From the Himalayas, a warning for us

Updated on Feb 14, 2021 06:48 AM IST

The 2021-22 Union Budget will increase the pressure on the government to ignore the concerns of nature. It is heavily focused on investments in infrastructure, especially roads and railways, which the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, hopes will revive Gross Domestic Product growth. This may be true. But these projects will, also, inevitably give rise to concerns about their environmental impact.

Rescue operations continue at Tapovan Tunnel, following the Sunday's glacier burst in Joshimath, Chamoli, Uttarakhand, February 10, 2021 (PTI)
Rescue operations continue at Tapovan Tunnel, following the Sunday's glacier burst in Joshimath, Chamoli, Uttarakhand, February 10, 2021 (PTI)
ByMark Tully

The Himalayas are known as The Home of the Gods — yet, we mortals have shown scant respect for the sacred mountains. Last week’s tragedy in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is the latest example of the outcome of our hubris in disregarding the nature of the Himalayas.

We know, fully well, that the Himalayas are young, fragile, and unstable mountains; yet, we have constructed or are constructing more than 50 hydroelectric projects in the basins of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers. The horrendous Kedarnath floods of 2013 claimed 5,700 lives. Instead of stopping to think about the implications of that disaster, the government, merely three years later, launched a massive scheme — the Char Dham road project, aimed at constructing no less than 900 kilometres of highways, linking Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri.

Apart from the damage to the mountains caused during the construction of the roads, this will lead to an exponential increase in tourism. One of the causes of the Kedarnath disaster was the uncontrolled development of hotels, shops, and other tourist facilities, violating all building regulations, and the absence of any system of disposing waste except dumping it in the open, which often meant on the banks of rivers or on the beds of streams.

The scientific community is still carefully studying whether the Chamoli disaster was caused by an avalanche of snow, a landslide, or a glacier lake, which burst its banks. But what is certain is that it is further evidence that we are not taking into account the possible impact on nature when we draw up plans for economic development.

The 2021-22 Union Budget will increase the pressure on the government to ignore the concerns of nature. It is heavily focused on investments in infrastructure, especially roads and railways, which the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, hopes will revive Gross Domestic Product growth. This may be true. But these projects will, also, inevitably give rise to concerns about their environmental impact.

On the revenue side of the budget, the plan is to raise the money for infrastructure development from privatisation and the monetisation of government assets such as land. If investors don’t like the country’s environmental regulations, they won’t come forward to buy government companies, businesses, or property.

Just as we have received a warning from the Himalayas about the need to be more respectful of them, the British government has published an eagerly awaited, independent, comprehensive review of The Economics of Biodiversity led by Cambridge economics professor, Sir Partha Dasgupta. He was born in Dhaka and obtained his first degree from Delhi University.

The review has been described by the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, as “a landmark contribution to our understanding of the relation between nature and our economy”, and by the renowned environmentalist David Attenborough as “comprehensive and immensely important”.

It is bound to be the basis of much discussion if world leaders are able to meet for their crucial climate summit in Glasgow in September. Significantly, in view of the budget’s emphasis on reviving GDP growth, the review looks beyond that as a measure of economic growth, and suggests new tools for measuring biodiversity and conservation efforts. It calls for “rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services and its capacity to supply them”.

While the Himalayas may be the abode of the Gods, the review points out that nature is our home and tells us “good economics demands that we manage it better”. The Himalayas have reminded us how urgently India needs to improve its housekeeping.

The views expressed are personal

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