By Nitika Grover, Amity Law School, Noida.

Extending from the Indus in the west to the Brahmaputra in the east, the Himalayas stretch across six countries of which India triumphs in terms of area. It is spread across ten administrative States namely Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and two hill regions of Assam and West Bengal. In India the strategic position of entire northern boundary of the Himalayas cover up a total of 95 districts.

In a time when development at the cost of environment is facing heavy criticism throughout the globe, the mighty Himalayas have been in the limelight since the occurrence of natural disasters in the Hindu-kush range. While talking about the biodiversity and cultural importance of the region, the Hindu scriptures say that ‘in a hundred ages of gods’ you could not do justice to the Himalayas. But continuous geological and climatically induced hazards never fail to make it to the top heading of our daily digests. These natural hazards are nothing but a result of man-made ecological disturbances in the soaring heights and steep valleys.

Outcomes of Developmental Activities

Although the Indian Himlayan Region (IHR) manifests a dispersed human population as compared to the national figures, its growth rate is higher than the national average.

With the rise in population in the 21st century comes the requirement of better infrastructural and communication projects in the region. The Rohtang tunnel which is being constructed 3000 meters above sea level in the Western Himalayas is an example of the persistent status quo in the Indian Himalayas. Initiated by the Government of India, the tunnel completion will help shorten the distance to reach Lahaul. There are various agencies involved in the project to ensure no disturbance is caused to the environment. The National Hydro Power Corporation, Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment, Geological survey of India, Konkan Railways and RITES India Limited have conducted extensive studies with regard to the same but the ecological balance will without any doubt get disturbed when 700 spruce and walnut trees are to be cut down and explosions are lined up. The dumping of muck for construction in itself is a big cause of worry. Director of Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG), an NGO working on sustainable development in Kumaon said “there has been significant investment in roads, but it has affected natural drainage and now we are starting to see the impact of these roads mushrooming all over the place on recharge of springs”. The dumping by the hillside results in contamination of clean drinking water and clogs the natural springs. The destruction of forests and diversion of springs lead to such a vast effect on the climatic conditions that farmers are forced to change the existing cropping patterns. 

The most conspicuous result of the ecological imbalance caused is the increasing rate of natural disasters. The repeated events of cloud and glacier bursts, landslides and floods have resulted in loss of livelihood, displaced human population, health risks and loss of existing infrastructure. The debris future results in pollution of the valleys. Malpa village in Uttarakhand, vanished in a single night with all the pilgrims in it in due to a massive landslide. Another such episode happened in district of Almora. The state of Uttarakhand alone recorded twenty major landslides and seven cloud bursts from 2001- 2012. The horror of the flood in Kedarnath valley in 2013 stays fresh in the minds of the victims. These have been believed to be the effects of catering to the large tourist influx in the Himalayan region. 

Proportional Impact of different types of disaster in Hindu Kush Himalaya area between 1980 and 2015, in terms of number of events, people killed and economic loss

Source: United Nations office for outer space affairs (UN -Spider)

Tourism has shown noticeable increase in the Himalayan region in the past years. In 2014-15, the Ministry of Tourism launched the ‘Swadesh Darshan’ scheme under which theme based tourist circuits were introduced to promote inclusiveness of similar stakeholders to promote sustainability but a huge mismanagement was witnessed between the terms of planning and the actual financial resources released by Tourism Finance Corporation of India Ltd. as the development and investment could not cope up with the growing tourism sector in the Himalayan region. For example, INR 98 crore was planned for the development of The North East circuit but only INR 19 crore was actually released. According to the provisional data of the Ministry of Tourism, Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) in 2017 shows a growth of 15.6% as a result of various tourism policies like ‘Paryatan Parv’, ‘The Heritage Trail’ and ‘Tourism for all’. However, only two Hmalayan States made it to the top ten of the Environment Performance Index (EPI) i.e., Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. This indicates the fragile region and complex geological structure of the Himalayas that do not favour high range tourism activities. Moreover, the introduction and performance of ecotourism in Sikkim was highly appreciable but Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee Sikkim report points towards destruction of trekking routes and failure of time bound investment to maintain homestays due to mass tourism. 

