Mega-reconstruction of Kedarnath Dham raised concerns among scientists, environmentalists and religious experts
In ancient times, hunters and gatherers settled near springs or water sources. This led to the development of villages and the villagers constructed temples, mostly smaller ones for local deities with locally available construction materials.
These temples aligned with the region’s ecology. Uttarakhand’s society is close to tribal culture and most villages have their local deities. Usually, temples are small in size but very sacred to the local community.
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But now, people, mostly the absentee villagers or those who have migrated from these hilly villages, have recently started converting these temples into magnificent ones without understanding their socio-cultural significance. These villagers find reconstructing old temples the easiest way to connect to their roots.
The irony of the situation is that it is supposed to be the duty of the government to motivate or force people to respect local fragility and ecology. But the government is busy constructing mega development projects in ecologically fragile and geologically sensitive areas like Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The mega-reconstruction of Kedarnath Dham raised concerns among scientists, environmentalists and religious experts. Experts in Himalayan geology and culture have opposed the heavy construction in ecologically fragile and geologically sensitive areas.
The Kedarnath Dham reconstruction was portrayed as a dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So, nobody paid attention to the dissenting voices. This prompted the construction lobby, and now, they proposed reconstruction in the equally fragile and sensitive Badrinath Dham.
However, environmentalists and geologists are raising concerns about this area’s fragility and sensitivity.
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While travelling through the hill villages of Uttarakhand, a few things are ubiquitous these days — the significant number of mega temples, dry or abandoned water sources, water pipelines, or handpumps.
In addition, most roadside terrace farms are barren. The old and unproductive cattle roaming on the road are common sites these days.
On the other hand, the drying up of water sources, springs and non-glacial rivers has been in the news for many years, but still, these are waiting for appropriate attention. There are more than five million waterfalls in the Hind Kush Himalayan region.
Some 50 per cent of the waterfalls in the Indian Himalayan region are drying up, according to the NITI Aayog report, 2018. This has affected thousands of villagers whose lives and livelihoods depend on natural spring water.
Spring-fed rivers are the lifeline of the Himalayan region. In contrast, the glacial rivers originating from the Himalayas are inaccessible or difficult to use as a drinking or irrigation water source, as these flow through profound gorges.
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The non-glacial rivers generated from the springs flow through shallow valleys and are used extensively. These spring-fed rivers are indispensable for Himalayan society and civilisation, so the drying up of springs or less water in non-glacial rivers is an issue of concern.
There are 15,165 villages in the state and nearly 20 per cent of them have various problems impeding the availability and provision of drinking water, according to a report by the Government of Uttarakhand.
Contrary to this, the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment has reported that more than 50 per cent of villages in Uttarakhand have lost their traditional sources of water.
Although no expert has either established or denied any direct relation to the drying up of springs and out-migration, it is a fact that both have increased simultaneously.
Some 734 villages have become devoid of human habitation or ghost villages, while in another 565, the population fell by 50 per cent between 2011 and 2017, according to the Government of Uttarakhand.
Does this prove the correlation between migration and the drying up of water resources?
In this situation, it has become imperative to have an in-depth study considering the non-availability of drinking water or the drying up of springs as an essential aspect of forced migration.
The ecological degradation of mountainous areas to pave the way for mega infrastructure projects like railway lines, the Chardham Road project and other road projects have negatively impacted these springs and water sources.
Due to the drying up of these springs and water bodies, pressure on other sources has extruded to fulfil the inflated demand for water in urban centres.
Piped water from these springs or lifting water from these rivers for use in distant places has become the easiest way to fulfil the ever-growing demand.
The nexus between politicians, bureaucracy and contractors has multiplied the issue. It is high time that non-profits and community-based organisations play a leading role in creating public awareness about drying springs.
The migrants from Uttarakhand, concerned about their villages and culture, must take this issue in hand. It must be taken as a primary duty to make people and the government aware of the effects of drying /depletion of springs.
It is also essential to highlight the traditional methods and the religious ethos of spring-shed management for rejuvenating springs.
It is high time for everyone, community, religious groups and government to handhold each other and initiate rigorous work to mitigate the effects of climate change on a war footing. Recharging springs must be the first activity in this direction.
It must be noted that the springs play a vital role in the overall development and existence of the mountain communities. However, it will equally affect the people who are directly not dependent on the springs as the drying up of non-glacial rivers will directly affect the glacial rivers.
So, rejuvenating springs is much more important than making grand temples. Springs are paramount for the survival of Himalayan villages or communities.
Prem Bahukhandi is an environmentalist based in Dehradun. He is a trustee of Friends of Himalaya, a non-profit.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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