Himalayas: the agenda for development and environment

We need to think about a pan-Himalayan development strategy which is based on the region's natural resources, culture and traditional knowledge

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 28 June 2013

The recent events in Uttarakhand have shown, more than ever, that we need a development strategy for the Himalayas that takes into account the vulnerability of the region and the need for environment protection. There is no doubt that the region needs economic growth. But this development cannot come at the cost of the environment. It will only make the already risk-prone and ecologically fragile region more vulnerable and development more “deadly”. We also know that climate change will exacerbate the vulnerability of this already fragile ecosystem.

The question is what should be the development strategy for this region? Most importantly, we need to think about a pan-Himalayan strategy so that states can evolve common policies and not follow the race to the bottom. It is also clear that these strategies will have to be based on the region’s natural resources—forests, water, biodiversity, organic and speciality foods, nature tourism—but will need to address the specific threats so that growth does not come at the cost of the environment. Let's explore the different sectors and the questions that need to be discussed and resolved.

1. The Himalayan states must build a viable and sustainable forest-based economy. Can they use forests for development? Can they value ecosystem services of forests so that protection is valued?

The Himalayas have seen two distinct phases of its rich forest resources. The first phase was the extraction of forests for “development”, which led to widespread deforestation in the region and increased vulnerability to landslides as well as deprivation among people dependent on forests for their basic survival. These concerns led to the first directive against green felling—the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in the 1980s and the subsequent directives of the Supreme Court to check forest-based industry in the Himalayan states, particularly the Northeast. But these actions, however important, have not considered how forests can be used to contribute to the economy of the region. State revenue from forests has declined. Local anger against forest departments has increased. Clearly, we need a different development strategy, which is based on the use of the region’s important resource for development and local livelihood security.

Instead, what we are seeing is that large tracts of forests are being diverted for hydropower and road projects, without focus on compensatory afforestation.


Tourism that is not destructive
  1. Build an inventory of key pilgrimage sites in the state, with an understanding of its ecological capacity based on location and fragility
  2. Immediately control the number of visitors to important pilgrimage sites. These restrictions on the key and most important pilgrimage sites can be done immediately and can be further revised based on the carrying capacity estimates
  3. Ban construction of roads for the movement of pilgrims and tourists to within 10 km of the high-altitude pilgrimage areas in order to create an ecological and spiritual buffer. These areas, like national parks and sanctuaries, should be maintained as special areas, which are maintained with minimal human interference to help us connect with nature
  4. Similar to sanctuaries and national parks, create a provision of buffer areas, surrounding the pilgrimage sites, where development is restricted. To build local interest in these areas, strictly enforce rules to give communities living in the area advantage of the pilgrimage activities
  5. Use the carrying capacity action plan to create facilities for tourists, particular facilities for sanitation and for garbage disposal
  6. Make it mandatory for expeditions to remove and take back all non-degradable items. This can be enabled through a security deposit and check on the items being carried for the expedition. Create local community interest in management of these sites.
Related agenda
  1. Promote homestead tourism, instead of five-star tourism, based on policy incentives. These incentives would include fiscal benefits provided to house-owners for providing tourist related facilities
  2. Regulate homestead tourism through a third-party audit and certification programme, which would promote good practices in the tourist complexes
  3. Use the certification programme to include rating of key environmental sustainability guidelines – like reuse and recycling of waste and energy efficiency and renewables. This will involve tourists also in understanding the special needs of the Himalayas and their role in protecting its beauty
  4. Increase the rate of entry tax charged by all hill towns. This tourism tax for entry into fragile ecosystems should be increased substantially and across the board in all towns of the Himalayas. The fund created from this tax should be used for a dedicated purpose of increasing facilities for tourists. (For instance, Costa Rica has a tourist surcharge, charged from every hotel based on its occupancy for eco-development).
  5. Impose high charges for parking of private vehicles in markets and fragile areas of hill towns, which will also restrict the number of vehicles being allowed into the areas and reduce pollution and congestion

The standing forests of the region are an important reservoir of biodiversity; these provide protection against soil erosion and increased flooding in the plains and are sinks for carbon. One way ahead would be to develop a strategy to “pay” for these ecosystem services of the standing forests of the region and to ensure that the proceeds are shared with local communities. The 12th and 13th Finance Commissions have included the concept of compensating states for standing forests in its report. Unfortunately, the funds provided for these services are meagre. More importantly, no money has been given to states as yet. The Himachal Pradesh government is currently working on assessing the ecosystem and carbon sequestration services of its standing forests. This issue should be discussed and a common policy evolved so that Himalayan states can “value” their forests better.

This policy must also include the voices and concerns of local communities, dependent on forests for their agriculture and basic needs. All studies in the high Himalayan villages show the role of forests—most crucially as fodder and water sources for sustaining agriculture in this region. How can forests be used to build local economies has to be the big question.

2 The strategy for water development must balance the opportunity for energy and threat to livelihood, particularly in the age of changing climate and hydrology

The region’s other key resource is the water that flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains. This resource has to be discussed, both in terms of its opportunity and as a threat to its ecology and economy. Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region. All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a breakneck speed—Uttarakhand on the Ganga basin alone has identified projects adding up to nearly 10,000 mw of power and plans for 70-odd projects.

The development of hydroelectricity is important as it provides the country with a renewable source of energy and is a revenue source for the state. It can be argued that the development of its water resources is a revenue trade-off, which will take the pressure off its forests.