Environmental Performance Index (EPI)

Source: NITI Aayog

Status of Conservation and Preservation Policies

The Government of India, under the aegis of the NITI Aayog has formed a ‘Himalayan State Regional Council’ for sustainable development in the IHR on 9th November, 2018. It was constituted on the basis of recommendations laid down by the reports of five working groups formed in 2017 as the nodal agency to implement and monitor sustainable development schemes of the Center, State and various institutions working in the IHR. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 and The Biological Diversity Act Of India, 2002 are the legislations bearing effect on the IHR. Various conventions, declarations and policies have been jointly adopted by neighboring countries to protect the Himalayas like Agenda 21, Bali Action Plan (2007) to the UNFCCC, Rio Declaration, the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. All efforts made by various institutions have failed to protect the fragile ecosystem and community development in the region. Further, the State policies are mere reflection and adaptation of Central policies. For example, neither does the State agricultural policy recognise forest as agricultural production support system nor does it emphasise on promoting off-farmland agricultural production. Water policy extends to mere adequate water supply. The grazing policy fails to look over the disastrous effects of exploitation and degradation of forests and pasture lands. The waste management systems in IHR shows a disorganised pattern too. IHR generates 22,372 metric tonnes of waste on a daily basis but there is no planned collection and disposal of waste in rural areas. Cities having waste disposal mechanisms are the major contributors of dumping waste in open landscapes including forests.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

1)  Natural Resource Management

Human Resources in the mountains require need based management more than opportunity based management.The report of task force on Mountain Ecosystems for eleventh five year plan recommends the same but no explicit policy has been framed in this regard. The government can levy taxes on production of limestone, used excessively by the mining and cement industry in Himachal Pradesh and provide for subsidies on extraction of minerals like borax and sulphur deposits which have huge potential for generation of geothermal energy and are lying untouched.

2) Community Integration- 

An analysis of policy framework for mountain development in the Northeast exhibits absolute government control over community practices. The water policy does not undertake any step towards community participation in watershed management. The IHR is home to various tribes like Dards and Mons of the Western Himalayas, original tribes of Negroid, Mongoloid and Aryan races. There are many others- Khasa and Kanet ancestry in Central Himalayas, the Thakurs, Chhetris, Gurungs and Tamangs and many others of the Nepal Himalayas, the Sherpas, Lepchas and Bhutiyas in the eastern Himalayas. Therefore, community involvement should be encouraged and some degree of liberty over traditional environmental practices should be reassured.

3) Scientific and Technological Research-

The IHR is facing acute Hydrological and geological threats due to disasters caused by man- made disturbances. Any infrastructural and socio-economic project requires great research and scientific backup to make sure that the Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) stay untouched. Further, the effect of natural disasters can be kept to a minimum by inducing better disaster management and awareness programmes not just among the locals but also to people visiting ESAs. Currently, India ranks 75 according to The World Risk Index despite all the efforts made under The Disaster Management Act,2005 .

4) Effective Regulation and Implementation 

The existing legislations must be implemented and monitored more strictly and effectively. Recognition of any breaches much be advocated in such a manner so as to deter any future malpractices in terms of exploitation and overutilization of the existing resources. Further, there is a need to inculcate local level awareness programmers on existing policies to promote cooperation and coordination.

The existing policy groundwork and structure needs an imperative update. The State policies and funding must incorporate the interests of local inhabitants and stakeholders along with the private institutions. Given the topography, culture and biodiversity of the region there is a call to work on new paradigms targeting sustainable development. The economic and infrastructural obligations should be coordinated with environmental priorities to preserve the mighty Himalayas as a better place to live and visit.