The great Himalayan debacle: We have abused the hills for long, it is time for atonement

We must now revisit the core tenets of ecotourism and sustainable development for our hills

By Hardik Siroha
Published: Thursday 09 February 2023
The great Himalayan debacle: We have abused the hills for long, it is time for atonement
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Although I hail from Haryana, a state which can’t boast of hills other than the now-exploited Aravallis in the concrete jungle of Gurugram, I spent four most crucial years of my life in the abode of nature in the Himalayas at Waknaghat. It is a small town in the Solan district, approximately 20 kilometres away from the ‘Queen of Hills’, Shimla. 

In those four years, I developed a strong appreciation for the hills and a bond with the natural surroundings, to the point that I started despising tourists from the plains who would flock to Shimla in the summers and block the single-lane roads.

I am an environmental engineer by profession. But more than that, it is the emotional connection I formed during my college years in the Himalayas that makes me feel deeply invested in the fate of places like Joshimath.

Joshimath is a clear example of what one should not do in the Himalayas. Out of 4,500 buildings in the town in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, 610 have developed cracks, impacting at least 150 families!

It has recently been declared a “landslide-subsidence zone” by the Prime Minister’s office. 

The rampant infrastructure development in the Himalayas, coupled with rapid manifestation of climate change, has finally culminated into the Joshimath crisis. Both the 2013 Kedarnath floods and 2021 Rishi Ganga flash floods were a part of this larger malaise. 

To talk about what may have cause this crisis, I will not dwell too much upon the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project by the National Thermal Power Corporation and the Char Dham Project, as enough has already been said about them and I am, by no means, an expert in Himalayan geology.

However, I am a lover of the mountains and hills and my heart aches at the mistreatment and outright abuse which we have done to these terrains. Any trip to Shimla, Manali or Mussoorie will greet you with kilometres-long traffic snarls, overcrowded mall roads (somehow every hill station has one) and drains choked with empty packets of Uncle Chipps and Lays

The locals are equally to be blamed, for they have sold a part of their home and soul for a few thousand rupees. The profits earned through overpriced hotel rooms and momos stalls on the streets can never compensate for the lost serenity and tranquility these mountains once accorded to humanity.

While I am a hardcore capitalist (yes, you can be one despite being an environmentalist), my academic  training and field experience as an environmental engineer has taught me that every place has a ‘carrying capacity’ beyond which it can’t sustain growth and pollution. And our dear Himalayas’ carrying capacity is far less than that of New Delhi or Goa! 

Just talking of Joshimath, the town has a rather peculiar geology: Resting 2,000 metres above mean sea level, the area sits on a debris of an old landslide. In fact, most of Uttarakhand is located in either seismic IV or V areas which are prone to earthquakes. 

But this is not something which was hitherto unknown to us: Even in 1971, some houses had reported cracks in Joshimath. A committee, under the chairmanship of then commissioner of Garhwal Mandal, Mahesh Chandra Mishra, was set up to probe the cause of landslides and sinking of Joshimath town.

The committee, in its report dated May 7, 1976, had suggested restrictions on heavy construction work, agriculture on slope and felling of trees. It had recommended conservation of existing trees, planting of more trees, non-interference with the boulders on which the town is located, construction of pucca drainage to stop seepage of rainwater, proper sewage system and cement blocks on river banks to prevent erosion.

Unfortunately, like most documents on climate change, this one was largely ignored. I agree, that the hills need development and the people of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other hilly states do deserve economic gains and riches; however ignoring the sustainable aspect of the equation will come with its own perils, like the ones which we are currently seeing in Joshimath, if not worse.  

In fact, the high tourist footfall can also become a blessing in disguise. Any restoration or ecological preservation programme needs funding and by charging the tourists some form of ‘environmental cess’, we can create a dedicated fund for the same. 

There already are a few instances of ground-level implementation of this model. New Delhi, for example, charges an environmental cess on every litre of diesel fuel sold and has also experimented with an ‘environment compensation charge’ at the rates of Rs 700 for light duty vehicles and two-axle vehicles and Rs 1,300 for three-axle and above. 

This model can be tweaked to put a charge or cess on the items sold to the tourists or perhaps to create slabs depending upon the type of vehicle entering the area. 

Recently, the Central Pollution Control Board also came out with a subsidy scheme for stubble pellets manufacturing units by using the funds available with them under the environmental protection charge (EPC) account. 

Now, a plan to convert to use electric or hybrid vehicles as ambulances is also in the pipeline with the same funds. EPC, according to the directions of the Supreme Court,  has to be paid by the dealer / manufacturer of the vehicle. The charge will be one per cent of the ex-showroom price of new diesel vehicles with engine capacity of 2,000cc and above registered only in Delhi and National Capital Region (NCR). Purchaser of the vehicle also has an option to pay EPC directly.

It’s high time we revisit the core tenets of ecotourism and sustainable development for our hills, otherwise “The silence that is in the starry sky / The sleep that is among the lonely hills” will only be found in the poems of William Wordsworth. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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