22/03/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Among the Fragile Himalayas

Neeladri Chakrabarti

Indian townsfolk have always had a love affair with the mountains. Whether in summer or in spring or, for the more adventurous, even in winter--travellers head to the hills to spend quiet weekends in the pristine surroundings of the mountains of Himachal Pradesh or Uttaranchal. But, underneath the pristine beauty and behind the pure mountain breeze, lies the growing shadow of unprecedented natural disaster. The devastating floods that swept across Uttaranchal two years ago were a beacon of warning. Born of the amalgamation of cloudbursts, landslides, incessant rain, and rivers breaking banks, the impact of such devastation broke the backbone of one of the prettiest states in India.

Yes, it's true that while the actual flashpoints of these disasters are usually sudden cloudbursts. But this doesn't mean we don't have to responsibly set up safeguards that lessen the impact, and at the very least ensure that a tragedy of such proportions is not repeated. There is a concrete link between the degradation of the fragile ecosystem and the urban development that has taken place in the hills. Successive administrations have always ramped up efforts to extract the maximum out of the mountains. There are numerous hydropower projects; trees are uprooted to clear paths for tourists; hills are broken down to extract shale, the scrounging never stops. These changes, both major and minor, in the landscape are some of the main contributors to such disasters. The ecological effects of such change are either never considered or have been conveniently ignored for the sake of urbanization and tourism.

"Imposing litter taxes, curbing the use of plastics in urban areas are significant steps to prevent polluting debris from clogging fragile river valley environments."

A trip around the hills reveals clearly how the soil structure is weak and prone to collapse in the region. So many things can upset the delicate ecological balance: building houses where the landscape cannot support them, mining and quarrying extensively, (legal mines are as bad for the ecological balance as illegal ones), deforestation and tunnelling and rechanneling rivers. These parts being home to many sites of pilgrimage also mean that they are inundated with seasonal religious tourists who have little knowledge or awareness of the impact their presence can have. It starts with the litter from a million packets of chips, builds up to countless discarded bottles and all kinds of other debris and ends in the rash of roads and settlements to transport and lodge them. All of which put massive pressure on the ecosystem leading to a breaking point.

The torrential rains in the hills coupled with the disturbed landscape in the high mountainous valleys led to the landslides and the breaking of temporary glacial lakes in the Kedarnath Valley two years ago. But, have we really learnt from that disaster? Regressive farming techniques like slash and burn cultivation still exist in the hills instead of sustainable inclusive agriculture. The use of plastics, though diminished, is still prevalent around the urban centres in the mountains. The enormous footfall generated by tourists also contributes to these adverse conditions as the construction of roads or hotels to facilitate tourism enhance the pressure to the regional ecosystem. Add to that is the illegal quarrying in the Himalayas which clears out the topsoil in the upper valley and leaves the lower regions prone to severe landslides in the monsoons.

It is easy to start with the low hanging fruit when attempting to mend the situation. Sensitizing the numbers that throng the hills round the year could be the first big step forward to preservation. Imposing litter taxes, curbing the use of plastics in urban areas are significant steps to prevent polluting debris from clogging fragile river valley environments. The use of solar power instead of hydropower and the organization of farmers towards sustainable agriculture also would help matters. The Himalayas exist on sensitive ground due to the ravages of nature and the threat of the shifting tectonic plates. If even some of the above measures are implemented, it will go a long way to preserving the ecosystem and restoring the fragile hills to the abode of the gods as they once were.

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