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India: Uttarakhand and the grids of power and pilgrimage

30 June 2013

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Times Crest, June 29, 2013

Ecological exploitation
Uttarakhand: For richer, but poorer

by Amita Baviskar

Svarg Uttarakhand bhoomi, Deva Uttarakhand bhoomi, Himalaya phool jaiso phoolyo, brahmikamal, Himalaya ghana devadaro, brahmikamal. In the 1970s, Chipko activists in Tehri Garhwal used to sing this song, praising their hills as paradise, the place of gods, where the mountains bloom with rare plants and dense cedars. Chipko began as a movement to save the indigenous forests of oak and rhododendron from being felled by the forest department. It soon became a wider assertion of local rights to the environment, protesting against inappropriate policies imposed on the hills by a distant plains-based state government. That sense of alienation and exploitation grew into a broad-based campaign for regional autonomy. The state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000 and many hoped that the region would finally chart a path of development that was in harmony with its unique ecology and culture. Uttarakhand would become svarg - paradise - once more.

Those dreams have ebbed away over the past 13 years of statehood. Successive governments in Dehradun followed the same pattern of development for which they had criticised Lucknow: ruthlessly exploiting the region’s natural resources. There were two key differences, though. First, the revenues generated stayed in the region and some sections of society profited, creating a powerful constituency for further ’development’. Second, ecological exploitation was justified in the name of creating ’infrastructure’ - roads, buildings and dams.

And on the face of it, Uttarakhand did indeed grow richer. Better roads brought more tourists, especially pilgrims, most of whom would never have attempted the once-arduous Chhoti Char Dham yatra without the convenience of motor vehicles, the comfort of hotels, restaurants and other urban amenities along a trail that once required austerity and unflinching devotion. As economic liberalisation increased spending power and mobility among the Indian middle-classes, tourism emerged as a booming business in Uttarakhand. It did not quite succeed in stemming migration from the hills to the plains, but it did open up opportunities for people struggling to survive in a declining agricultural economy.

As the spiritual value of the Himalayas to Hindus - the home of the gods, source of sacred rivers - became a money-spinning resource, the material value of Himalayan rivers as hydro-power came to be recognised as ripe for exploitation. Dams and so-called ’run-of-the-river’ projects in Uttarakhand promise to bring more wealth to the region as they supply the rest of the country with much-needed electricity. So both tourism and hydropower seem to be win-win development strategies for Uttarakhand, bringing prosperity by cashing in on the state’s natural endowments, and for the nation, uniting India through the grids of power and pilgrimage.

This month’s catastrophic rain, landslides and floods, and the consequent human tragedy, should make us look more closely and critically at Uttarakhand’s development narrative. The story that is told - the state can produce wealth and welfare by using natural resources to the fullest - grossly misunderstands the nature of Himalayan ecology. First, the Himalayas are known to be geologically active. Earthquakes and glacial lake outbursts are natural hazards that accompany these processes. But the destructive power of these events has been eclipsed by human-made hazards that exponentially increase the instability of the Himalayan landscape. Poorly designed and cheaply built roads trigger landslides. Blasting tunnels through the mountains for run-of-the-river projects destabilises an already fragile geology. The pressure of water in dam reservoirs induces tectonic shifts, multiplying the risk of earthquakes. Second, like the mountains, Himalayan rivers are dynamic entities. Blocking and diverting their path with dams and tunnels, dumping lakhs of truck-loads of debris from construction sites and from landslides, and building close to the river channel, has disastrous consequences. The cloudburst that precipitated the recent disaster was a natural event, but the toll taken by the floods and landslides was made much worse by Uttarakhand’s development strategy.

It has become clear that our understanding of nature is poor, our ability to control and manipulate it poorer still. However, despite our ignorance and ineptitude, we choose to forge ahead with building more concrete infrastructure because, in the short-term, that’s where the money lies. Development is meant to bring greater security - of livelihoods and life-chances. Yet Uttarakhand’s development has only increased ecological and economic vulnerability because it stakes everything on a fundamental error: the belief that we can proceed as if nature is stable, predictable and controllable.

In a context of ecological uncertainty, development has to incorporate the precautionary principle, anticipating potential harm and acting prudently to prevent it. This means a conservative approach to construction in the hills, including a moratorium on the most risky projects. Research by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and other environmental organisations identifies these projects and their alternatives. There is also considerable expertise, some of it locally available, on how to make roads and buildings safer - the chief issue is to enforce building standards and regulations about no-development zones on river banks and steep hillsides. Such measures are usually challenged on the grounds that they are costly and cause delays. But rapid, ill-conceived development has only increased vulnerability and the risk of disaster. And for the future prosperity of Uttarakhand, it is now time for the nation to consider a ’no-development cess’, paying the Himalayan states to protect mountains, rivers and forests instead of exploiting them, so that India can be ecologically secure. The integrity of the Himalayan landscape is essential to the well-being of the entire subcontinent.

Amita Baviskar is an environmental sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.

P.S.

The above article from Times Crest is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use