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mountains > features > save the himalyas

Save the Himalyas

Posted: 20 Apr 2001

by Sujaya Misra

Sujaya Misra talks to the veteran campaigner for the mountains.

In the middle of the last century and English adventurer named Wilson arrived in the Garwhal hills very near the source of the Ganga, India's holiest river. He killed and stuffed rare birds and exported them. Etiquette demanded he pay obeisance the Raja of Tehri, so he went and took with him 400 gold coins.

The Raja was astonished and delighted to see so much gold, for his own wealth was really in the form of food and grains, and asked Wilson the source of this bounty. When the latter explained, the Raja called Wilson his golden bird. "Oh, there's much more money to be got," said Wilson. "Allow me to cut the trees of the Himalayas and the timber can make us a fortune."

The Raja agreed, and he and Wilson soon became rich, exploiting the Ganga's current to send down timber to the plains. Wilson married a local girl and himself took on the honorific of Raja. The real Raja too, was pleased and everyone lived happily ever after.

But not quite. Sadly, this is no fairy tale but a true story, and "Raja" Wilson is known today as one of the first people to start the process of deforestation and environmental degradation in the mountains of North India. Not just Garwhal, but most of the Himalayas today is under threat. While a century ago the excuse could be said to be greed without knowledge of the consequences, now, however, the greed is compounded by indifference, or worse.
Sunderlal Bahaguna
Sunderlal Bahaguna
© Lorne Stockman

Spearheading the "Save the Himalayas" movement is Sunderlal Bahaguna, an activist and campaigner all his life. Bahaguna firmly believes that change and development must take into consideration the people it will affect. His famous "Chipko" (literally "stick to") movement drew a spontaneous following; when trees were to be felled the people refused to allow it and hugged the trees. Women were the most adamant. Their protest was successful and the trees were left alone.

Dam busting

Currently, Bahaguna is fighting to prevent the building of the Tehri Dam. A Ghandian, he believes firmly in non-violence. His form of protest was a fast which lasted for 49 days at which point the Prime Minister of India agreed to discuss the issue. Sadly, it is not resolved, with the government now trying to renege on its promise (see box).

Sunderlal Bahaguna is not against development, but for development that is sustainable. He has first hand knowledge of the Himalayas, and has walked from one end to the other: his "Great Himalayan March" covered thousands of kilometres. "The Himalayas are bleeding on account of aggressive development," he says and lists four activities which are very harmful. "The first is the building of large dams. This is killing rivers, changing the ecology and displacing people."

The second is mining, "Which is skinning the mountains." He cites the example of the hillsides around Dehra Doon where extensive limestone mining went on for years. "What was the home of the basmati rice was turned into desert."

The third problem is deforestation. "Today only the bones of the hills remain," he says, "the flesh and blood has gone. A century ago the hills exported over thirty things, such as fruits, herbs and honey. They had a surplus and could barter. Now we have soil erosion and people are compelled to keep moving."

Bahaguna lists luxury tourism as the fourth problem of the Himalayas. "For our government the dollar is god and they will do anything for it.

Snow clad peaks rising to 19,000 feet in Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park. Excessive tourism is disrupting the delicate ecological balance of the Himalayas.
© John McEachern/IUCN

For centuries the people lived a life of austerity and took very little. There is a vast difference in the mentality of a tourist and a pilgrim. Even the rich when on a pilgrimage live like fakirs. Earlier the visitors were pilgrims and they did not stay. They bought "sattu" (a porridge) which they just mixed with water. Now they need tea and fast food; at Gomukh, the "cow's mouth" - a cave in the glacier which is the source of the Ganga and a famous pilgrimage spot, there are seven tea shops burning 200 litres of kerosene a day. Earlier the glacier was near Gangotri, but now it is 19 kms away. It has receded 800 metres in just four years."

Bahaguna feels that any exploitation of the rivers should be to serve the people in the area. "The hill people hardly have 10 litres of water per day per head." says Bahaguna. "On the plains the well off use 246 litres. When I said this to a minister, she replied, 'We have lawns which need watering.' This is legalized robbery. Water is a national resource. What is dividing us is that we are asking that water should be taken to the people, whilst they want the opposite. The district centre for the Tehri, instead of being in Tehri, will end up in Meerut on the plains, hundreds of miles away. I see no justice in taking the water to grow sugar cane, or to fill swimming pools."

Spending money on big dams is another blunder, he says. "If the planners have their way, the Ganga as you see it in the hills today will disappear either by being dammed or in tunnels. Only when a party is not in power does it oppose dams. Otherwise the lure of the almighty dollar makes them feel that dams will provide cheap industry. The other justification is irrigation. But once again this is not being thought through. There are already problems of water logging and salinity."

Small schemes

"Our first priority is to make small schemes. Small hydel schemes will not kill the rivers; and we can have them everywhere. The river is not just water but aqualife. These small schemes will generate all the electricity we need."

"Electricity," he says, "is a MUST for the hills. There would be no need for firewood if there were cheap electricity. The women work like animals with their backpacks of wood. Even the old technology was better, as the water mills helped grind flour."

