we would have preferred to make more sustainable and eco-sensitive development models that would protect our forests and rivers. Nothing of that sort is happening.

The Char Dham project comprises a 900 km long, undulating distance in the mountains from Rishikesh till Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. There are 52 projects contained within this huge project. Ideally, they should have done an environmental assessment of this ecologically vulnerable region. They chose to bypass all that. Lakhs of trees have cut brutally due to the project. They have dynamited and ravaged the hills. Dumping of concrete has added to the crisis.

The summer heat is now intense and scorching in the hills, similar to the concrete city of Delhi. This has led to a major crisis, including death of the tourists. Rishikesh is in the plains. With the building of the roads up in the hills, the tourists can reach the high altitude religious sites much faster than before. If they are using helicopters, they can reach much faster but without acclimatization. Kedarnath is situated at 10,000 ft, or more. The body temperature at Rishikesh is distinctly different then Kedarnath. Result of Heli lift: at least 100 people have died of heart attack this season.

Indeed, a serious tragedy is unfolding behind this fancy project of Char Dham Yatra Project. And this project has spelled nothing but brutal destruction of Himalayan ecology and its organic habitat.

(This is the first section of a two-part series on the Himalayan disaster in the making. To be continued…)

As told to Amit Sengupta

For more details visit us: https://lokmarg.com/

Tunnel To Disaster

The Tunnel To Himalayan Disaster

A big wave of relief and joy has swept the country after the 41 workers have been rescued from a tunnel which turned into a huge rat-trap. And who scored the final victory stroke – 12 ‘rat mine workers’, who staked their lives, and cleared the debris with their bare hands. This is a joy which is greater than any World Cup victory. Bigger than the landing on the moon!

It has been the season of dead-end tunnels, and human beings trapped in this dark underbelly of modernity, for no fault of theirs. From the genocide in Gaza, with both the Israeli hostages and the Palestinians condemned in the rubble, and the labyrinthine underground — dead and alive, to Silkyara near Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, it has been ‘the tunnel’ which was at the top-of-the-mind these days.

This is also the pristine landscape where a magical mountain river starts its civilisational journey from the frozen, blue and muddy glacier of Gaumukh, via Gangotri, Darhali and Harsil, undulating through the Himalayan hills via Uttarkashi, onwards to the arid plains. This unruly, anarchic, rippling river flows in sublime Shiva-Parvati territory, across Chirvaas, and Bhojwasa — with its ancient leafy trees, which, perhaps, gave the first manuscripts in ancient India. It flows ceaselessly, amidst the madness of fierce waterfalls and serene streams, and is celebrated with multiple mythological stories, as much as exotic names, mixing with other mountain rivers: Jahanvi, Mandakini, Bhairvi, Alaknanda, Kali Ganga, Safed Ganga, Bhilangana, and, of course, Bhagirathi.

In this terrain, you are a mere speck in the sand, a dot in the galaxy, so overwhelming is this incredible moment of srishti, like the origin of civilization; all you can hear, absorb, inhale and experience is the melodious orchestra of the river in synthesis with the sound of the wind and the waterfalls, echoing in the hills. It is she who is the maestro, the grand conductor of a million symphonies here, and even Shiva is subservient to her raw, intense and irreverent beauty.

Before this young, pulsating, primordial miracle of nature is finally tamed in the plains by the orthodox, religious establishment, domesticated and turned into a mother-symbol – Ganga maiya – she arrives from the cosmic galaxy on the day of Ganga dashami. Without a family, origin, identity, caste, religion or community, she is unlocked from a reluctant Shiva’s flowing locks after a series of long tapasya by Bhagirath. Thereby, it hurtles down the hills and valleys, playful, joyful, turning track, changing trajectories, becoming faster and faster, and, then, suddenly slow and subdued, amidst the wild flowers and chirping birds, flowing in eternally gay abandon.

Then, this creature of absolute freedom too is trapped – right inside the hills. Dammed and damned at Tehri by the big dam, its aviral dhara is thereby condemned and imprisoned – it flows out in a trickle from here on, stagnant and sad in a man-made reservoir, onwards to Rishikesh, hence becoming a ganda nulla at Haridwar, while being turned forcibly into a ‘sacred canal’ at Har ki Pauri.

