The Himalayas Have Spoken In Joshimath, Is Anyone In Shimla Listening ?
Now that the Himachal Chief Minister, Mr. Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, has managed to form his Cabinet and appoint more Chief Secretaries/ Special Chief Secretaries and Advisors than there are trees in Shimla, I earnestly hope that he will apply his mind to more important public issues concerning the natural environment. I say “more important” because Secretaries and Ministers come and go and can look after themselves, but the environment is irreplaceable and has to be protected and nurtured in this Anthropocene age. If a reminder was needed the events in Joshimath will do nicely, thank you.
I am always amazed at the apathy of the Indian voter who is constantly being battered by the government’s depredation of the environment under the guise of “development” but never makes this an election issue. When it comes to the crunch religion, caste, false promises, rhetoric take precedence over droughts, floods, heat waves and noxious air. But in the November elections in Himachal (which the Congress won) I see a silver lining and a welcome change: issues concerning the environment- hydel projects, unnecessary road widening, more airports, unsustainable town planning, deforestation, repeated water shortages- do appear to have acquired some traction and perhaps did influence the voting patterns. Which is why the newly minted Chief Minister must prepare an agenda/ action plan for the state’s natural environment and put it on the fast track (perhaps under an Advisor who is genuinely required, unlike the other sinecures). I, of course, have a wish list of what he should be doing in the New Year, here are the four main action points:
Stop Indiscriminate Construction / Widening Of Roads
Himachal will be destroyed by the automobile and four lane roads will only facilitate this process by encouraging ever more vehicles to come to the state. I was aghast to read that 10000 vehicles crossed the Atal tunnel in Manali on just one day (26th December, 2022); the figure was 12,73,000 for the whole year. 13000 vehicles entered Shimla on Christmas day. Any one who has seen the pristine environment on both sides of the tunnel and the traffic jams in Shimla can only shudder at the inevitable consequences of these humungous numbers- emissions, garbage, plastics, excreta, law and order- all of which have already started to plague the residents of this state..
There are at least a dozen sanctioned four-laning projects and they need to be reviewed: they are just not necessary and lead to large scale land acquisition, displacement of thousands of families, cutting of hills and deforestation, continuous landslides and filling up of valleys, pollution of water sources. The Parwanoo- Shimla four-laning project, started some ten years ago, is just about half complete and prone to constant landslides. It still takes three hours to travel from Parwanoo to Shimla, so how is the widening helping? It will, when complete, only encourage more cars to come to the state; when they reach Shimla there is no parking space for them and during tourist season the town becomes one huge, chaotic, unauthorised parking lot. And remember, more than 17000 trees were cut to create this mess, pollution levels of all towns on this route- Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Shoghi, Kaithlighat- have increased exponentially.
Mr. Sukhu should take seriously the advice of Mr. Gadkari, the Union Transport Minister that Himachal should construct ropeways instead of roads. He should employ the state’s limited resources on expansion of the rail network instead. He could begin by converting the 120 year old Kangra Valley Railway (Pathankot- Jogindernagar) 75 km narrow gauge line to meter or broad gauge. Ten million tourists visit this region every year, all by road because the KVR has been allowed to fall to pieces. Properly upgraded, it has the potential to replace tens of thousands of vehicles, make for a much more pleasant travelling experience, and significantly improve the environment. Extend the line to Mandi and link it to the proposed line from Kiratpur/ Bilaspur to Manali. There would then be no need for all those four lane roads that are playing havoc with livelihoods and the environment.
Scrap The Mandi (Balh) International Airport
This ego-based foolishness must be given the quietus immediately. It serves no purpose, is redundant, is being vigorously opposed by the residents of the valley, and will drain the state’s resources (just the land acquisition will cost more than 2000 crores rupees). There is no justification for another airport when its three existing ones function below 50% capacity and cater to barely 1% of the arriving tourists. The social and environmental costs are enormous: 12000 farming families in 8 villages displaced, 350 hectares of the most fertile land in Himachal cemented over, deforestation and loss of bio-diversity, a tranquil valley converted to a hub of vehicular, dust and noise pollution. Upgrade the existing airports instead.
Abandon The SDO (Shimla Development Plan) 2041
This disastrous, short-sighted and unscientific plan (already stayed by the NGT) should be junked forthwith and the appeal against the NGT order withdrawn. By allowing construction in Shimla’s protected Green Belt, Core Area and Heritage Zone, and five stories in the rest of the town, the SDP41 is making a mockery of science and town planning and endangering the citizens’ lives. It will remove forever the remaining green cover and ancient deodars of this once beautiful colonial era town, and congest it beyond redemption. The Chief Minister should learn from the subsidence that is happening in Joshimath (Uttarakhand) even as I write this: the whole town is sinking under the weight of over construction and bad planning- more than 700 houses have already had to be abandoned. At least eight villages on its peripheries are also sinking. The consequences for Shimla, sitting on a 6500 feet high ridge and built mainly on overburden strata, will be even more horrific in the event of landslides or earthquakes- a study estimates that 39% of all buildings will collapse and 40000 people will die. As someone who has lived here most of my life I consider that an underestimation. The need is to decongest and deconstruct the town, not allow and encourage more construction, traffic, garbage and pollution.
Take A Pause On Hydel Projects
The state has reached the tipping point as regards hydel power, from here on it’s a case of diminishing returns and increasing environmental and social costs. Of its identified exploitable potential of 24000 MW, it has already commissioned about 13000 MW and another 5000 MW is in the pipeline. The remaining 6000 MW are all in difficult, geologically fragile, high altitude, para glacial areas and cannot be exploited without grave environmental damage, such as in Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti, the Chandra-Bhaga basin, Parbati valley. They are all being opposed by local villagers. They also do not make economic sense any more with the plummeting cost of solar power: the reason why as many as a dozen hydel projects have been surrendered by their proponents in the last two years. The Chief Minister should dig out the 2010 report on Environmental Impacts of Hydel Projects prepared by the then Addl. Chief Secretary(Forests) which had even been accepted and commended by the High Court, but which successive governments had found to be too close to the bone and had consigned to the freezer.
There are other environmental action points- water conservation, construction of check dams and Van Sarovars in the forest areas, rejuvenation of traditional kuhls, regulation of tourist numbers, disposal of mounting garbage piles, stopping of illegal mining on river beds, – and for all these the state can do worse than prepare a long term paper on Environmental Strategy 2050. The Chief Minister and his Advisors should take a hard look at what is happening in Uttarakhand. Not just Joshimath, it has now been reported that even Nainital, Champawat, Karnaprayag and Uttarkashi are sinking under the onslaught of rapacious commercialisation and unscientific “development”. That state is a veritable laboratory for impending environmental apocalypse- dam bursts, GLOF ( Glacial Lake Overflow), landslides, subsidence, flash floods, earthquakes. Himachal has been lucky so far in that it has been generally spared these visitations of nature’s backlash till now. But its luck will not last forever, and it is running out of time fast. A red flag has already been raised by an eminent geologist who has warned that subsidence has started in Mcleodganj, and that the main Dharamshala- Mcleodganj road and Khara Danda road too show evidence of sinking.
I wish the Chief Minister all success in his challenging assignment. He belongs to a beautiful state and it now falls on him to bequeath it to future generations, unspoilt and unravaged. He will do well to remember that we have not inherited this world from our ancestors, but have borrowed it from our children. We hold it in trust. Betrayal of this trust, sir, would be filicide, and that cannot be your legacy.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/