Projects such as the giant Tehri dam also play a role in exacerbating effects of disasters, as seen during the 2021 Chamoli flash floods
This article is part of a special edition on the Himalayas, published in February 1-15, 2023, issue of Down To Earth magazine
The Himalayas, formed 50 million years ago due to a continental drift wherein the Indian landmass crossed the prehistoric Tethys Sea and bumped into the Asian mainland, are still quite fragile.
The mountain range, whose rocks are made of sediment from the bottom of the Tethys, is still rising slowly and is susceptible to earthquakes. As the Himalayas evolved, the slopes were covered with vegetation of oak and rhododendron that firmly held the soil and water, preventing erosion or landslides.
Human habitation spread in this mountainous terrain and over centuries, tiny villages and small towns settled in the plateaus, leaving the forest cover intact. These communities managed forest resources with care.
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Joshimath is one such old settlement. But the system of conservation and sustainable use changed when the British government ruled India. Those in power were solely interested in draining the country’s resources to satisfy their ever-growing demands.
The British began leasing forests from the ruler of Tehri in 1905. When the reserved forests were being demarcated, some officials reported that these could not sustain commercial forestry and recommended that they be converted into community-managed forests.
The government disagreed, but later introduced a provision in the Indian Forest Act, 1927, to declare reserved forests as village forests and hand over their management to communities.
The first van panchayats (village forest councils) were constituted in the 1930s, in Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas. However, the colonial forest management regime has continued unabated even after Independence, progressively weakening the highly efficient van panchayats.
The Himalayan region’s watercourses have also been silted up by quarrying of limestone, required for the construction of roads and buildings. As a result, the beds of these watercourses, such as those in Mussoorie, have become broader and destroyed farmland.
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The government ordered that mining be stopped only when it was concluded that the cost of destroying the farmland exceeded the benefits from mining. However, the courts put a stay on this order and the mining continued with damaging consequences.
Projects such as the giant Tehri dam also play a role in exacerbating effects of disasters, as seen during the 2021 Chamoli flash floods, wherein several workers at the Tapovan dam site were among those dead or missing.
It is evident that people are continually overstepping the Himalayan region’s carrying capacity. Therefore, it is imperative to shift focus to programmes of ecological restoration, which can only be done through inclusive development and conservation. To this end, the people of the region should be empowered.
The van panchayats should be expanded by implementing the Community Forest Rights provision of the Forest Rights Act. The local governments must be given powers sanctioned by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments to decide on the use of all natural resources, including streams and rivers.
The tourism industry should be reoriented to support homestays and other services provided by local communities, as was the traditional practice. Nature and people-friendly initiatives are the only hope for recovery.
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