The relentless wave of death and destruction that swept across Uttarakhand these past few weeks spells an urgent warning that we ignore at our collective peril. The current pattern of demographic encroachment, relentless deforestation, rampant urbanisation and environmental degradation in our entire Himalayan geography has reached a point where the indispensable life sustaining role of this fragile ecology is at serious risk. One fears that once the immediate hazards are past, our efforts at rehabilitation and recovery will only repeat and recreate precisely the vulnerabilities which lay at the heart of the current disaster. Make no mistake, there are several Uttarakhands waiting to happen all along our Himalayan zone.
The Himalayan ecosystem is vital to the ecological security of the Indian landmass. Immense altitudinal changes and associated climatic conditions in this region result in great variation in temperature, precipitation soils, flora and fauna, supporting a rich biodiversity. The Himalayas play a critical role in the climate system of the entire subcontinent. The snow-fed rivers, which arise from its glaciers, sustain life not only in the Himalayan states, but the entire Indo-Gangetic plain. What happened in Uttarakhand and may happen in other Himalayan states is an urgent challenge to the whole country and not just to those states alone.
What people have failed to comprehend is that the rich treasure house of resources these mountains represent and which sustains life in our subcontinent, is also a most fragile ecology held together and maintained in a delicate balance. This is partly due to natural causes. The Himalayas are a young geology, still shifting and changing, resulting is an unstable terrain. The vagaries of Nature such as heavy snowfall, rain and storm surges add to its vulnerabilities. These are already being exacerbated by climate change. Any human intervention in this zone must be extremely sensitive to both the fragility and unpredictability of this ecology.
Cities in the Himalayan mountains zone are increasing in size and numbers. Recent road building programmes for linking remote villages have, perversely, encouraged further population concentrations. These new cities are displaying the same degradation that plagues our cities in the plains — dumps of garbage and plastic, untreated sewerage, chronic water shortages and heavy pollution from increased vehicular traffic. The mountain environment is unable to cope with this demographic overload. This is more than evident in Uttarakhand.
On June 30, 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. One of its eight national missions is entitled ‘Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem’. In 2009, as prime minister’s special envoy for climate change, I visited several of our Himalayan states and met their respective chief ministers and senior environment officials to try and evolve a set of agreed guidelines for sustainable development in the Himalayan region. All the chief ministers were extraordinarily responsive, but did mention some constraints. They did not want limitations to be put on the numbers of pilgrims, tourism, construction of roads and other such activities, to become a political issue to be exploited by opposition parties.
If the guidelines could be agreed among political parties and a national consensus could emerge, they said, they would be willing to go along. It was suggested that the prime minister could convene a meeting of the chief ministers of the Himalayan states precisely for this purpose. Such a forum could be institutionalised if considered necessary. The prime minister agreed to convene the proposed meeting, but regrettably for various reasons, this was not followed up.
The sad events in Uttarakhand lead me to believe that such a meeting is needed urgently to evolve a national consensus on how to safeguard the Himalayas before it is too late. Some of the guidelines that were under consideration and are still very relevant were:
Prohibition on unplanned growth of new urban settlements, followed by the consolidation of existing settlements, which are governed by a municipal master plan. These settlements would be provided with all basic urban facilities such as water supply, waste disposal and power before further urban growth is permitted.
Prohibition on construction activity in areas falling in hazard prone zones or across alignments of natural springs, water sources and watersheds near urban settlements.
Banning the use of plastic bags in all hill towns and villages;
Comprehensive inventory of key pilgrimage sites in each state, including analyses of the ecological load-carrying capacity of each site, based on its location and fragility. An ecological and spiritual buffer-zone could be created around these sites, with no vehicular traffic permitted within a 10 km radius.
Strict control and compulsory disposal of debris from road construction and other project sites, avoiding the disruption of natural drainage in the area.
Promotion of homestead tourism in the Himalayan zone rather than three to five star tourist hotels and lodges. The local inhabitants become the best sentinels of protecting the habitat if it is a source of their livelihood.
These measures will have to be accompanied by a major campaign to build environmental awareness. An annual national festival of the Himalayas could be organised to celebrate local cultures, which demonstrate ways of sustainable living for resilient communities, in harmony with the pristine nature of the Himalayas. This would also expose the rest of the country to the importance of the Himalayas in India’s national life.
The great Himalayas are inextricably linked with India’s civilisational ethos and the spiritual and cultural sensibility of its people. Let us initiate and develop a truly national endeavour to safeguard its pristine ecology so that they continue to inspire and sustain future generations.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and was the prime minister’s special envoy for climate change from 2007 to 2010
The views expressed by the author are personal