"The first use for electricity should be to lift water to the hills tops so that they can be made green again. All greening exercises will fail as long as there is no moisture - even a small amount will do. We have a slogan which translates as "Take water on top; plant trees on top."

The second priority is replanning of land use. The British agriculturalists introduced the idea of forestry: planting one species of tree everywhere to get timber (monoculture). "But the mains product of hills is water, not timber. With monoculture the purity of water is spoiled and it becomes acidic. The broad leafed species of trees have roots which purify the water. The forest is the mother of rivers. If you destroy the forest there will be no rivers. With population expansion it is very difficult to go back. Once nature is destroyed it is very difficult to regenerate.

Another benefit of mixed forests is sustainability. "We don't need timber trees which are cut and sold for money, but trees for sustenance which provide nuts, food and fodder so that villagers can prosper. This way the country will get ecological prosperity. In temperate climates, especially, plants grow very slowly. So instead of investing money in big dams, give, or loan the money to plant trees. The money can easily be paid back, if the right trees are in place. The walnut has a life of at least 200 years. 100 grams of walnut is equivalent to 500 grams of meat. There are medicinal trees, and trees like the chestnut which can provide food. We need to lay the foundation for a permanent economy."

Bahaguna feels that all the countries around the Himalayas should get together as their conditions are similar. "We need a Himalaya policy." He stresses that a priority should be to keep the Himalayas worth living in. With migration the people lose not just their homes, but a whole way of life. "We need to use the resources for local self sufficiency. It is nonsense to export the resources and keep the people as paupers."

Spelt out like this, each bit of our ecological heritage can fit neatly in with the other. "The mountains are the water tower of humankind" says Bahaguna, "The Ganga and the Himalaya are a unique heritage for the world. Today our so-called growth has led to war, pollution, depletion of resources and hunger. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing. We are sowing the seeds for change. We have to rethink our priorities."

Sujaya Misra is a freelance journalist and People & the Planet correspondent in Delhi.

Tehri: a dam too far?

The Tehri Dam is being built on the edge of the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, 45 km from the epicentre of the 1991 earthquake. The site was chosen in 1961 and when the original design for the dam was approved in 1972 it was to withstand a peak ground acceleration (PGA) - fast back and forth shaking - of O.25 g. It is now felt, however, that the likely PGA at the Gap would be around 1.0 g for an earthquake of magnitude of over 8 on the Richter scale.

Tehri Dam© Raghu Rai/Magnum

The dam is being strenuously opposed by scientists and environmentalists on several grounds. The first is the seismic danger. Should an earthquake occur, the dam's 700 billion gallons of water would crash down river, submerging the holy cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar within an hour.

Another concern is the relocation of the people to be displaced by the dam. Judging by an earlier experience, where those displaced by dams are still waiting compensation, it seems unlikely that the over 100,000 people affected by the Tehri dam will fare any better.

Furthermore, N.D. Jayal, Director of Natural Resources at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), who is at the forefront of the movement against the dam, questions its cost effectiveness. "With any project you have to see what the return will be. In this case, instead of an increase, for every rupee being spent the return is only 0.56 rupees!"

Then there is the problem of siltation. "When you think that the dam will stop functioning after about 30 years because of siltation, where is the justification for spending so much?"

Jayal edits a newsletter "Bhagirathi ki Pukar" (the voice of the Bhagirathi - the river on which the Tehri dam is to be built). The issues dating back to July 1991, make depressing reading. Though armed with detailed information against the dam, the response they have received from the government has been indifferent at best. The government remains unconvinced that the dam should not be built. According to Jayal, though the government agreed to conduct a study, the study's findings have been classified secret.

There are many reasons for the government to want to go ahead with the dam. An understandable one is that the country needs power. But the opponents of the dam feel that smaller, less expensive, run-of-the-river projects would be better. "These will generate power continuously, unlike the large dam, which can only do so in the peak hours."

A less understandable reason seems to be the amount of money such a project generates. "The real reason for the government's keenness is the money involved in building it. Everyone involved stands to gain" says Jayal.

The agitation against the dam continues. Sunderlal Bahaguna first protested with a 45-day fast in 1992; he broke his fast on the assurance of the Prime Minister that the project would be reviewed. INTACH organized a workshop of eminent seismologists in 1993; the participants unanimously agreed that the dam had been dangerously under-designed.

Yet work on the dam started again in autumn 1994. In the spring of 1995, when Bahaguna and his supporters tried to stop the work, they were arrested and taken to the plains. Bahaguna went on an indefinite fast demanding there be a comprehensive review of the dam by independent experts, during which time work on the dam be halted, and an enquiry be conducted into the corruption within the project. The activist was able to break his fast after 49 days when the Prime Minister agreed a review.

It would seem, though that the government is stalling again, as nothing has happened since. There does seem to be an international consensus against large dams, and the recent decision by the World Bank to withdraw its support from Arun III in Nepal will hopefully find an echo with the government of India. Says Bahaguna: "When there is such a difference in opinion, does it not make sense to review it. After all we are talking about the ecology of a whole region."

Sujaya Misra

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2007
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