(By Dr. Vandita Verma)
It is a treat to the eyes to drive uphill from Kalka to Simla into the ranges of the Shivalik hills of Himachal. One encounters a beautiful terrain while sloping up every mile with peculiar vegetation growing gradually from scanty to profuse covering of grass-like pines converting slowly to small shrubs and small trees transforming to bigger and subsequently huge ones placing you suddenly amidst dense forests of the pines. While the lower slopes of these Shivalik hills are full of these pines (also called cheed), its upper ranges towards Naldehra or the Kufri are found draped with cedar trees in abundance.
The slopes as well as the peaks of these hills paint a panoramic picture of such thickly grown cedar trees or the Deodars( also called Devdars meaning the â€˜divine trees’) that you really feel the divine presence while in their proximity. As you move on, this lush dark green carpet spreads all over with its numerous natural waterfalls and springs and the colorful wild flowers covering the mountain slopes. One instinctively gets the feel of the stretched arms of nature waiting eagerly to embrace you. The endearing hug in their cool breezy closeness rejuvenates you away from a stale world of pollution. But all this freshness around somehow fails to restrain you feeling a little weary or dispirited encountering the grave imbalance caused to ecology by the excessive human interference here.
The predicament one encounters flashes back a memory of the poet Kalidas about whom an anecdote goes that he was once found cutting that branch of a tree on which he was sitting himself. Imagery such as this, alone, strikes the mind while approaching these hilly regions. The question that starts bothering the mind is that will the transformation that Kalidas underwent, exemplifying his resplendent wisdom through his un-paralleled classical contributions, be ever exhibited by this bulging humanity in these hilly areas by whom these assaults on nature are being carried on in an unprecedented way?
Incidentally today is the time when man is found displaying increasing concern over issues like â€˜global warming’ ,diffusion of â€˜green house gasses’, atmospheric pollution, lowering of the ground water levels, melting-up of the glaciers, drying-up of the rivers causing water scarcity all around. Still, we fail to realize the adverse affects of our ceaseless meddling with the operations of nature. We are never hesitant in improvising â€˜the 1001 ways’ for contributing our share in the escalating imbalances of the ecology.
And, it sounds all the more absurd that all this is being done in the name of modernization and development. While the ever aspired modern field of tourism, fetching incessant revenues for the government, brings periodic pressures to the region – the enhanced pace of permanent inhabitants settling in these areas leaves no stone unturned in adding to its permanent pressure. The processes of deforestation for the settling up of the increased populace or setting up of new industries – from light to heavy – in the name of development, tend both to fleece and pollute the natural resources of these areas. The sum total of these activities, it appears, is of making these majestic mountains as if groan under the civilizing pressures which had been initiated here some two hundred years ago.
It is well known that the formal commencement of modernization and the civilizing drive in the hilly regions have a bearing on the early years of the nineteenth century when their beauty had first struck the eyes of the British. It was around this time that the multi-directional Nepalese encroachment had started extending simultaneously towards areas occupied by Ranjit Singh in Punjab, Bareilly and Moradabad in the Rohilkhund region and towards Purnea in Bihar.
It became a point of serious concern for Marques of Hastings, the Governor General of British India, when he deputed General Ochterlony to drive the Nepalese out of this whole region. In 1816 thus, after this first Anglo-Nepalese War, the treaty of Sagauli ,signed between the two, gave all this hill area- not only of Shimla but of the whole of Himachal and present Uttaranchal- to the British . To restrain any such encroachment in future this obscure village of â€˜Shyamala’ situated amidst the woods of pines, oaks and cedars had been found the most suitable strategic point for being made the military base. Moreover, due to its exceptionally alluring scenic beauty and the freshening climate, this grew also into a station for the weary and wounded officers and soldiers of the East India Company gradually requiring sanatoriums for convalescence. The reason British Governor General Bentinck had in making Shimla his summer capital was in fact this attitude of his officials who started spending most of their time relaxing here evading their official duties.
All subsequent Governors General and the Viceroys, finding the climate here virtually at parity with that of England, became increasingly fascinated by the place. While Duffrin (in whose regime the Indian National Congress was formed) got the huge Viceregal Lodge( the present Institute of Advanced Studies) with beautiful Victorian architecture- constructed in 1884, Curzon outlaid the famous golf course at Naldehra amidst picturesque surroundings. Curzon was in fact enchanted so much by its scenic beauty that he even named one of his daughters as Alexandra Naldehra. Shimla, the queen of the Shivalik Hills, thus got developed into a mini-England where instead of going to England, the British preferred to spend their leisure time, especially in the summers.
THE DEVELOPMENT DRIVE
The civilizing and modernizing operations, with ever increasing human interference in these hill ranges, commenced henceforth incalculative of the damages inadvertently wrought to these natural surroundings all through these years. Although this profuse natural wealth does not give an indication of its ever being depleted, we the humans had been in the habit of seldom missing a chance to spoil it.
The newspapers of the area are full of discussions currently over the feasibility of installation of heavy industries even in the interior regions of these hills. This certainly is being done in the name of further development of the state with the full approval of the Himachal Government. In the same way, for the promotion of tourism, a company called the Jagson International has been currently given permission for construction of a ropeway project on the Jakhu Hill area costing over fifteen crores. The project with a restaurant and residential structure requires felling of a large number of deodar trees causing severe upsetting in the surroundings. Besides, the local inhabitants or the village communities are facing a peculiar problem of governmental interference in their customary styles of living which are being viewed in the perspective of disturbing their equations with both i.e. the natural resources and the wild life. On account of having as many as thirty two wild-life sanctuaries in the whole of Himachal Pradesh the government now a days has started implementing a policy called â€˜Rationalization’ which means the removal of villages from the proximity of these sanctuaries.
