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World Mountain Day: Impossible to Restore Ecosystems with Current Development Models

Awareness needs to be built that copy-paste models of plains cannot be adopted in the mountains.

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“Restoring Mountain Ecosystems” is the theme for World Mountain Day, observed across the world on December 11, just a day after Human Rights Day. Why should mountains be celebrated? Because they are part of the evolutionary process of this planet and the larger ecosystem. With the ruining of Mountains at the current pace, even the plains will not be able to survive.

Awareness needs to be built that copy-paste models of plains cannot be adopted in the mountains. They are not just ecologically different, and also the fragility in the mountains is high. Hence, the sensitisation and campaigns around it should not just be restricted to mountain people but rather to those living in plains, who, for reasons, want to build dreams that are woven in plains in the mountains. Copying Lajpat Nagar in Nainital is not the desired way of development.

Mountains are Different

Mountains are home to 15% of the world’s population and host about half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Freshwater is provided daily to half the world’s population, and the water flowing from the mountains sustains agriculture. 

Biodiversity loss is another major issue in the mountains. Up to 84% of endemic mountain species are at risk of extinction, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Restoring mountain ecosystems is the theme of December 11, 2023. However, there is no clarity on how the mountain ecosystems can be restored or if it is even possible now to restore these ecosystems. Let us take the Indian Himalayan Region as an example.

The IHR spreads almost 2500 kilometres in length, and the entire Himalayan region is also considered the ‘Third Pole’, owing to the large reserves of ice next to the North Pole and the South Pole. The IHR has seen phenomenal changes over the last few decades, and these changes have further worsened the ecosystems.

Though the Himalayas have seen various migrations over the last four millennia, the colonial period has brought the largest impact on the region. While ruling India, the British treated the Himalayas with a colonial mindset and extracted timber and teak from the region. The region was viewed from a utilitarian lens, and that’s how railways were brought to Simla – to extract wood, coal and timber from the mountains.

Shed the Utilitarian Concept

Post-independence, there has not been any radical shift from the utilitarian concept of viewing the mountains and the IHR. The impetus further advanced during the neo-liberal period where a new architecture of finance and governance was advocated at the behest of the union government. The states were forced to adopt the FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility Budgetary Management Act), which meant two major things – foremost, the fiscal deficit should not be more than 3% of the GSDP, and furthermore, states must look into generating resources.

That is where the Himalayan states started looking out of the box and started measuring Himalayan states from a commoditisation perspective. The states were now seen from their hydro potential to tap the hydropower and generate resources, attract more tourism, and allow cement and other such industries in the region.

The Himalayan state governments quite astonishingly started holding investment conclaves to attract investment, which became the only mantra for generating resources.

Flawed Development Models

Hydropower projects started building up at a rapid pace. The multilateral agencies, who were previously against funding large hydropower projects, flexed their muscles and doled out easy finance and thus started the journey of harnessing water potential without even taking into consideration whether such a development strategy is sustainable. In order to enhance the pace, political leadership in these states, irrespective of their political colours, facilitated this process, and even some of the quality control measures were either completely negated or made toothless. 

These factors have an incremental effect on the fragility of the Himalayan ecosystems. Most of the dams built in the region are located in high seismic zones prone to landslides, flash floods and earthquakes. Not to miss the point that several dams were constructed without a proper environmental impact assessment.

This affects the ethnographic footprint as well. The ‘planned destruction’ of the Himalayas is destroying the Himalayan ecosystems and forcing the displacement of many indigenous populations who have been the traditional drivers of conservation.

Likewise, the construction of roads and infrastructure activities pose a major threat to the ecological corridors. The NHAI was recently strongly castigated for three of its major failures. The Chandigarh-Shimla corridor, where the NHAI is responsible for widening the road, has vertically slit the mountains and caused massive landslides. For nearly three months, the road was completely shut. Likewise, the Chandigarh-Kullu Manali highway remained closed for an equal period with flawed construction methodology and rapid pace unleashed by the construction companies. There was a massive loss even to the tourism sector.

The Uttarkashi tunnel collapse is a recent phenomenon where the NHAI was once again indicted for flimsy construction methods, highlighting the erroneous developmental design of construction in the Himalayas.

The tourist footfall is also alarming, and the spirit of knocking in the morning and leaving in the evening does not fetch many dividends to the hospitality industry or the state. Tourism in the Himalayas must address the ecosystem issues, which means that tourism should be linked to the cultures and food habits of the regions, and a sense of responsibility must prevail for sustainable tourism, which is essential but also needs to be regulated.

What can be Done

In such a background, it seems pretty difficult to imagine ‘restoring mountain ecosystems’. The IPCC report VI has further pointed out that the Himalayan region is one of the most vulnerable hotspots in the subcontinent. Simply put, it means that the infrastructure-building process cannot blatantly violate mountain and nature norms. It must be climate resilient. How can we do that?

Foremost, there should be a geological mapping of the entire region along with water contouring, and through remote sensing, some clarifications can be made. Once this is available to the policymakers, then a process of empowerment should start. 

For empowerment of communities and local governments, including both rural and urban, should have the ability to decide where infrastructure building should take place and where it must be ‘no means no’. The Union government is making unilateral decisions; the ‘char dham’ yatra, despite strong opposition from the scientists and local people, is a glaring example of trampling the local community-led development model. We know the result. It seems next to impossible to complete this project.

Further, there should be a design competition for building typologies. The current method of floor area ratio or FSI on the basis of a plot of land is not the way forward. How much RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) is good enough and what the typology of the construction should be cannot just be left for the market to decide. This needs to be regulated and adapted to the realities. For example, the IHR has extremely arid to highly humid environments. Hence, building typologies must address all of these.

World Mountain Day gives an opportunity to at least ponder the unsustainability of the current development models in the region. This model must be altered and become nature-based, people-centric and ecologically sensitive.

The writer is the former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. The views are personal.

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