Henceforth, despite the millions of worshippers, no one really cares for the lost purity of the holy river– choked with the infinite sewage of towns and cities, garbage, gutter-waters, industrial waste, plastic, non-biodegradable left-over of Hindu festivals, etc. It yet again becomes another clichéd banality of daily life — worshipped and ravaged at the same time.

At Uttarkashi, the other ‘Kashi’ for Hindu pilgrims for decades, on the sandy, sunshine river-front, the river moves slow and steady. Not far away in this district is the Silkyara Bend-Barkot tunnel, where 41 workers were trapped since the last two weeks, in the dingy and cold darkness underground. The tunnel is part of the ‘grand project’ of the current regime called the 889 km Char Dham National Highway Project, which has destroyed hundreds of hectares of forests and flora and fauna, culled thousands of trees, created brutal, volatile disturbances in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, and has been criticized universally by ecologists and scientists.

ALSO READ: ‘Our Environmental Sins In Uttarakhand’

Food reached them finally, they were able to make contact with their loved ones, experts and skilled workers were trying their best, horizontal and vertical drilling was on, ‘rat-miners’ staked their own lives and moved inside the debris, ambulances were on the ready, and psychologists were at hand to counsel during this traumatic phase. Earlier, the media and those glued onto their TV sets seemed to have completely ignored the workers because of the cricket world cup’s patriotic frenzy; however, after that, they were on the front pages, thank God!

Predictably, gradually, reluctantly, sane and scientific voices are coming out, speaking about the bitter truth which the workers in the trapped tunnel have triggered. Earlier, it was a sinking Joshimath, ravaged by commercial and religious tourism, which became the tip of what seemed like a collapsing iceberg. There were warnings in 2013 that the tunnels of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydropower Project of the NTPC could cause irreversible damage to this town where urban planning seems to have gone for a toss.

Environmentalist Suresh Nautiyal (Lok Story, Lokmarg, January 13, 2023) had said after the Joshimath fiasco: “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’.”

Combine this with the gigantic Tehri dam, with its failed promises, and many other dams which have choked the rivers, and submerged fertile valleys and habitats, this is a recipe made for disaster. Seismologists have earlier warned that a major earthquake around the Uttarkashi-Chamoli faultline might spell disaster for the big dam, and, consequently, for the towns of Rishikesh and Haridwar, within minutes. However, the establishment, across all governments, cared a damn.

The Char Dham project, connecting to Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, as another gimmick to boost religious tourism, has led to serious criticism, but the BJP regime is not listening. According to The Telegraph (November 27, 2023), “We have erred in allowing the haphazard expansion of townships by housing and road-building on unsuitable sites, ignoring the essentials of geological conditions,” geologists Naresh Pant and HS Saini said in Current Science, a journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. “We have also failed to enforce the standards of civil construction vis-à-vis land capability and hazards,” they said in their review, written months before the November 12 collapse of a 57m stretch of the tunnel along the Char Dham project. “The market forces of excessive tourism (have) prevailed over safety norms.”

The newspaper reported:  “A high-powered committee (HPC) set up by the Union environment ministry under the Supreme Court’s directions to find ways to minimise its environmental and other consequences had found that the project had ‘damaged the Himalayan ecosystem due to unscientific and unplanned execution’. The HPC, in a report submitted in July 2020, had also warned that the project had cut hills without prior slope vulnerability analysis and without adequate slope protection measures, increasing the risk of landslides. A landslide susceptibility study by scientists from IIT, Roorkee and the University of Potsdam, Germany, along the 250km highway from Rishikesh to Joshimath near Badrinath during September and October 2022, had noted 309 landslides along a 247km segment, or one landslide every kilometre.”

As of now, the trapped workers in the tunnel seem strong, stoic and resilient. The smiles on their faces have gladdened the entire nation. One only hopes that the political establishment rethinks this massive, multi-crore road and highway project, in a seriously fragile and vulnerable Himalayan terrain, and stops all construction – and destruction – immediately. So that, no human being is ever trapped in these hell-holes.

Will they?

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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.

ALSO READ: Not Just Joshimath, Entire Uttarakhand Is Sitting On Powderkeg

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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