Although aimed at the security of both the parties concerned, this results not only into disturbing the man-animal relation but affecting their economy too. Moreover, few Public Interest Litigation cases filed by NGOs also disturb the typical patterns of living. The villagers here had a conventional automated system of give and take viz. a viz. nature like the Timber Distribution system (TD). Under this system, known also as â€˜Bartandari’, these villagers had a practice of co-letting the woods and get everything of their need from them. They were accustomed to getting wood as fuel, collecting herbs for the ailing, getting grazing ground for cattle, timber for house construction and wood for even completing the last rites for the dead ones. The villagers were used to killing even the preying or prowling animals damaging crops or livestock. But now whereas the Timber Distribution rights have come under governmental restrictions, the Wild life Protection Act puts them as if in fetters.
The discrepancies of the governmental schemes lay bare with its outcome, on one hand, in making the farmers suffer from them and on the other by inducing the timber mafia mint money in the bargain. Moreover, getting stimulated by the mafia activities, even the villagers take recourse to the illicit felling of green trees for catering to their immediate needs.
MOUNTAINS & ECOLOGY
The Mountains had always been the ecological guardians of our existence. With their height, their chill and the intense greenery on them they stand as guarantors of our well being .They in fact regulate the cycle of rains and operate also as the conservers of water resources for humankind with their springs and streams, the natural waterfalls and their big glaciers becoming the never ending sources of replenishing the rivers of the plains. The unrelenting and ruthless human interference is destroying them.
No one knows till when these white roses or the chrysanthemums and the rhododendrons will continue to be seen blooming on these mountain slopes interwoven in the thickly laid carpet of the green cedars and pines. Two centuries have elapsed since man ,with his modernizing mission , had put his firm foot into this region which now seem to be touching the pinnacle .You simply drive from Kalka to Solan and to Simla and find the jungles of concrete emerging , fast replacing the greenery of the landscape. Nothing it seems is spared or avoided .Besides the fast rising lodges, hotels and resorts, the showrooms of cars ,towers of different mobile companies or the high rise multi-story structures tend only to pollute the atmosphere still further.
The old modes of erecting dwellings with timber or the mountain rocks loose all relevance with the increasing population of the area .Besides , though the chill of the climate, still restrain the use of air conditioners, there seem to be no dearth of gadgets like refrigerators , washing machines, geysers ,heaters or the microwaves etc. which consume bulk -electricity besides disseminating heat .Such modernizing experiments as these , being ventured in sensitive areas like this, appear unnerving because they could prove calamitous for the human beings in the years to come. It seems as if no one cares. Issues like â€˜global warming’ or the â€˜green house gasses’ gain relevance only in confabulations and not in conduct. The vehicular traffic alone of the area can exemplify the amount of human callousness.
A constant presence at a time at least of fifty vehicles within a distance of half a kilometer – moving fast, mostly diesel, all in first gears,-can always be found diffusing excessive heat in the atmosphere. Nothing can beat the heat, thus generated, adding to the hazards of global warming. Other forms of pollution too are not absent. There is no dearth of polythene bags or used cans, scattered all over, despite governmental ban on them .Even the higher peaks of these mountains are not spared by the delinquency of the omnipresent timber mafia, the details concerning whose â€˜modus operandi’- of putting acid or burning the lower trunk of the trees – for facilitating green felling, remains a commonly appearing caption in local newspapers.
Perhaps it may not be too long now to visualize a terrain depleted of this greenery, of drained out water resources and of melting glaciers, loosing its characteristic coolness at large. The snow clad peaks in summers are becoming rare even now. The increasingly drying up glaciers are producing waterlessness in the rivers of the plains .Such fast paced turns and twists in ecology is frightening, for one day it may put all of us craving for drops of water altogether . It is high time now, a time to show determination to do something genuine. And, to feel this intensity of doing something urgent, perhaps our being in long and frequent proximity of this nature seems most required. It is an irony that we still can grope in nature alone for picking up the covert but useful clues for saving ourselves from the catastrophe which, in turn, is the creation of our own.
Here is a secluded terrain and a streak of wood driving you to a solitary eighteenth century Victorian mansion owned once by an army General of the East India Company .Sitting in this forlorn place in this remote area with surrounding deodars you start suddenly feeling too close to these distant looking mountains .In this face to face appraisal you feel all the more convinced about their role of being the sole providers of the lifelines of human existence .Another message awaits you in this old abode which, taking you off its archaic dÃ©cor , help you find solutions of your current disquiet. While a casual stroll revisiting the mounted paintings of a bygone era slowly transcend you to the bewitching pristine charm of this nature around you, the sailing notes of a static piano gives an instant feel of the ecstasy this overwhelming world of nature once gave .You suddenly start thinking about the children of the 10+2 school running just behind this stately home.
Completing all their learning amidst this natural surroundings of woods and the blooming white wild flowers, the batches passing out every year stand as the only hope as the saviors of this world. These budding and blooming little flowers in the loving care of nature, groomed into civilized human beings , alone could be our mentors procrastinating the intruders to abstain at once from meddling with the nature any more. â€˜Thus far and no further’ be the signal transmitted by them, echoing through the length and breadth of these valleys , giving alarms of SOS for rescuing this dipsomaniac humanity from the approaching calamity.
Dr Vandita Varma is a Reader with the Allahabad University