Declare Himalayas an eco-sensitive zone
by Ashwani Mahajan on 01 Feb 2023 1 Comment

Sri Adi Shankaracharya founded the city where the holy Jyotirlinga is located, known as Joshimath (Jyotir Math), in the eighth century. Today, this math is at the brink of collapse. News of the sinking of Joshimath has shaken the whole country. Even though some steps have been taken, experts believe that the sinking of Joshimath cannot be stopped. That is, the downfall of this first Jyotir Math established by Adi Shankaracharya cannot be stopped.


Issue at hand


The sudden land sinking in Joshimath early this year had been forewarned through several government reports in the past, such as the Mishra Commission Report (1976). Referring to the fragile terrain around Joshimath/ upper Alaknanda basin, the Mishra Commission recommended a blanket ban on collecting construction material from a radius of 5 km of Joshimath town. No boulders should be removed either by digging or blasting and no trees should be cut in the landslide zone. The Commission also stated that Joshimath town was located in a fragile sliding zone.


Then, the Planning Commission’s Task Force Report (2010) recommended that “No Go” areas need to be defined. The Expert Body Committee Report after the 2013 disaster said that these fragile mountains are overburdened and deforestation and excessive construction works beyond the area’s carrying capacity is aggravating the effect of disasters.


Assessing the root cause


This is not the first tragedy in the Himalayan region. In 2021, 200 people including the laborers of Tapovan dam, died in the Chamoli flood. In 2013, a large number of bridges, roads and buildings collapsed due to floods in the Ganga, Yamuna and its tributaries after heavy rains. Such disasters have increased in the Himalayan region in recent years and cannot be taken lightly.


The root cause is the uncontrolled construction work in such fragile terrain. It is worth mentioning that the manner in which the mountain was cut at the foothills of Joshimath for the construction of Char Dham Marg, and how the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) dug a tunnel in the middle of the mountain for its hydro project, without a proper hydrogeological study, destroyed the fragile mountain. The proliferation of robust and unplanned construction of high-rise hotels and buildings with inadequate arrangement for sanitation, has made Joshimath more unstable.


Hence, the entire area of Joshimath is sinking and cannot be saved. The question is not only of Joshimath. In the name of development, construction work and tampering with nature is going on all over Uttarakhand. Due to massive deforestation, there is hardly any greenery left on the mountains; hence, landslides have become frequent in these young mountains.


Inadequate solutions


While a large number of people are going to be displaced due to the sinking of Joshimath city, the solution is being sought only by way of rehabilitation of affected residents. Currently, work on mega projects in the area - the NTPC hydropower project, Helang bypass road construction which is part of Chardham road widening project, and Ropeways project, has been stopped by the district administration after local protests.


In the Bhagirathi ESZ (eco-sensitive zone), where large-scale mega projects have not happened and the local ecology has not been tampered with, land subsidence and landslide incidents and devastating disaster events have occurred. This is proof enough that the indiscriminate and unplanned construction everywhere else in the state of Uttarakhand has directly/ indirectly impacted and aggravated the disaster-like situation.


In view of this type of rapid destruction in the past, it has become necessary to consider that the so-called development driven by human greed cannot be allowed to continue.


The whole of Uttarakhand, especially centres of tourist attraction like Nainital and Mussoorie etc., are also on the verge of sinking. It is feared that a situation like Joshimath may soon repeat in Nainital and other areas of Garhwal as well.


Significantly, in Uttarakhand and other hilly states, the work of widening of roads, construction of tunnels, railway lines, construction of dams etc., and large-scale building construction (mostly hotels), has increased rapidly in the last two decades. During this period, there have been governments of different parties at the centre and in the state. hence, no single political party can be blamed singularly for these disasters.


What is the solution?


Disastrous construction in the name of development without assessing the expected impact is the cause of all these current and previous tragedies. This indiscriminate construction must end, but the construction works at different places cannot be stopped without making a law.


Legislation is a long process and it is not easy to create a consensus among various stakeholders. The state government can make efforts by showing sensitivity that due to the current crisis the district administration has stopped all construction activities, but if long-term measures are not conceived, these construction works will restart sooner or later.


Therefore, long-term measures are imperative. Most rivers in northern India originate from the Himalayan ranges. Whereas glaciers are located on the top of the Himalayas, due to global warming, glaciers are melting and sources of drinking water are depleting due to excess flow of water, and the sea level is also increasing.


Declare Himalayas as eco sensitive zone


Various rivers originate under the glaciers. In the past, there had been opposition to the obstruction of the continuous flow of the Ganga by tampering with nature by building dams on the Ganga. After protests and agitations and fast unto death by many, including Prof. GD Agrawal in 2010, the central government declared the area of Bhagirathi as eco-sensitive zone.


As a result, there have been no natural calamities in that area. Hence, if the neighbouring areas of the Yamunotri, Alaknanda, Mandakini, Kali and Dhauli Ganga are also declared eco-sensitive zones, it might be possible to prevent future disasters in the region.


Regulate the devastation of big projects


The Chardham road widening project must regulate the road-width to intermediate standard to minimize damage to the terrain.


Chardham railways is an over ambitious project that will cause much devastation and further overburden the tourist-centric state of Uttarakhand. This project should be reassessed.


Uttarakhand needs a detailed carrying-capacity assessment to ensure the number of tourists is accounted for and doesn’t cause environmental overburdening.


The Ganga basin is the collective property of the nation and the cultural sanctity of the Ganga-Himalayas must not be compromised at any cost. It is important that these ecologically and culturally sensitive zones are taken care of, conserved and protected as an inter-generational equity.


The present generation and Government have the responsibility to not only protect the Himalayan region but also the future of all people living on this land, who are dependent on the rivers rising out of this region. The present governments, both at centre and the state, will have to demonstrate utmost sensitivity and determination, or future generations will never forgive us.


(A resolution to this effect was passed at a Round Table on Imminent Himalayan Crisis at Haryana Bhawan, Delhi, on 28 January 2023)

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top