Reflections on collective action towards clean and sustainable hill states - Hindustan Times

Reflections on collective action towards clean and sustainable hill states

Jul 11, 2023 05:54 PM IST

'Parvat Manthan', emphasizes the need for inclusive and sustainable development, while preserving the natural beauty and ecological balance of the hills.

In the recent past, the fragility of the Himalayas has been a significant concern, be it the sinking town of Joshimath, unregulated tourist influx in Nainital, Mussoorie, Srinagar, and Shimla, or landslides and water crises affecting the entire eco-sensitivity of the area. Moreover, the impending concern is that most of the cities in the Himalayan range fall in earthquake-sensitive zones.

As urbanisation accelerates in the hill states across the Himalayan ranges, it becomes crucial to ensure the resilience of these cities. (Pexels) PREMIUM
As urbanisation accelerates in the hill states across the Himalayan ranges, it becomes crucial to ensure the resilience of these cities. (Pexels)

The Himalayas, known as the water towers of Asia, the third pole of the Earth or simply as a home to many of us, is experiencing speedy and unplanned urbanisation, upsetting the hydrological regimes of Himalayan watersheds. Further, the region has witnessed depleted forests and biodiversity coupled with increased risks of natural hazards and disasters in urban areas and peri-urban zones. Consequently, the vulnerability of inhabitants of hills and foothills has increased to water, food, livelihood and health insecurity.

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) holds one-sixth area of the country, 30% of forest, 36% of biodiversity, and 56% of the land’s water resources. Still, at the same time, it suffers from natural and manmade disasters. Some of India’s fastest-growing cities are situated in this region. This region also witnesses a significant footfall of tourists yearly to experience its serene and pristine landscape, thus facing the considerable challenge of the carrying capacity of its environment.

Further, the climate crisis has already made its mark visible, and the March 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report clearly states that the water cycle in the region is being affected, putting further pressure on the provision of essential services such as water and sanitation, and burdening an already stressed Indian municipal system.

Recent extreme climatic events have highlighted the marginalisation of mountain regions in India, particularly in the context of mainstream planning. As urbanisation accelerates in the hill states across the Himalayan ranges, it becomes crucial to ensure the resilience of these cities. However, avoiding a cut-copy-paste approach, where solutions designed for the plains are indiscriminately applied to the hills, is essential. The need for more specific contextual information and data-driven evidence in the technical and planning guidelines for the hilly region is concerning. It raises questions about our sensitivity towards the immense challenges for hill states and our capacity to address these issues effectively.

Engagement at a higher level and fostering a vision for a targeted approach is imperative to overcome this gap. The need to pitch the voices from the hills is acute as the magnitude of the problem and the inability to grapple with them in silos is difficult. Over 150 esteem practitioners echoed this sentiment in a recent dialogue held in New Delhi on 19th June 2023 titled ‘Parvat Manthan – A Forum for Clean and Sustainable Hill States’.

For the past year, the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) and BORDA-South Asia have conceptualised a forum for the Hill states of India. The dialogue was a part of NIUA and BORDA-South Asia’s series on consulting dialogues with critical stakeholders and looking into the region’s challenges through the lens of resilience and inclusivity. The stakeholders said the hill context should be included in national missions and policies:

>To facilitate conversation amongst these cities, the relevant states and the Central ministries

>To facilitate the development of specific policies, advisories and guidelines

>To facilitate and promote indigenous research and development of specific technical solutions regarding the hill town’s issues

>To bring urbanisation challenges peculiar to hill cities into the mainstream and to initiate a conversation and peer-to-peer learning amongst cities and states

We must understand that sustainability can only happen with significant disruption, be it social, economic or political. There is a need to reach out, recognise and acknowledge the challenges and issues. As hill cities face multiple complexities due to urbanisation in the wake of the climate crisis, it is imperative to constitute a forum for hill states that brings all sectors and stakeholders from public, private and social sectors together.

Currently, we are facing a runaway situation of crises, and we need more ready solutions. We need to get together collectively and have a holistic and localised understanding of the mountain issues with a vital conversation among various stakeholders and political will. This entails focusing on technology, data and engagement with youth and cooperating with India, which will, in turn, help break the silos and make voices from the ground hearing.

Despite bringing challenges, urbanisation is an inevitable process that also offers several opportunities. The amount of data is enormous, but no defined way exists to group or categorise it. We need platforms to park the geospatial approach. Infrastructure for resilience should be the approach rather than resilient infrastructure. Complex adaptive systems require prior understanding. Deconstruct and demystify ourselves and create barefoot guidelines.

The forum is not just a theory but is expected to be a form of action to accelerate scale and impact, for converting aspiration to activities. Discussing the value proposition of the forum during the dialogue, what came out was that the forum should focus on the following:

>Put the state as a focus and foster integration

>Knowledge exchange, research and development for innovation and contextualisation

>Need for collaboration, having a unified voice, and building consensus

>Bring together resources and collective thinking 

>Strong institutional backup required

>Inclusivity should be emphasised, along with public participation

>Need for humanisation of hills rather than urbanisation of hills

The outcome is to develop an Indian model of working with a clear emphasis on collaboration, convergence, cooperation, collation, and co-creation. This requires inheriting new ideas, synergising them with indigenous knowledge and creating a new garb. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna also emphasises that when the soul leaves the physical body after it has outlived its purpose, it merely discards the body and inherits another. Viewed from this perspective, ‘Parvat Manthan’ provides a platform for hill cities to engage actively for new ideation, innovation and inclusion through applying a multi-level approach – to achieve a vision of becoming inclusive, sustainable and resilient hill cities and preserve the natural beauty and ecological balance of hills for present and future generations.

Mr. Hitesh Vaidya is director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), and Dr. Mahreen Matto is team lead, Sanitation Capacity Building Platform (SCBP) NIUA. The views expressed are personal.

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