We need to understand the impact of this development on the ecology and hydrology of the region. It is feared that the hydrology will be impacted because of climate change—and extreme events. This flood in Uttarakhand has seen hydropower projects badly affected. It is also clear that the impact of the flood was exacerbated because of the number and poor construction of the hydropower projects. These projects must be reviewed and many scrapped.

The policy for water-based energy in the region needs to be carefully balanced to take these concerns into account. The policy should lay down mandatory ecological flow provisions (at least 50 per cent in lean season); a distance criterion (5 km) and tough enforcement measures and penalties for ensuring that construction of the project does not harm the mountain stability or local water systems. It must be noted that while rivers cannot and must not be re-engineered, dams can be re-engineered to optimize on available water for energy generation.

3 The need for energy in remote villages must be secured first, before export to regions outside

Given the cost of reaching conventional energy to the remote households of this region, there is an opportunity to develop an alternative model for energy use in this region. Today people in the region have no alternative but to use firewood for their cooking and scarcely available kerosene for their lighting needs. Small hydropower projects (below 25 MW) were conceived initially to provide a local energy source. However, over time, in the Ganga basin as with other key basins, this concept has been changed so that all projects now feed to the national/state grid, which may or may not reach local communities. The rationale provided is that the national grid is more reliable and so more efficient to distribute energy.

But given the lack of access of energy to households in these remote regions of the country, there is a need to rethink the objectives. It is also a fact that the losses in the current transmission and distribution system practically wipe out the gains made from such small projects. The purpose of building small projects must be to provide local energy supply through interactive grids (as being done in Nepal, for instance).

4 Promote local organic agriculture and its produce as speciality, high value premium produce of a fragile ecology

Every Himalayan state has tried to use the unique products of its region as its economic strength. The states also recognise the opportunity of keeping their agriculture organic—Meghalaya was the first to declare itself an organic state; Sikkim has followed and Uttarakhad has had a major programme to promote organic green agriculture in the state. But these states are finding it difficult to use their unique strength because of different barriers, like difficulties in certification and even forest laws. For instance, Sikkim has promoted organic cardamom crop, but finds that forest laws do not allow it to take benefit of cultivation on these lands, which is done without destroying forests.

This discussion must also involve a dialogue on the future of agriculture in this region. We must realise the role of women in sustaining agriculture on the fragile slopes of the Himalayas, where the soils are deficient in nutrients. Women farmers expend huge energy to manufacture manure—from backbreaking work of collecting fodder, feeding it to cattle, and then transporting dung. They apply over 20 tonnes per hectare on these nutritionally deficient terraced lands, all to get pitiable returns. In the uplands of the Northeast, where farmers practice shifting cultivation, also as a means to invest in soil fertility, their land and labour is completely discounted and undervalued.

5 Use ecosystem-based tourism for development but with safeguards and local benefits

High mountain, adventure, biodiversity and nature tourism is the most obvious route to economic development in the Himalayas. But this tourism is greatly dependent on the ecology of the region. If the environment degrades, tourism will also be impacted. On the other hand, tourism has impacts on the environment, if not carefully managed. The Uttarakhand flood teaches us that we must learn to build sustainable models for pilgrim-based tourism in the fragile hills. There is a problem of pollution, litter and solid waste disposal in most high Himalayan tourist sites. Construction activity is unchecked; in most cases hotels and lodges come up in the most fragile areas.

The move towards eco-tourism needs to be promoted carefully so that best practices can be learnt and disseminated. Most importantly, local people must benefit from the tourism economy. In Leh, for instance, where the government has consciously promoted homestead tourism, there is greater attention to fighting pollution in the town and protecting the ecology. We need policies to promote mountain tourism for local benefits (see box).

6. Build policies for sustainable urbanisation in the mountains

The cities of the Himalayas are growing and beginning to see the same rot of the cities of the plains – from mountains of garbage and plastic, untreated sewage, chronic water shortages, unplanned urban growth and even local air pollution because of vehicles. These towns need to be planned, particularly keeping in mind the rush of summer tourists and the fact that tourists do not pay for municipal services. Many states have experimented – from banning plastics, to taxing tourists – to better respond to these issues. But they need support and new thinking on everything – on traditional architecture practices, local water management through protection of lakes and different systems of sewage and garbage management.

It is important, given the ecological fragility of the mountain areas, that we plan carefully for urban growth and its spill over into newer settlements. It would be important to devise strategies for consolidation of urban settlements, which are governed through land-use planning incorporated in the municipal master plan and are provided all facilities, before further growth is permitted. In other words, unmanaged and unchecked urban growth should not be permitted. It is also important given that buildings in these towns are based on the local ecosystem, taking into account seismic fragility and the need for aesthetics. All this will require the creation of strong regulatory institutions in the towns.

The municipal byelaws must provide for construction activity to be banned in areas, which fall in hazard zones or areas close to rivers, springs and watersheds of the towns. In many cases these provisions exist in the byelaws, but have not been strictly enforced. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy on these matters.

These issues are not new. But what is new is the need to respond more urgently to the changes that are beginning to be seen in this climate vulnerable region. It is also clear that development will be critical for the region to cope with climate change and its variability. This is the opportunity to use new models of development, based on the region's ecology and traditional knowledge and culture, to build an economy capable of withstanding these changes.

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