My first travel into the Himalayan region was as a curious kid in early 80s. My dad thought that a hired jeep would be the most comfortable option for a family. Alas, the driver and the jeep both gave up in the middle of nowhere on the rickety roads, just around sunset. We found a shanty to spend the night, had goat-milk for dinner and drank dewdrops collected in a drum with tiny floating snakes—it was a wild adventure! A number of conflicting emotions got etched in my memory: I was scared by the wilderness, awed by the pristine nature, spellbound by the golden peaks and worried if I would get any of my favourite foods. The opportunity for another trip came after two decades.
The FMCG distribution network is able to supply far-flung villages and even the LPG cylinders make a trip once a month but the garbage truck is a rarity!
This time around, it was much easier to experience the floating clouds, lush greenery and the mystic white peaks, thanks to the infrastructure—roads, bridges, hotels, power supply and so on. However, there were annoying pockets of garbage, especially near the large hill towns. In the over five hundred hours that I have spent on Himalayan roads since 2007, this has been a constant irritant. However, our megacities strewn with plastic, garbage mounds standing tall alongside the high rises and toxic air helped me appreciate and admire the hill towns. I used to frequent a small town, Ramgarh, that had a couple of cosy cottages. Now it is a booming tourist place with many new shops and multi-storeyed hotels that qualify at best as eyesores. On the positive side, there are more jobs for the locals, even the villagers have started indulging in urban pleasures such as packaged foods and drinks, and farmers have better access to the markets. At the same time, the mounds of garbage and plastic have reached epic proportions. During the drive up, I can already feel the diesel fumes and pollution in the towns at lower heights that are facing the brunt of this commercialisation. Builders have thronged the area and are selling small villas and apartments with minimal open spaces. Now, the locals complain that they have to use fans during the summer. Mannu, a local mason pointed to a water stream and said, "These wrappers of biscuits, chips, gutka and more are dumped into the valley and the streams mostly by migrant labourers. They just don't care. I at least burn my plastic waste in the field. Many villagers downstream of this water got jaundice last year." What an irony—the FMCG distribution network is able to supply far-flung villages and even the LPG cylinders make a trip once a month but the garbage truck is a rarity!
Disappointed, I thought that venturing deeper into sparsely populated mountain areas would let me experience the pristine nature of my childhood memories once again. At higher altitudes, forests started giving way to shrubs, roads started getting scarier and then came a point where we were driving through a bowl with gigantic barren mountains all around us. There was something strange about them. We had the luxury of stopping right there, as no other car was in sight for several miles in our 360-degree view. There were large streaks of gray and white that looked like tears. A closer look showed several kilometres of zigzagging newly cut roads from "nowhere" to "nowhere". They had left an inconceivable amount of soil and rocks crumbling along the way. It looked as though the mountains were crying. The scale and monstrosity of this development numbed us. A few years ago, I had laughed it off when an elderly villager, Pandeyji had remarked, "In the old days, when the roads were being cut by men, things were fine. Now with the JCB, (popular earth-cutting equipment) the mountains get angry and collapse." Now, looking at this soul-crushing sight, I thought, maybe the slower pace of manual work allowed the mountains to find their equilibrium after all.
Mechanisation along with an established technology of stabilising the slopes allows us to cut the mountains at a much faster pace, and in a safe manner. Unfortunately, we are able to ignore the crucial aspect of slope stabilisation and leave the mountains unstable and ripe for massive landslides. The next question is; do we really need so many roads in the wilderness?
The significance of the Himalayas for our rivers, food, medicinal plants and broader ecology is a deeply researched topic. Without getting into geography 101, it would suffice to say that they form the very foundation of our existence. Yet we do not care. The issues exist at three levels—shoddy execution of projects, lack of awareness amongst the locals and apathy of visitors. The root cause is our "chalta hai" and "jugaad" mindset underpinned with greed.
The issues exist at three levels—shoddy execution of projects, lack of awareness amongst the locals and apathy of visitors. The root cause is our "chalta hai" and "jugaad" mindset underpinned with greed.
In the so-called "millennium city" of Gurgaon, I have seen countless holy cows rummaging through the garbage. Even their carcasses have plastic in their stomachs. I have seen the rolling Aravalli hills converting into construction materials for the high rises. Fortunately, the Himalayas are too large to blast, so we can count our blessings. Yet, with the speed and scale at which new roads are being cut, leaving the mountains bleeding, the dumping that is making the riverbeds a repository of plastic, and constructions in smaller plot sizes that are killing more trees, the sacred Himalayas are even more endangered than the holy cow.
Noted author Ruskin Bond recently urged the government to "Save Uttarakhand from becoming smog filled like Delhi." I think he was being polite. A future of disastrous landslides, plastic-eating cows and mass epidemics spreading to the plains is around the corner.
There are only two choices now—stop the development in the Himalayas and forget about the tourism revenue since we don't quite understand how to construct without destruction OR dramatically change the way we build and maintain the infrastructure.
I hope that we can stop the current deadly approach to development before it is too late!