SPE­CIAL: NA­TURE VS HU­MAN NA­TURE IN UT­TARAK­HAND

Cli­mate change is here and now, and we are clue­less how to save vul­ner­a­ble spots from us

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Ashish Me­hta [email protected]­er­nan­cenow.com

Ashock­ing sight greets the vis­i­tor in Rishikesh: At the main ghat, the Ganga spans no more than 10 feet with less than a foot in depth. A larger stream, though, flows on the other side, in full spate, but a size­able is­land of sand and stones lies be­tween the that Ganga and the ghat. It was not many years ago that a pil­grim would pre­fer Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh over Har-ki-paudi in Harid­war for a ma­jes­tic view of the Ganga with green hills in the back­drop in­stead of a wa­ter­line bound by the ce­ment-and-con­crete struc­tures. Harid­war then de­fined the point past which the Ganga was bound and dammed. Now that point is inch­ing up­wards, closer to the source of the river, at an alarm­ing rate. Sadly, the river is thin­ning out be­fore our eyes.

There is more than nostal­gia for a par­tic­u­lar spot in be­moan­ing what we are los­ing. The same sad story is re­peated else­where. In Varanasi, the riverbed is di­vided equally be­tween the river and the sand. The Ya­muna too is thin­ning out. Peo­ple in the plains of Ut­tar Pradesh who used to cross these two mighty rivers by boat now wade through the wa­ters on foot, if me­dia re­ports are to be be­lieved. The Nar­mada, an­other sa­cred river whose vast­ness left peo­ple spell­bound, was re­duced to a drain in cen­tral Gu­jarat this sum­mer. Ex­pand the scope, and the story un­folds fur­ther. Naini Tal and other, nearby lakes are shrink­ing year by year.

Blam­ing it all on some­thing called cli­mate change and mov­ing on is not a sane re­sponse. It would be like blam­ing crime, cor­rup­tion and mis-gov­er­nance on ‘hu­man na­ture’. Yes, ‘Cli­mate change’ as a phrase can seem so big and so vague that ev­ery­thing feels like pre­or­dained, like a force of na­ture be­fore which we mere mor­tals are help­less. But break­ing the phe­nom­e­non down to its parts can ex­pose small-time crooks and cul­prits lurk­ing round the cor­ner.

In case of the Ganga, the chief cul­prit is ob­vi­ous: dams. More and more hy­dro­elec­tric projects are com­ing up in Ut­tarak­hand, damming the two head­streams of the Ganga – Bha­gi­rathi, Alak­nanda – and trib­u­taries like Man­dakini. This is, of course, not a re­cent phe­nom­e­non: the Tehri project be­gan in the pre­vi­ous cen­tury. What is new is the launch of more and more projects, even though the re­gion is ex­tra prone to earthquakes and the land­scape is ex­tremely frag­ile.

Swami Gyan­swa­roop Sanand (for­merly GD Agar­wal), a sci­en­tist and a devo­tee, gave up his life protest­ing against dams. His de­mand was to re­ju­ve­nate Ganga, as promised by the name changes of the min­istry of wa­ter re­sources, and make is flow cease­lessly: Avi­ral Ganga. In other words, no dams at least in the hills. He was not the first holy man: In 2011, Swami Niga­manand died af­ter a hunger strike against sand min­ing in the ganga basin. He may not be the last. But there is lit­tle hope for the river.

Add to that the large-scale de­struc­tion be­ing wracked by the Char Dham road link­age project which, ac­cord­ing to a pe­ti­tion be­fore the Na­tional Green Tri­bunal, is pro­ceed­ing ahead with­out req­ui­site en­vi­ron­men­tal clear­ances, and Ut­tarak­hand might be star­ing at de­struc­tion on a

mytho­log­i­cal scale in a mat­ter of decades, if not years.

There is an­other way to look at it, by ask­ing what peo­ple want. An ar­gu­ment can be made that peo­ple liv­ing in the vil­lages and ham­lets dot­ting the hills aspire to the same life­style as the rest of us. Why should they be de­nied elec­tric­ity and roads, con­nec­tiv­ity and safety? The near lack of eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties is forc­ing them to mi­grate to cities in the plains. If any­thing, they have more claim on na­ture than the rest. But have they been con­sulted be­fore the launch of a slew of projects? The last time they spoke up was in protest against the Tehri dam. More­over, the ben­e­fits of dams and sim­i­lar projects are not al­ways meant for the hill peo­ple. Delhi takes not a drop from the Ya­muna flow­ing through the city, and gets wa­ter from far­away places like Renuka sagar in Hi­machal Pradesh. In that case, an Ut­tarakhandi can reap max­i­mum ben­e­fits of such de­vel­op­ment pro­vided he shifts to Delhi.

If one wants to be prag­matic in en­vi­ron­ment vs de­vel­op­ment de­bates, one should also con­sider the costs. Con­sider the rare medic­i­nal plants go­ing ex­tinct in the hills, not to men­tion a num­ber of en­dan­gered species in and around the Ganga down­stream. Tin­ker­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment al­ways comes at a price, though usu­ally we are will­fully ig­no­rant of it. (A new WHO re­port says In­dia recorded the high­est pre­ma­ture deaths of un­der-five chil­dren due to air pol­lu­tion.)

Why is the world hell-bent on tram­pling upon frag­ile ecosys­tems of the Hi­malayas, in Ut­tarak­hand and else­where? The state com­pris­ing Garhwal and Ku­maon, falling in the lower Hi­malayas, is home to six na­tional parks, eight wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies and one bio­sphere re­serve – apart from some of the holi­est shrines of Hin­duism and one of Sikhism.

Given the re­li­gious as­pect, a sec­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have nur­tured a fond hope that un­like other regimes and ide­olo­gies, the Hin­dutva project can be made to join causes with them. The Ganga and the Ya­muna are not merely rivers but sa­cred and di­vine be­ings for the Hin­dus, with a shrine ded­i­cated to each, in Gan­gotri and Ya­munotri. Ut­tarak­hand is not just an­other state, but Devb­hoomi, the land of gods. But the hope of adding saf­fron the green is not ma­te­ri­al­is­ing in this Kaliyug.

Blame it on hu­man na­ture, then.

An ar­gu­ment can be made that peo­ple liv­ing in the vil­lages and ham­lets dot­ting the hills aspire to the same life­style as the rest of us. Why should they be de­nied elec­tric­ity and roads, con­nec­tiv­ity and safety? But have they been con­sulted be­fore the launch of a slew of projects?

Pho­tos: ashish me­hta

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