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Uttarakhand: Warning bells on deaf ears

Since the fifties, experts have warned against exploiting the fragile ecology of the Himalayas. A deadly cocktail of rampant tourism, rising population have clashed with climate change, leading to tragic results. Dhruba Jyoti Purkait and Osama Salman report.

india Updated: Jul 02, 2013 10:52 IST
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait and Osama Salman
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait and Osama Salman
Hindustan Times

“The Himalayas are sick and will die unless there is massive forestation and a moratorium of at least ten years on tree felling. And if they die, the country will surely die in a chain of natural disasters.” Hindustan Times, 1977

Although written over 35 years ago, the warning sounds eerily relevant. A deadly cocktail of rampant tourism, increasing population pressure and a spate of hydroelectric power projects have clashed with climate change, leading to tragic results for residents.

The Rudraprayag district, home to the Kedarnath shrine, has seen eight major monsoon-related disasters in the last 34 years. Tourism in the state has gone up by 141% since its formation.

“Buildings have switched over to reinforced concrete cement from wood and stone, which radiate more heat at night, making the region warmer,” said Maharaj Pandit, head of the department of environmental studies, University of Delhi.

A tourism boom and a severe crunch in hotel beds for tourists fan illegal structures, most of which are built on flood plains and dried up river beds, cutting off a river’s natural drainage.

Such warning bells were also sounded before.

“While exploiting the river banks in the Himalaya, it is essential that river history be taken into account, so that these resorts don’t become deathtraps for tourists,” Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Magsaysay award winning leader of the Chipko movement, had written in Hindustan Times fifteen years ago.

The state has 558 hydroelectric power projects in the pipeline, which could affect 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda, said Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment.

“Dams and roads blast their way through mountains, triggering landslides. Moreover, the debris from construction is dumped on the riverbed. So the river floods easily,” said Vandana Shiva, noted environmentalist.

“The proposed dam density in Uttarakhand would be 62 times the global average,” said Pandit.

This also compounds climate changes. Countrywide, heavy rain events show a 14.5 percent spike per decade, according to the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory, Tirupati.

“Himalayas are warming faster than any mountain region,” said Pandit.

While the global average temperature increase is 0.74 degree Celsius in the last 100 years, the Tibetan plateau is set to register a jump of 5 degree Celsius by 2100, reports the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

This coincided with massive development in an earthquake-prone area; simultaneously, urban population also zoomed with car registrations showing a 700 percent jump between 2001 and 2012.

“Badrinath is now more crowded than Chandni Chowk,” says Pandit, “The Himalayas cannot become Surat, Ahmedabad or Mumbai.”

As the 1977 report prophesies, “Time is running out not only for the Himalayas but also for the country.” It is best that we listen this time around.

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