, nearly 234 climbers scaled Mount Everest; unimaginable consequences would have followed had the weather turned bizarre like it has been doing occasionally over the years.
There is no denying that in mountain territory you are at the mercy of vagaries like thunderstorms, cloud burst, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, and erratic weather patterns.
This week's images on television of buildings tumbling into the roaring Alakananda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, and Ganges river (Uttarkashi District, Northern India) like clothes tumbling out of a closet, with roads caving in, automobiles submerged in a sea of silt and water, and thousands of lives consumed by torrential rain caused by cloud bursts and melting glaciers, once again confirms that when it comes to nature and Man, it's Mother Nature who is indomitably superior, ruthless should it choose to be and undoubtedly the âBigger Boss.â The tragedy is compounded when man shows lethargy, is incompetent and corrupt, doesn't read and analyze scientific data in a pragmatic manner, and shows scant regard for nature in the name of âdevelopmentâ and solving vexing existential issues.
Three years ago, when I visited Pauri and Srinagar in Uttarakhand, I was shocked to learn that Pauri town in Pauri district received drinking water once every two days. The absence of tree cover in most of the areas confirmed my worst fears. Yes, there are terraced slopes, but on many of these slopes one finds only local houses. Come summer, most of these locations in the vicinity of the lower Himalayas are filled with tourists, often outnumbering local population by ten times the number. It's a welcome break for those living in the plains, however, it comes filled with riders ranging from water scarcity, to increasing pollution from vehicles, weakening of poorly-built roads, and utter scarcity of items meant for daily consumption like food and durables. Often mountain ranges that visitors come to have a glimpse of are obscured due to morbid quality of air.
On my first visit to the Valley of Flowers, Hemkund, Joshimath, twenty two years ago, there existed a glacier in the Valley of Flowers, besides a handful of visitors. Hemkund had a steady stream of visitors numbering on average between 1,000-1,200 visitors per day. A few tourist and state transport buses operated on this route during daylight. After 8:00 p.m., these roads remained closed to vehicular traffic, as it was and still is common for landslides to occur. Twenty years later when I made the trip to surrounding regions, vehicular traffic multiplied, and so did the number of tourists and pilgrim tourists making the trip to the four renowned Hindu pilgrim spots at Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri situated at an average height of 12,000 feet and the source for major Himalayan glaciers feeding gigantic rivers of India, like Yamuna and Ganga to name a few. Roads were widened and countless boarding and lodging houses were set up to accommodate the ever-increasing flow of visitors. Understandably, local populace had better lifestyles, thanks to tourism. Yet overcrowding in a relative way was evident. One had to literally skip well-known, tourist-centric zones to earn some quiet and solitude. Eco-sensitivity nosedived, as keeping a date with the mountains deemed more important.
Was there a storm brewing? Between 2005, until the date landslides and torrential rain appeared on a more regular basis than it did during previous decades, mainly due to damming of rivers, reduction in forest cover, and increase in vehicular traffic, the big burst finally took place on June 16 and 17, 2013, bang in the middle of a busy pilgrim tourist season, considering most schools in North India were closed for summer vacations. The death and devastation seen was unprecedented, bringing to mind the images of cyclones devastating Eastern India during the seventies and the more recent tsunami. As I write this piece, rescue operations are on in full swing, thanks to the Indian armed forces doing a fascinating job of search, rescue, and airlifting affected locals and visitors. With 1,300 roads breached or washed away, helicopters and small aircraft are the only options available. With no final count available of those who perished, initial estimates put it at a thousand or more; infrastructure losses will run into millions.
There are plenty of lessons we need to take back to the drawing board when re-drawing the road map for development in highly-sensitive mountainous regions where twin challenges of sustaining local populations and maintaining ecological balances remain top priorities. With not many similar examples available worldwide, we need to evolve developmental plans, taking the sensitivity of these regions into account. As is done in wildlife parks, regulating the number of vehicles entering into the region, say at Dehra Dun or Haridwar, is the need of the hour (though it may take at least a couple of years for traffic to resume on the sector). Recommendations of geologists and scientists need to be studiously followed regarding the damming of rivers and construction of navigable roads. Simply dynamiting mountain faces for road widening may be a short-term measure, proving fatal in the long run. As suggested by Mr. Bahugana (a leading environmentalist and conservationist), building ropeways could be an alternate solution. Reforestation and planned development is the need of the hour, especially in regions like Uttarkashi, Chamoli, and Naini where local populations are reaping benefits of tourism, albeit, with steady degradation of local environments.
De-polluting rivers as they enter the plains needs to be urgently revived; simply depending on monsoons to wash away pollutants is an unthinkable alternative. Determining carrying capacity at pilgrim spots gains added importance as a huge onslaught of visitors during the short summer months (when these sites remain open) only succeeds in putting on tremendous pressure. Carrying capacity can be determined by taking into account facilities available for visitors which ensure there is minimal damage to the local environment if âxâ number of visitors arrive at a particular destination on a given day. Evacuation facilities take precedence in these areas when it comes to determining sustainable numbers.
Finally, measures suggested by various sources will come to naught in absence of political will. It is worth remembering these words of wisdom cited by our ancestors eons ago: nature provides enough to satisfy human needs, but not human greed. A leading economist of the fifties, Malthus serves another gem and a forceful reminder: nature intervenes when man fails. And more recently, the Honorable Supreme Court tightened entry norms to buffer and core areas of wildlife parks with stringent norms and regulations. Similar norms could be set in these ecologically-fragile zones, in an age and era where instant gratification and rapidly-changing weather patterns due to global warming are deemed regular.
These conservation and preservation measures may well force tourism to play a reduced role. It is well worth it, considering our generation has not arrived to inherit the planet but to pave the path for future generations to enjoy the marvels of nature as well.