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Staring at the Nanda Devi peak on a warm winter morning, Lal Singh, a magnificent 93, could never have imagined the change his region has undergone in the last two decades. He points towards the Kumaon Himalayas and says, “I’ve never seen these mountains naked in bare rock at this time of the year. Until a few years ago, my village used to be covered with a blanket of snow in January”. In the larger narrative about the Himalayas that people hold on to, glacial melting attracts public imagination. What’s equally important but fails to garner enough national attention is the haphazard anthropogenic interventions these young fold mountains are being forced to undergo. This column highlights the case of a lesser-known Himalayan region, the area around the hill station of Mukteshwar, and its plight in the face of rapid urbanisation aided by uncontrolled tourism.
What does one instantly remember of a hill resort in the Uttarakhand Himalayas? Or what is it that pushes people out of Delhi to hill stations like Shimla, Nainital and Mussoorie? Snow, touching the clouds, rivers, streams, forests, clean air, etc. In a nutshell, it is the beauty of being in ‘nature’ that attracts most people to these places. Mukteshwar is also one such place, fortunate enough to command a wider view of snow-clad peaks, harbouring large areas under oak and deodar forests, apple and peach orchards. But what one sees is just the tip of a fast-disappearing iceberg. The economy of the landscape is booming: with an increasing numbers of tourists, people from the plains buy vacation homes, creating a larger land market which was once not known to this agrarian and horticultural landscape.
This sort of uncontrolled urbanisation is coming at a huge ecological cost. Mukteshwar is known to suffer water shortages during the dry seasons. And currently, it is going through one of the worst water crises. The region had a deficit monsoon in 2020 and has had no winter precipitation yet. The demand for water is outrunning its supply. With the changing land-use pattern, especially with increased construction of roads and buildings particularly across areas with water springs, the stress on already existing perennial water sources has risen. One individual from every household spends a whole day fetching water from the leftover springs. As the schools are still shut, kids are spending extra time helping their families tide over the crisis. The growing water tanker business of collecting water from these perennial sources downstream to supply those upstream should not come as a surprise as there are no regulatory measures in place which prescribe rain-water harvesting as mandatory for new constructions.
Banj (Oak) forests which are essential for the maintenance of healthy springs are either being cut down for developmental purposes or being invaded by exotic species like Chir (Pine) which is further abetting forest fires and human-wildlife conflict. Added to this is the changing climate which has disrupted the seasonal cycle of weather. This takes the form of a drier atmosphere and lesser winter precipitation, not allowing the water springs to recharge. It is these springs which add up to become small rivulets and feed major rivers which flow through the Terai and the Northern Plains.
What’s also not generally acknowledged but is a grave concern for a booming hill economy like Mukteshwar is a garbage crisis. It is an ignored fact that the more a populace embraces mass consumerism, the more waste it produces. But the waste production and disposal in the region is unregulated. There isn’t a single solid waste treatment plant in the entire region. One need only peek at a turn in the road to realise that most forested valleys alongside the road are dumped with plastic. Within the villages, it mostly gets burned in the fields and chulhas (fireplaces in the kitchen) putting everyone at risk of inhaling cancerous dioxins.
This pandemic has revealed that places like Mukteshwar are always much safer than a city. Though the tourism industry was severely hit, the region reported very few infections. This means that land-hunting will only rise post-pandemic, urbanising the landscape and intensifying unsustainable development projects. Its proximity to the plains (making it reachable in a few hours) will become an additive factor to this project. In this context, the lockdown was a blessing for this regions’s ecology and ‘Unlock’ has been proving a disaster with no lessons learnt.
It is necessary to realise that the hills have far less carrying capacity than the plains and thus, this pace of urbanisation is unsustainable. The most important lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that places like Mukteshwar warrant greater biodiversity protection. The practice of impinging upon and conquering homes of other beings has put us in the midst of the pandemic in the first place. This region harbours rich bird and butterfly diversity. The leopard population is rising but the habitat that can nurture it is constantly shrinking. All of this demands better conservation measures.
After going through the above description of the issue pertaining to this place, one would instantly jump to the question “What to do?” Instead, one should ask “what not to do?”. It is the former that has given us impatient solutions which in effect turned out to complicate the existing problems or suggest surface-level interventions without curing the deeper malaise. For the crises analysed above, what we need is a cognitive and spiritual shift in looking at nature, that is, trying to be in unity with it and respecting the interdependence that thrives in it. If we as a culture start in that direction, then the problems that we have created through solutionism will automatically wane with time and much suffering can be avoided.
(Through The Billion Press)