Tuesday, 17 May, 2022
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Himalayan cities are looking like garbage dumps with sewage rivers. Modi govt must step in

PM Modi should convene a meeting of the chief ministers of Himalayan states to come up with immediate interventions to safeguard the mountain range.

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The states of India that share the Himalayas are also its principal sentinels. Their governments need to recognise the vulnerabilities of this ecologically fragile region, and not only its rich natural resources and tourism potential.

Narendra Modi government must prioritise safeguarding the Himalayas in its second term. While a number of long-term measures are included as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008, several key and urgent interventions are vital to prevent further degradation of the Himalayan ecology.

Also read: Uttarakhand could see catastrophic floods if global warming targets are not met

Sustainable urbanisation in mountains

The cities in the Himalayan mountainous zones are increasing in size and number. They exhibit the same degradation that plagues cities in the plains: growing dumps of garbage and plastic, untreated sewerage, chronic water shortages, unplanned urban growth, and heavy pollution from increasing vehicular traffic. These need immediate interventions.

(i) Town planning

It is imperative to halt the unplanned growth of new settlements. Instead, there should be consolidation of existing urban settlements to be governed through land-use planning incorporated in a municipal master plan. State authorities will prescribe regulations taking into account the particularities of the local ecosystem, including seismic vulnerability and optimum population load.

Twelve Himalayan towns included in the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) could serve as models in this regard.

Further action points may include:

(a) Amending municipal by-laws to prohibit construction activity in areas falling in hazard zones or across alignments of natural springs, water sources and watersheds.

(b) Revising the National Building Code to take into account the specific requirements of urban settlements in the Himalayan zone, including recommendations to use local materials and architectural practices.

(c) Setting up state-level urban arts councils, under relevant legislation, to oversee the implementation of the National Building Code.

(d) Incorporating compulsory use of solar water heaters, rainwater harvesting and appropriate sanitation facilities in the National Building Code and municipal by-laws.

(e) Prohibiting construction activity in catchment areas of cities, including along mountain lakes and other water bodies, and their feeder channels.

Also read: Too far gone? Even if we meet Paris target, Hindu Kush Himalayas will lose 1/3rd glaciers

(ii) Solid waste management

(a) The use of plastic bags should be banned in all hill towns and villages. This has been done with commendable success in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

(b) Potable local water, certified by a designated state authority, may be provided through all commercial outlets. This would discourage the use of bottled water, which adds to plastic litter. This has been done successfully in Leh.

(c) Each state must establish facilities for the composting of biodegradable household waste and recycling, and reuse of other types of waste. This may be done through public-private partnership wherever feasible.

(d) An appropriate state tax on all major commodities using plastic and/or non-biodegradable packaging that enter hill towns must be explored.

Also read: Liquor bottles & food cans among 11,000 kg of trash found on Mt Everest

Promotion of sustainable pilgrimage

The Himalayas are dotted with several sacred sites and pilgrimage spots. Healthy and sustainable development and tourism should be promoted in these.

(i) A comprehensive inventory of key pilgrimage sites in each state must be drawn up, including analyses of the ecological capacity of each site. It should be carried out by multidisciplinary teams including engineers, scientists, ecologists, cultural anthropologists and NGOs.

(ii) Seeing the results of the above exercise, a plan must be developed to harmonise the inflow of pilgrims with the local environment’s capacity to cater to the needs of pilgrims. Restrictions can also be put on the months of the year when these sites would remain open. Uttarakhand, for instance, has recently issued guidelines restricting the daily number of pilgrims to the Gangotri glacier to 150.

(iii) The construction of roads should be prohibited beyond at least 10 km from protected pilgrim sites, thereby creating a much-needed ecological and spiritual buffer zone.

(d) Each designated pilgrimage site should have a declared buffer zone where development activity will be carefully regulated.

(e) At all entry points to designated buffer zones, pilgrims will be advised to take back all waste, in particular non-degradable items.

Also read: Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems every year

Commercial and adventure tourism

The measures listed for regulation of pilgrim traffic in the Himalayan zone would also apply to the promotion of ecologically sustainable tourism in the Himalayan region as a whole. The following interventions should also be considered:

(i) Homestay tourism could be promoted in this area and commercial hotel tourism of the three- to five-star variety discouraged or prohibited. Ladakh is a good example of this.

(ii) Each state will set up a homestay tourism audit and certification agency to promote standardisation and quality practices in designated tourism zones.

(iii) Recognising the adverse impact on Himalayan ecology of unrestrained expansion in vehicular traffic, each state should impose an entry tax for vehicles entering important hill towns.

(iv) Parking fees for private vehicles in hill markets and hill towns need to be raised substantially to discourage such traffic, thereby reducing both congestion and pollution.

