The Fury Of The Gods!
Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal, especially the latter recently witnessed the destruction of life, property, and infrastructure on an unprecedented scale, as the peak of char dham- Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri along with Hem Kund Sahib was bustling with pilgrims. Hundreds of lives were lost and thousands were stranded in the inhospitable region. Buildings, bridges and roads collapsed under the onslaught of heavy rains, cloudburst and landslides. But the main question on everyone’s lips was whether the extent and scale of destruction was on account of complete human disregard of ecological fundamentals and the failure of administrative machinery to get its act together even in the face of such a colossal tragedy.
Having worked in Uttarakhand and Darjeeling district of West Bengal, this writer is aware of the intense debates between those who wish to restrict human interventions in these ecologically fragile and sensitive zones and those who argue that people living and growing in these regions have equal rights to develop infrastructure and seek lifestyle similar to their cousins in the plains. Does one have to be condemned to a life of perpetual subsistence because one happens to be born in a fragile mountain, (or coastal) region? Can our brothers and sisters in highlands not aspire for higher GDP? How do we assign an economic value to the eco-services provided by biosphere reserves, protected and reserve forests?
Before one answers these questions, it is important to ask: why are we pitching environment and development in adversarial terms. The fact of the matter is that different agro-climatic zones call for different strategies, and it should be possible to work with, rather than against nature. However, working with nature requires long-term commitment, as well as a commitment with processes and working with people, which is far more difficult than getting materials together for an infrastructure project. This writer under the tutelage of the then chief secretary Dr RS Tolia had worked hard on an Agro vision Uttaranchal 2020 in which the development strategy was based on horticulture, organic farming, medicinal and aromatic plants, health and wellness centers, eco-tourism, education and Ayurved as the main drivers of economic growth in Uttaranchal (as it was then called). However this would have taken years to evolve, but politics looks for miracles and the political economy needs ‘resources’ for electoral compulsions. Thus Agro vision Uttaranchal lost out to Uttaranchal: “The Numero Uno Investment destination” and the quest to make it a ‘hydropower hub’. Efforts to organise the yatra on the lines of the Vaishno Devi model never received the support from the ‘highest quarters,’ because there were, too, many vested interests, and it made more sense to work out ‘piecemeal solutions’, rather than an integrated plan.
Let us, therefore, dwell on what can be done, especially in the context of Uttarakhand disaster. After the
rescue operations are over, the state will have to look at its priorities afresh- with commitment to ecology and livelihoods. Rather, the focus should be on ecological livelihoods—such that both are in harmony, rather than at cross purpose to each other. Habitats, markets and administrative centres will have to be connected—but rather than cutting mountains and creating landslides, can we think of tunneling, building along the mountains, ropeways, suspension bridges and pony/mule tracks as options?
Three decades ago, after visiting Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s Dasholi Gram Panchayat, I had written a monograph ‘Horse sense about Mule tracks’ which never received the attention it deserved because it was felt that it had more to do with my obsession with horses rather than as a serious development alternative. The ‘jeepable road’, was, and continues to be the visible sign and status of development! A mule track does not have to be shoddy, and one can design padded mule carts for the comfortable carriage of visitors, as well as local residents. This is certainly ecologically more sustainable than blasting mountains and cutting trees. If horse carriages are still used as style statements in several European capitals, why do we shy away from mules who have sustained mountain agriculture and communications over the centuries!
After roads, let’s look at livelihoods—for the justification of haphazard growth of ‘river view hotels.’ This has also led to an internal migration within the hills as people leave their villages to come to these new growth poles, where infrastructure is still woefully inadequate. Livelihoods have to be created in high value agriculture—medicinal and aromatic plants, organic farming, organic milk, specialty cheese and confectionary, flowers, off season vegetables, primary processing, grading and sorting and small eco-tourism villages so that rather than these humungous buildings which collapsed in the onslaught of rain, there could be a network of tourism villages, not on, but a few hundred metres away from the highway. Traditional building materials and traditional architecture should be preferred so that there is least impact on environment. Ayurved healing should be promoted, as also Ayurvedic education so that traditional wisdom is leveraged for new livelihoods.
Last, but not least: the administrative leadership has to take complete responsibility. Only a few district magistrates passed the litmus test in this hour of crisis. Rather than looking for directives from the state headquarters, they should have acted as per the NDRF guidelines. The ITBP, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy should have been pressed into service from day one- rather than awaiting reports about the extent and magnitude of the losses. This, however, means that the liaison with the paramilitary and the armed forces have to be regular, rather than an ‘on-off’ interaction.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)