Triund is a magnificent, rock-strewn meadow at 3000 meters at the base of the towering Dhauladhar range behind Dharamsala. Till about ten years ago it had only one three room forest rest house and was visited by about a dozen trekkers everyday. You could spend the night there only if you had a permit for the rest house, which has neither electricity nor running water. Today it is visited by a thousand people a day, there are dozens of semi-permanent structures and tents despoiling the place. Dozens stay for the night in them, defecating wherever they fancy, the meadow is strewn with garbage, faeces and plastic. Last year a local environmental NGO had cleaned up the place and had carted more than 30 large bags of garbage and trash down the mountain. If this makes you angry, here is something that will make you furious: the entire area is a Reserved forest and no non forest activity is permitted there by law. People have now even started getting plots entered in their names, in connivance with the Revenue officials. Every structure and tent is an encroachment. The Forest department is aware of what is going on but chooses to remain in deep slumber. What the hell is the HP Forest department doing? you may well ask.
The HP High Court has posed this precise question to the department this week and has asked the Deputy Commissioner to remove all the polluting eye-sores within three months. But why does it have to take the judiciary to remind the Forest department that it is its bounden responsibility to implement the Forest Conservation Act, the Indian Forest Act and the Godavarman judgement (1997) of the Supreme Court? Triund is just one example of how the apathy, irresponsibility and downright connivance of the department is devastating the natural environment of the state, whether it is the Rohtang slopes, Hatu peak in Shimla, Manimahesh in Chamba, Chandertal in Lahaul, Kheer Ganga in the Parvati valley or Choordhar peak. I was horrified to learn the other day that 100 vehicles are allowed upto Jabri ( on the trek to Hampta pass) EVERY DAY! Dozens of people camp at the pass itself. I had been to the pass some years ago and can vouch for the fact that it cannot sustain more than ten people at a time. And this is part of the Inder Killa national park- how are people allowed in without permission, and with no rules to govern their stay there?
The explosion of trekking in forest areas and fragile mountains is getting completely out of hand and in the days to come shall pose the biggest danger to the natural environment, including its flora and fauna. But the department tasked with protecting these areas is in deep slumber, worried only about how many more posts of PCCFs and CCFs it can wrest from an equally somnolent government. I have been arguing for years that the carrying capacity of these natural spots/ routes should be determined, a system of permits introduced and rigorously implemented, camping sites developed with pit toilets and running water, vehicular traffic completely banned from these areas to preserve their pristine character, violators severely fined. HP’s forest department, however, is sleeping the sleep of Kumbhakaran, and by the time it wakes up there will be nothing left to preserve.
Thankfully, the higher judiciary shares these concerns. There is a path breaking, but little noticed, judgement of the Uttarakhand High Court of 21.8.2018 which is of relevance to Himachal also, though I doubt if the mandarins of our Forest department are aware of it. In Writ Petition( PIL) 123 of 2014, Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lok Pal Singh addressed head on the environmental destruction caused by uncontrolled camping on the alpine meadows ( Bugyals in local parlance) of Roop Kund in Chamoli district. After discussing at length various authoritative environmental studies and judgements of various courts, they passed the following orders, inter-alia:
* A complete ban on overnight stay/ camping in the meadows.
* Removal of all permanent/ semi permanent structures ( of the UK Tourism Board) from the meadows.
* Restrict the number of tourists to the Bugyals to 200 per day.
* Dismantle all encroachments( by tourist/ trekking organisers) within three months.
* Clear all the accumulated garbage in the meadows within 6 weeks.
I am not aware whether the Uttarakhand govt. has appealed against this order or not. The judgement may be a bit harsh( especially the ban on overnight stay) but it’s the only way to go, at least for the time being, till the government introduces proper safeguards and systems to regulate and restrict the ever increasing numbers to the carrying capacity of a place. The HP forest department can do far worse than adopt these prescriptions, and use them to develop its own template for a sustainable policy on eco-tourism.
I tremble every time I read that the Himachal govt. is opening up some new, virgin, natural destination for eco-tourism or trekking or adventure sports. This is tantamount to signing the death warrant of that place in terms of preserving its environmental heritage and values.