Also read: India can’t commit to climate change abroad and be non-compliant on environment at home

Green road construction

Roads are the lifeline of the Himalayan region. Here are a few guidelines for road construction in hill areas.

(i) Environmental Impact Assessment should be made mandatory for the construction of all state and national highways, and expressways of more than 5 km length, including in the extension and widening of existing roads.

(ii) Road construction must provide for the treatment of hill slope instabilities resulting from road cutting, cross drainage works and culverts, using bio-engineering and other technologies.

(iii) Plans for road construction must provide for disposal of debris from construction sites at suitable and identified locations.

(iv) Hot mix plants must only be set up at least 2 km away from settlements and in areas already devoid of vegetation.

(v) All hill roads must provide adequate roadside drains and, wherever possible, be connected to the natural drainage system of the area.

(vi) Alignment of proposed roads should avoid fault zones and historically landslide-prone zones.

Water security

The importance of the Himalayas as a natural storehouse and source of water must be acknowledged fully. The region is already under water stress. State governments need to take urgent measures.

(a) Each Himalayan state must initiate a state-wide programme for rejuvenation of Himalayan springs and protection of high-altitude lakes.

(b) The government must provide legislative protection for mountain lakes, natural springs and key water sources, and prohibit construction activities along these water bodies.

(c) Relevant bodies should inventorise mountain springs (active and dormant) and carry out detailed geological mapping to identify spring recharge zones.

Also read: Environment is the most under-reported disaster of Narendra Modi government

Building environmental awareness

Central and state governments must together organise an annual festival of the Himalayas to celebrate local cultures, which demonstrate ways of sustainable living for resilient societies.

A national endeavour

It is necessary to initiate and develop a truly national endeavour to safeguard the pristine ecology of the Himalayas. A coordinated approach between the Union and state governments in the Himalayan states is imperative. It is in this spirit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should convene a meeting of the chief ministers of the Himalayan states. The deliberations at the meeting, and the adoption of certain urgent and specific guidelines and decisions, would be the first step in formulating an ambitious national mission for sustaining the Himalayan ecosystem. The prime minister and the chief ministers should meet annually to monitor progress and safeguard the Himalayas.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Senior Fellow, CPR. 

This is the seventeenth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at www.cprindia.org. The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.

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  1. Is this article some kind of a joke? BJP is only capable of mass destruction, corruption and classless politics, let alone bringing about any progress in the nation. Modis government is prepared to acquire more land to build the Vice-Presidents and the Prime-Ministers new house in the capital at a time when unemployment, corruption and gunda-raj is at its peak. Expecting anything from a party who makes a rioteer the Chief Minister of a state is either being naive or ignorant, either way making a fool out of yourself. Shekhar Gupta needs to improve his print houses standards and stop being such a diplomat all the time.

  2. Agree with the article, but the word “sewerage” needs to be replaced by “sewage”. Sewerage refers to the plumbing, while sewage is the smelly stuff.

  3. Not only multistorey buildings are being constructed on the hill slopes , even the sides of the Nalas (Khads) are encroached. I have seen these Khads, which were many meters wide are now look like narrow drains. What is more dangerous is that the water from thesec sceptic tanks constructed in these hill slope buildings, seeps into the earth, and has polluted the drinking water sources (We call these as Bawaris). In our childhood, we used to take clear water from these and other places where water used to trickle from the sides of hills. Now this water is colored and foul smelling. The British raised these hill stations as clean small towns, but our politicians and bureaucrats have turned these into commercial cities.

  4. Saw a photograph of an unending stream of cars headed to a hill station, possibly Manali. People caught in traffic jams that last more than twelve hours. The British designed these pretty Jill stations because they did not have air conditioning. They are simply not designed or equipped to deal with industrial sized mass tourism. Water, sewage, solid waste management. Even the noxious fumes of automobiles that will overwhelm the scent of pines and Deodhar. We have a dynamic minister who chops scores of thousands of trees to construct four lane highways in ecologically fragile reasons where devout pilgrims should be trekking or moving on horseback.

  5. Well said. But why should only Modi do this. Most of the points are state subjects. The Himalayan states and other similar states gain tremendously from tourism and fruit based agriculture. Why don’t these governments take the initiative. It applies to states ruled by BJP as well as by other paties.
    Kerala is an excellent example of a state using its policies and resources to create clean, healthy and friendly environment to gain from tourism and related industries.

  6. Absolutely agree.. Once Himalayan ecology is gone our plains would be desert. One is pained to see mountains being destroyed in name of road building with crude techniques and natural sources of water choked due to construction. We are on a road to hell.

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