India's policies on water, environment and security, all impacted by glaciers, have passing references to them
Science, in general, finds its value in application. Glaciology is no different. Yet more than a generation after India’s Department of Science and Technology first involved itself in glacier research in the early 1990s, applications of glacier research are a striking miss in India’s developmental plans. India’s policies on water, environment and security, all impacted by glaciers, have barely moved beyond passing references to glaciers.
“For a long time, glaciers were neglected because we did not see much as we were worried only about the water in the rivers,” says Ramanathan of jnu. Suba Chandran, director, Centre for Internal and Regional Security, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, says glaciers do not feature in international treaties or negotiations even though they “will likely have an impact on discharge and water budgets. Agreements rather focus on water that is already flowing”.
The National Climate Change Action Plan, submitted in 2008, was the first policy document that recognised the need to incorporate glaciers into water budgeting and policy. But nine years down the line, research in the subject is still disparate and disjointed, say experts. Incredibly, even the number of glaciers, the total area they cover, and the total volume of water stored in them remains clouded in uncertainty. Take two of the most extensive monitoring exercises of the Indian Himalayas for instance. A 2014 report published by the Indian Space Research Organisation (isro) says that between 2001 and 2011, the Himalayas lost 0.2 per cent of its glaciers. Another study, published in the same year, by the Diwecha Centre for Climate Change estimates that in 40 years the Himalayas had lost about 13 per cent of its glaciers, equivalent to about 443 billion tonnes of ice. The report esti-
mates glacier retreat to be between a few metres to over 60 metres per year at different parts of the range. On the same matter, the then environment minister late Anil Madhav Dave quoted a rate between five and 20 metres. Currently, at least a dozen Indian institutions are studying glacier behaviour.
Low on funds
“Glaciology is a slow moving science and requires long-term concentrated efforts. What is required is to move beyond a university-led project approach and towards a unified approach by setting up a centralised body that can manage and compile standardised research pertaining to Himalayan glaciers. Unfortunately, attempts to establish such a national centre in the past have fallen flat,” says Anil Kulkarni, who carried out the research at the Diwecha Centre for Climate Change.
He is referring to the now-struggling Centre for Glaciology (cfg), which was announced in 2009 as a reaction to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) assessment that the Himalayas would be devoid of glacier cover by 2035. In fact, the ipcc assessment, which was later found to be wrong, served in galvanising both the scientific and political voices in India. “The government decided to set up the autonomous institute in Mussourie with a separate building and staff strength of 80 experts in glaciology. Despite several attempts, we hit a brick wall every time,” says Anil Gupta, the then director of the Wadia Institute for Himalayan Geology (wihg), which currently houses cfg. Even the 12th Five-Year Plan included a detailed plan to establish the glaciology centre in Uttarakhand by 2013 with regional centres in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Jammu and Kashmir. Eight years since the plan was first put on paper, the vision to set up a national centre has all but dissipated. cfg, far from occupying its own building, remains an annexure of wihg. Instead of 80 staff members, it currently employs just 19 people, including PhD researchers. “The hope of setting up a national hub for research seems to have now been put on the back burner. The initial enthusiasm wore off in a few years,” says D P Dobhal, director of the centre at wihg. The glaciology centre has now completed the initial period for which it was sanctioned and a source working closely with cfg says it is no more a priority. “There seems to be no future,” says the source, adding that close to 50 per cent of the `23 crore sanctioned for the centre remains unused.
The lethargy is not limited to Central government agencies. While climate change action plans submitted by Himalayan states rest heavily on strengthening the knowledge and conservation of Himalayan glaciers, not much has moved on the ground. While the Himachal Pradesh climate cell website lists a few monitoring projects, none are listed on the Uttarakhand site. Neither state has listed any conservation activity, as detailed in their action plans. “We have been monitoring glaciers in state and are in the process of updating our inventories,” says S S Randhawa, senior scientific officer, Himachal Pradesh Climate Change Centre.
The sluggishness in incorporating glaciers in policy can partly be attributed to a disconnect between different departments and ministries in the government. “Often it is the case that there are several institutes under different departments that are working in parallel on inter-disciplinary subjects like glaciers. But institutional linkages within and between ministries and departments of the government are still weak,” says Chandran. “We often face frustrating delays because we are not on the same page as water resource officials even though ultimately we are concerned with the same discharge of water,” says Renoj Thayyen, nih scientist.
While the science is still far from being settled, glaciology in India can only move in tandem with policy. And at the moment it appears as if science and policy on glaciology seem locked together like the Ouroboros—the serpent from Egypt mythology that consumes its own tail.
For a long time, glaciers were neglected because we were worried only about the water in the rivers -A L Ramanathan, professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University We need a unified centralised body that can manage and compile standardised glacier research - Anil Kulkarni, scientist, Diwecha Center for Climate Change
Black carbon, deposited on the Khardung glacier, has been linked to increased glacier melt and extreme weather