Message from hills: Eco-fragility must be respected, environment-development binary must be transcended

The Niti Aayog has commissioned a study to analyse the “far-reaching economic impacts” of judgments delivered by the Supreme Court, high courts and quasi-judicial agencies such as the National Green Tribunal. The findings will be used as a “training input for judges of the NGT, HCs and SC”. The project was actually supposed to commence in February last year and had the pandemic not thrown a spanner in the works, the release of its report would have very likely coincided with one of the worst environmental tragedies in the country in recent times — more than 150 workers are trapped in a tunnel of debris and slush after flash floods in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district swept away one hydro power project and inflicted substantial damage on another last week. Nearly 50 years after it cradled the Chipko Andolan, inspiring a range of ecological movements and initiatives, Chamoli is once again challenged to protect its mountains, forests and watersheds.

Chipko, that today evokes romantic images of tree-hugging women from Garhwal’s villages, was much more than a conservation movement. But the thread that ran through its multiple identities — eco-feminism, Gandhian Satyagraha, Van Bachao Andolan — was the local peoples’ yearning for control over their resources. The forests had to be protected because they nurture watersheds, nourish the soil and keep rocks in their place, reducing chances of landslides. And, as sources of manure for farming, fodder for animals and fuel for the kitchens, they were central to peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Much has changed in the dialectics of environment and economics since then. The mountains of Garhwal and Kumaon are no longer administered by a state government from the plains of Uttar Pradesh. A liberalised economy has brought in new charms, given rise to aspirations, altered the vocabulary of well-being, made some of the earlier challenges more difficult. Uttarakhand is dotted with more than 50 hydel power projects — operational, under construction and proposed units — which environmental experts contend compromises the carrying capacity of this fragile region. The energy industry and a large section of the state’s political leadership, in contrast, link these projects to “development” opportunities. As a report in this paper showed, the state government has even resisted the Centre’s strictures against several such ventures while underlining the importance of hydroelectricity to Uttarakhand’s energy security and economy. Protests against these schemes are frequent and at the same time they are also employment sites.

The Niti Aayog’s study on “sensitising judges” homes in on this contradiction. “The judiciary needs to take into account environment, equity and economic considerations… The absence of ex-ante analysis of the economic costs associated with a decision is further exacerbated when judicial activism by courts is in play,” it says. The initiative does not mention Uttarakhand, but its references to “job and revenue losses” caused by judicial verdicts overturning infrastructure projects is of a piece with the discourse that resists any opposition to dams and highways in the region.

Like in most parts of the country, any intervention in the mountains begins with a doffing of the hat to the environment. Usually, this means taking refuge in an increasingly vague concept, “sustainable development”. After last week’s tragedy, Uttarakhand Chief Minister T S Rawat tweeted, “I reiterate our government’s commitment to develop hills of Uttarakhand in a sustainable manner, and we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring the achievement of this goal.”

In ecologically fragile zones, natural disasters often become signposts in local public memory. Last week’s incident has kindled memories of 2013 when the raging waters of the Rishi Ganga claimed more than 5,000 lives in the Kedarnath Valley. Other than the scale of damage, the two tragedies are different in another notable respect. In the four days preceding the flash floods of 2013, the Kedarnath Valley had received inordinate amounts of rainfall. Chamoli, in contrast, was bathed in sunshine, when it was jolted by a wall of rushing water accompanied with large amounts of moraine, rock and silt. One thing, however, unites the two events — the vagaries of the Himalayan mountain system.

The Himalayas are an evolving mountain chain — the height of the ranges increases every year. The already unstable slopes become even more precarious because of the glacial activity triggered by global warming. As the ice melts, rocks and debris hurtle downhill with the water. Though the jury is still out on the immediate cause of the February 7 landslide, the early evidence points to a fracture in a hanging mass of ice because of gravitational pull or due to collision with a loose rock. A growing body of scholarship shows that almost all the 1,400-odd glaciers in Uttarakhand are on the retreat. According to a 2019 paper in the journal Science Advances, Himalayan glacial melting has doubled since 2000 compared to a 25-year period before the turn of the century.

The interplay between climate change and ecology has become even more fraught with the large-scale tree felling, blasting and tunneling during construction. After the 2013 floods, the Supreme Court asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests to probe the links between hydroelectric projects and the disaster. The Ravi Chopra committee, constituted by the ministry, incriminated the hydel schemes in its report submitted a year later, and called for an overhaul of the environment clearance procedure. Not many dots need to be joined to understand why these recommendations were never implemented.

The tragedy of ecological governance in most parts of the world is that it remains trapped in the environment-development binary. The Niti Aayog project is part of a playbook that views environment clearance procedures as hindrance to the “ease of business” — even though these processes have been diluted in the past 25 years.

In contrast, the Chipko Andolan sowed the germ of an idea of human well-being sensitive to forests, mountains and water bodies. That only a few niche institutions attempted to nurture this “alternative” notion of development — in spite of Chipko becoming part of textbooks and ecology becoming a mainstream pursuit — speaks of a fundamental failing of the country’s knowledge production bodies.

If there’s one message in the Chamoli tragedy, it’s this: Eco-fragility must be respected and, at the same time, the environment-development binary must be transcended in practice. It’s a call to our scientific establishments to expand the frontiers of our knowledge on the Himalayas. It’s also a challenge to the civil society, political players and our knowledge establishments to reanimate Chipko’s vision.

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