Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Garhwal Disaster:

At the small town of Tapovan, a few kilometers ahead of Joshimat, we stopped to buy some eggs. We were on our way to see the hot-springs at a bend in the road. There was a mesh build around the hot-spring, but people had broken it off long ago to go and place packets of rice and eggs to cook. One of the persons accompanying me even mentioned biryani in cookers. Scalding hot water was bubbling out constantly while the area overflowed with Sulphur and other minerals rich soil. The water was channeled downhill to a few bathing rooms if people wanted to take a dip. The once pristine area now lay desecrated with most trees that lined the slopes cut down and constructions for a dam in progress. The hot-springs stuck out like a sore thumb in that surrounding.

In the distance was the village of Reni, the place from where the Chipko movement had started. Parts of the hills behind it lay barren just like most hill ranges across Garhwal. Deforestation, which is sweeping Garhwal like a scourge has reached even there. Oh, the terrible irony. I sat at the side of the road looking at the broken egg-shells strewn all over wondering if I could find some last remaining vestiges of hope buried somewhere in my heart.  

Something is terribly amiss in this region. It would be extremely easy for me to put the blame on government policies and its corrupt ways of handling everything. But the malaise to me seems to run deep. Ofcourse, the largest part of the problem comes from unplanned and unsustainable urbanization that the state government is hell-bent on following. Corruption in the state’s Forest Corporation, the arm which deals in the commerce part of forests/ forest produces, has ensured that trees are cut down indiscriminately. As explained by Suresh Bhai, an activist, post Chipko movement tree-felling for commercial use was banned in the mountainous region. But in 1994, the ban was lifted for dead pine trees. The Forest Corporation needed just this excuse to start cutting down all types of green trees. Even now I saw green pines marked for cutting in many areas. The Corporation which sells pine gum worth Rs.50 plus crore annually, uses this trick to cut down pine trees because once the gum is taken out, the trees slowly die. Localised environmental movements have helped identify corrupt officials who have been sent to jail, but the corruption is so huge that it continues unabated in other parts. Now add to this developmental activities which started after the formation of the new state in 2000 – urbanization, roads, dams etc.

Gopeshwar with barren hills
A recent proposal sent by the state government to MoEF (&CC) seeks permission to cut down all pine trees. The arguments given are that pine trees are exotic and not local flora, its leaves burn easily in summer setting fires to forests and that it is taking over local varieties of forest patches. The state government wants to plant local broad-leaf trees in its place. Now, the arguments against pines are correct to an extent, but the proposal reeks of a different motive. If MoEF gives a nod to this (which the current MoEF is likely to give), it will lead to unchecked felling of all trees and not just pine. If the state government was so serious about planting broad-leaf trees, it could have well started with all the deforested lands first.

But what I find unsettling is the change in attitude of the communities from the time of the Chipko Movement. People complain of harsh winds and water scarcity but somehow fail to mention the barren hills. The one constant question I have asked everybody is why there are no trees and I have mostly got cagey answers. Some have pointed uninterestedly to patches of pines saying there are enough forests. Somehow I ended up getting the feeling that people’s priorities have changed a lot. They know that they are connected with nature but that sense of ownership is not there. Now it’s a grudging reality which somehow has to be ‘suffered’. The lure of the plains and money is too strong. I have travelled to all the mountain states in India but I have not come across this attitude in other communities till now. The NGOs are very much aware of the issue but are defensive of the fact that people are not interested or sometimes aid the forest officials in felling trees. The situation is like that of an elephant in a room – everybody knows of its presence but nobody acknowledges.

Add to all this the increasing influence of climate change, which has hastened in the last few years (as per people’s perception) – receding glacier, lesser and lesser snowfall, less or no winter rain, increasing temperature, erratic rainfall, winter fog, soil erosion, water scarcity, movement of tree and plant species to higher altitude, pest attacks, unseasonal flowering of trees etc. – and you have a full-fledged recipe for a prolonged disaster waiting to unfold.

What a waste of the efforts of the women behind the Chipko Movement. And what an insult the region has become to their sentiments.

Sign the petition for an alternate development policies for the Himalayan regions


  1. Very insightful Bipasha. Makes my heart sink though. Any NGOs working on this.

    1. Thanks Kalpana. Yes my heart is already broken because I have seen a once pristine region. There are a lot of good NGOs in Uttarakhand but they work in their areas. This issue requires asking tough questions and a lot of pressure from citizens, activists etc. Also one issue here is that forests belong to the state and not the communities, hence communities can't do much even if they want to and second I guess, they rather earn money than stand off against the government I guess. This disconnect is very strong in communities nearer the Shivaliks, not so much in communities at higher altitude. By the was Kalpana, a network of NGOs are trying to push the central government for an alternative development policies for the Himalayan region. This may take a lot of time. You can copy paste the link given below the post and sign and share it.