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- Something horribly wrong in the Himalaya

In the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi’s English disciple, Mira Behn, set up an ashram in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. Travelling in the hills, she was dismayed by the forest department’s efforts to convert forests of the banj oak into monocultures of chir pine. This was done for strictly commercial reasons, chir being much in demand as a source of industrial timber and resin. But it discriminated against the local peasants, for whom banj was a valuable source of fuelwood and fodder.

In an essay of 1952, with the telling title, “Something wrong in the Himalaya”, Mira Behn warned that the replacement of chir with banj was socially unjust as well as ecologically unwise. For oak forests had a lush undergrowth of fallen leaves, which absorbed the waters of the monsoon, creating the “beautiful sweet and cool springs” that were the chief source of drinking water for the villages. Chir forests, on the other hand, had bare slopes with just a handful of pine needles on them. Where pine trees dominated, the waters rushed down the slopes, carrying away soil and debris, and leading to floods.

Mira Behn urged that the forest department change its policy, and promote oak instead of pine. “The Banj forests,” she wrote, “are the very centres of nature’s economic cycle on the southern slopes of the Himalaya. To destroy them is to cut out the heart and thus bring death to the whole structure.”

The Gandhian’s warnings were disregarded. The forest department not only did not promote banj, it now initiated an aggressive programme of clear-felling of pine forests. Between 1950 and 1970, the supply of chir wood from the hill forests to factories in the plains increased from an estimated 87,000 to 200,000 cubic metres annually.

In 1970, the Alakananda valley witnessed the most serious flood in living memory. This inundated some 100 square kilometres of land, washed away bridges and roads, destroyed homes and standing crops. The impact was severe enough to be felt in the plains — for, due to the blockage of the Ganga canal, some 9.5 million acres of land in eastern Uttar Pradesh went unirrigated.

The villagers who bore the brunt of the floods of 1970 noticed that the major landslides happened in areas where forests had been clear-cut. As the Gandhian social worker, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, wrote, the peasantry came to recognize “the causal relationship between increasing erosivity and floods on the one hand, and mass scale felling of trees on the other”. Drawing on this folk understanding, Bhatt now started the Chipko andolan, a popular movement that brought the problem of Himalayan deforestation to national and, in time, global attention.

As a consequence of Chipko, the government stopped the felling of trees above an altitude of 1000 metres. But the other pressures on the hills continued. The 1980s and 1990s saw the growth of a middle class with disposable incomes, coupled with a rising religiosity as a result of the Ayodhya movement. More people now wanted to visit the great temples of Uttarakhand. However, unlike the pilgrims of the past, they came not on foot but in buses, cars and SUVs. To meet their needs a chain of hotels and boarding-houses were built in locations dangerously close to river-banks. The mass influx of tourists also put increased pressure on the roads, and led to a surge in untreated garbage.

In 1998, the state of Uttarakhand was formed. Two years later, the Union ministry of agriculture commissioned a report on one crucial aspect of the ecological situation in the hills — the threat from landslides. The study was undertaken by three highly experienced individuals, two scientists and a social worker working for, respectively, the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, the Physical Research Laboratory (also in Ahmedabad), and the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Mandal in Gopeshwar.

Based on extensive fieldwork in the region, and skillful use of satellite data, the three authors (M.M. Kimothi, Navin Juyal, and Omprakash Bhatt) submitted a well researched report to the ministry running into more than 60 pages. This stressed, first of all, the extreme fragility of the hill ecosystem. Uttarakhand was one of the most seismic regions in the world, with an estimated 122 earthquakes occurring in a 200-year period for which records were kept. Other natural hazards to which the region was subject were forest fires and avalanches. Then there were landslides, which were both natural and, increasingly, man-made. Deforestation had eroded once well forested slopes. Road building, done in a careless fashion and with the excessive use of dynamite, had widened fissures in the rocks. The accumulated debris, washed down the slopes, went into rivers and blocked their course, creating temporary lakes. When there was an excess of rain these dams burst, the waters rushing the breach and destroying homes, fields, and settlements downstream.

The origins of the 1970 flood itself lay in the massive expansion during the previous decade of road-building and commercial forestry. This had exposed the slopes, leading to the accumulation of debris in several tributaries of the Alakananda. In the third week of July 1970, a massive cloud burst took place, with some 275 millimetres of rain falling in a single day. The unprecedented inflow of water into the river led to the bursting of these landslide-induced dams.

Based on their analysis of the past and the present, Kimothi, Juyal and Bhatt made this prediction:

“Possible threat arising out of the future flash flood is likely to affect much larger population and habitational sites compared to all the tragedies of the past put together. We believe that riverside settlements both for domestic and commercial purposes should be discouraged. Especially proliferation of riverside recreational resorts needs to be checked and monitored. Nearly five major towns and a number of small settlements which have extended close to riverbanks would be threatened if a tragedy of 1970’s magnitude hit the basin.”

To forestall such a tragedy, the scientists recommended, first, the close monitoring of landslides, fissures, and potential blocked sites using satellite techniques, with this monitoring intensified during the pre- and post- monsoon periods; second, the identification of degraded slopes and their stabilization through the planting of indigenous tree species and the construction of check dams and retaining walls; third, the training of local people in relief and rescue work, so as to prepare village panchayats and youth and women’s organizations for the kind of disasters that might lie ahead.

Like many scientific reports submitted to the government, this one too was not accessible to the general public. I myself got hold of a copy only last week, after the horrific floods in Uttarakhand. But reading it now prompts a series of questions. Was this prescient report read by those who commissioned it in the Union ministry of agriculture? Did the ministry pass it on to the state government of Uttarakhand? And did anyone read it there? If they did, were there any efforts at all to undertake the precautionary measures that the scientists advocated? Why, in the face of the massive evidence the report contained, did the state government allow the further expansion of roads, buildings, hotels, all over the upper Alakananda valley?

The report to the ministry of agriculture was one of several such warnings received by the state and Central governments, all disregarded. In a recent interview, Chandi Prasad Bhatt observed that “the Bhagirathi and Alakananda have always been sensitive, flood-prone rivers. On countless occasions, we apprised the authorities about the damage happening… There were landslides, felled deodar trees and mountain ranges being increasingly dynamited in the name of development. Local papers also reported this, we also alerted the authorities — but nothing was done”.

The floods in Uttarakhand last month were caused by nature, but their impact was intensified by the hand of man. The massive cloudburst on June 15 was unanticipated, for the monsoon normally arrives in the hills only in early July. Yet there is little question that the scale of devastation was multiplied manifold by the reckless expansion of building activity in what is, in an ecological sense, an extremely sensitive and fragile region.

As the slow, painful, work of rehabilitation begins in Uttarakhand, pressure must be put on politicians to heed warning signs from other parts of the Himalaya. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a series of large dam projects have been cleared without regard for their environmental or social consequences. This, too, is a region with a heavy monsoon, fast-flowing (not to say turbulent) rivers, and steep and forested slopes. The building of dams will increase deforestation and soil erosion, and disturb patterns of natural drainage, making floods more likely. And it will displace many villages.

The short-term benefits of these projects (to accrue mostly to contractors and urban consumers) must be weighed against their short and long term costs. The wise thing to do, in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Uttarakhand, is to call for a moratorium on all dam-building and mining schemes across the Himalaya, and commission a study by scientific experts and social scientists that can dispassionately assess these projects on their true (as against proclaimed) merits.