The Wilful Destruction Of The Himalaya Must Stop - by Ramachandra Guha

The Himalaya are India's most important natural asset. Without them, the country would not survive. These grand mountains are a barrier to invaders, the source of our greatest rivers, a rich reservoir of biodiversity, and home to our holiest shrines. Ecologically, economically, culturally, and strategically, the Himalaya are vital to the future of India as a nation.

The politicians who now rule us claim to revere the Himalaya, yet, under their watch, these mountains are witnessing a savage attack on their integrity. This attack takes the form of an ill-conceived project known as the Char Dham Pariyojana. Costing an estimated 12,000 crores, this scheme aims to widen some 900 kilometres of roads, ostensibly to provide quicker access to the four holy shrines of Jamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The scheme has been executed with utter recklessness, an absolute lack of concern for environmental and human safety. A public outcry compelled the Supreme Court to appoint a committee of experts, which recently submitted a 800-page report on the devastation already caused by the project.

This report makes for chilling reading, and I shall come to it presently.

But first, let us remind ourselves about some crucial facts about the Himalaya. Although marvellous to behold, in an ecological sense, these mountains are very fragile, and especially prone to earthquakes and floods. And yet, disregarding these features, successive governments  have mounted a four-pronged assault on the Himalaya and its people. The promotion of commercial forestry, open-cast mining, large hydel projects, and unregulated tourism have collectively led to the rampant accumulation of toxic wastes, increasing air pollution, loss of forests and biodiversity, degradation of water sources, landslides, and floods. Now, comes this fifth blow, in the shape of this massive road-building project, which seems set to further devastate an already ravaged landscape.

Normally, for a project of the scale and scope of the Char Dham Pariyojana, a detailed and prior Environmental Impact Assessment is mandatory. Here, this responsibility was evaded by a diabolical sleight of hand. A detailed EIA is required for a road project of more than 100 km in length; so, this 880 km integrated project was broken up into many small bits on paper, such that no EIA of any section would have to be done.

The Parijoyana was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last week of December 2016. A snaphost of the damage it has since caused is reflected in this field report from the Chairman of the Supreme Court Expert Committee, Dr Ravi Chopra: "We encountered several landslides and our vehicles were often stuck in road jams. Slope failures and muck dumped directly downhill into forests, river beds, and waterways were documented. Thousands of trees had been felled already and many more rolled down after unanticipated slope failures. Weak protective walls had left high, vertical slopes to their own fate. At night halts, affected local people directly impacted by the road work met us with their grievances and suggestions."

A key reason for this devastation was the decision to transform an existing and well-functioning network by converting narrow roads suited to the hills into 12-metre-wide highways more appropriate to the plains. Scientific experts recommend that a 5.5 metre width works best in the fragile mountain terrain; these experts were disregarded. A reduced road width would have served the actual traffic flow as well as minimized environmental and social damage. For, as the report of the Expert Committee states, "the potential for negative environmental impact of hill cutting increases with the width and height of the cut. The greater the material excavated, the greater the potential for the cut".  Notably, these routes traverse slopes that are often 60 or 70 degrees steep, and already subject to forest denudation.

On one stretch of the Char Dham Pariyojana, the Committee found that as many as 102 of 174 freshly-cut slopes were prone to landslides. Everywhere, slope failures were ubiquitous. One chapter of their report, entitled "Muck Dumping", documents the dangerous and even deadly ways in which the debris and waste generated by the project is sought to be disposed. Another chapter details the air and water pollution the project has caused, a third the loss to forests and tree cover, a fourth the damage to wildlife. The project's lack of transparency, the withholding of vital information from the affected local populations, also comes in for well-merited criticism. The project officials wouldn't even share information with this Supreme Court-appointed committee.

Notably, pilgrim traffic to the Char Dham is concentrated in a few months, from May to September. Besides, these are not commercial travellers for whom every minute is precious. Why should a spiritual person grudge taking a few hours or few days longer to reach a sacred shrine? In the old days, pilgrims walked. Road-building in the Himalaya should also take account of their ecological uniqueness and vulnerability. To so mindlessly replicate a model appropriate to inter-city traffic in the plains is profoundly ill-judged, and shall prove very costly indeed.

In a note entitled 'A Himalayan Blunder', four scientific members of the Committee characterize the Char Dham Project as an "act of irresponsibility and disregard towards the Himalayas", that “great and vulnerable mountain range whose health is so critical to the nation's social, economic, ecological future".  The report contains hundreds of photographs documenting the destruction caused by careless road-widening, with entire hillsides tumbling into the river. Of the damage the Char Dham project has already caused, these experts write: "As slope after slope came crumbling down, often much deeper into the mountain side than even the 24 meter officially acquired Right of Way (RoW), as water sources got buried, as precious top soil that takes centuries to form and on which forests grow was ripped off and discarded as muck, as precious, living old and young trees came crashing down, as dormant landslides woke up again and several new ones got triggered, as tons of muck were haphazardly dumped down the valley slopes, choking the rivers and waterways; as dust and noise filled the quiet valleys, as boulders and rocks were loosened from their slopes and crashed into the valley below; as road blockages due to ongoing work and increased landslides became a fact of life; and as commuters and workers lost their lives in hurtling debris; our nation was forced to watch as a bystander."  Some telling visual documentation of this damage to the Himalaya is available in an excellent documentary produced by NDTV India.

The situation can still be retrieved, if the 12-metre-width is replaced by a more sensible 5.5 metre limit, and the other recommendations of this Expert Committee adopted. The committee  has many sensibe suggestions for new and less destructive alignments, for revegetation of degraded areas with imdigenous species, for special measures to be adopted for road stretches in upper reaches which experience heavy snowfall, etc. These meticulously detailed recommendations draw upon geological, ecological, as well as engineering expertise. They are offered by scientific experts who have each spent decades living and working in the Himalaya. One desperately hopes they are heeded, and implemented.

This columnist was born and raised in Uttarakhand. His first book was a social history of the Himalayan forests. It is therefore as both citizen and scholar that I press upon readers (and the Court) the importance of making the government see sense in this regard. The Himalaya have suffered enough already. To continue with this road project in its present form would be a deadly blow from which the hills will never recover. Nor shall India itself. For, as the report submitted to the Supreme Court states:  "Today, worldwide, it is becoming clearer by the minute that any "development" devoid of honest and uncompromising ecological concerns will prove short sighted; and inevitably in the long run bring devastation and disaster on our heads".

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)

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