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‘Misquoted’ man of the mountain feels the heat

In 1985, a hydrology professor was handed over a project to look into the glaciers of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. His research paper was published in international journals. And thus began the career of one of India’s most well known glaciologists, who was awarded the Padmashree in 2009.

india Updated: Jan 23, 2010 23:03 IST
Chetan Chauhan

In 1985, a hydrology professor was handed over a project to look into the glaciers of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal. His research paper was published in international journals. And thus began the career of one of India’s most well known glaciologists, who was awarded the Padmashree in 2009.

Born in Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Syed Iqbal Hasnain has often been considered as Mr Dial-a-Quote on the subject of the Himalayan glacier. He was one of the few people outside the government system who could talk about glaciers. The reputation got a jolt when the London-based newspaper The Sunday Times reported that in an interview to the magazine New Scientist in 1999, Hasnain had claimed that most of the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. And now with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) having picked up this figure, Hasnain can’t wait to clear his name.

“I was misquoted,” says the former professor from JNU. “How can I predict the demise of the Himalayan glaciers? I merely gave an approximation that in the next 40 to 50 years, many of the glaciers would melt.”

Hasnain’s claims have often kept him in the news. One of the first things that he’d ever declared was that the Gangotri glacier, the source of the Ganga, was melting at a faster rate (up to 30 metres a year) because of pilgrim pressure and global warming. Then, a decade ago, he attributed the phenomenon, to black carbon — emission from kerosene stoves and burning of diesel burning. And now there’s this.

Mountaineer Karanjeet Singh whose father Sarbjeet Singh had campaigned against Hasnain’s claims, calls the professor an alarmist. “My father trekked on many of the glaciers that Hasnain has talked about. He found that neither the pilgrims nor heavy cooking stoves were causing the glaciers to melt. The idea was simply a figment of his imagination, there is no scientific research to back his claim.”

In fact, in 2009 the environment ministry contradicted his claim, by reporting that the Gangotri glacier has been melting at a rate of 16 meters a year and the retreat has slowed down in the last two decades.

Now, a senior fellow with Delhi’s The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which is headed by RK Pachauri of IPCC, Hasnain insists that his research was based on sound international scientific standards and put forth a list of 38 research papers he’s published. He believes that he is “realistic rather than an alarmist”, and feels that the work he has done over the last quarter of a century is now under scrutiny. “For the last 25 years, I have tried to tell people about the real state of affairs of our glaciers, but nobody really wants to listen to me.” It was trouble when a lot of people did.