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Sunday, Feb 02, 2020 09:45 [IST]

Last Update: Sunday, Feb 02, 2020 04:06 [IST]

Transparency in protecting Himalayan ecosystem

Debapriya Mukherjee

My frequently visit to Meghalaya aiming to explore  the causes of blue color of Lukha river and to Sikkim for rapid environmental assessment of Gangtok and many other cities in the Himalayan region for imparting training on environment assessment clearly exposed that  in the name of  development, situation of the iconic and majestic Himalayas at the top of the world that possess  around 15,000 glaciers, holding around 600 billion tonnes of ice and sustaining  1.65 billion people is certainly in perilous. The Himalayan mountain range is 2,500 kilometers long with an average width of around 300 kilometers spanning China, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. The Himalayas are also Asia’s water tower and   lofty glaciers in Himalayan region store huge amounts of freshwater and during dry seasons, feeds the continent’s eight largest rivers including  the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra – and is used for drinking, irrigating farmland and powering hydro-electric plants for almost half of India’s population. More than 1.3 billion people (a fifth of the world’s population) living in the basins of these rivers rely on their water for sustenance. These ecosystems provide food, fiber, fodder, fuel wood, medicinal plants, wild pollinators, climate and water regulation and carbon sequestration. The Himalayan ranges of India alone constitute one of 34 global biodiversity hotspots. The tiny state of Sikkim is just 7,096 square kilometers, but because its altitude ranges from 280 meters to 8,585 meters, the state contains examples of virtually every type of ecosystem encountered in the entire Himalayas – from lowland semi-evergreen forests to alpine meadows. It occupies less than 0.0025 per cent of India’s land area, yet hosts 20 percent of its plant and animal species. New species are still regularly discovered in the eastern Himalaya. A recent World Wildlife Fund report records 353 new species discovered in the region between 1998 and 2008, including 61 invertebrates, among them Nepal’s first scorpion, 16 reptiles, 14 frogs, 14 fishes, two birds and two mammals. Many remote ecosystems have yet to be fully surveyed. The state of Arunachal Pradesh, regarded as being among the richest places on earth, has been barely explored. Similar regions exist on the borders of Myanmar. The Arunachal macaque was identified only a few years ago, the world’s smallest deer, the leaf muntjac (Muntiacusputaoensis).
In the present scenario, global warming can grab the headlines for its adverse impact on Himalayan environment, but many of the other pressures on the fragile mountain region merits more attention because fast-growing populations with increasing levels of consumption and landscape changes has jeopardized the natural ecosystems.
Economic growth to meet the increasing demands raise energy needs. Rampant dam-building for hydropower plant in a region with high seismic activity and fragile geology as well as infrastructure development like road construction are the clear evident that the policy-makers who approve these schemes in haste either do not understand the scientific evidence or choose to ignore the far reaching consequences of such major changes in a sensitive area. For this development, a large number of trees in many sensitive areas has cut down for construction of road and dam that causes immense damage to the environment. Also, urbanization at a rapid rate would lead to vast swathes of fragile ecosystem being denied to nurture the indigenous flora and flora and to maintain natural flow and cleanliness of rivers. In the urban areas traffic alone would create a permanent environmental emergency in this fragile environment.
In this context it is pertinent to mention that the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayas is being lost because the spectacular Himalaya is under severe stress from the economic demands of a growing population, infrastructure development, regional conflicts, deforestation, land degradation and climate change, with severe consequences for humanity. Biodiversity is gradually being degraded by extraction of species for trade, or disruption of ecological processes owing to habitat fragmentation, pollution, spread of alien invasive species, and diseases – all induced by humans. Also there are the side effects of unregulated tourism, antiquated policies and centralized governance of natural resources.  In real sense, this fragile and unique Himalayan ecosystem with biodiversity hotspots is in poor health. The degradation of the Himalayan ecosystem is going to adversely impact water and food security for millions of people across South Asia and South-East Asia, including India.
Over the last 40 years, the average temperatures in the city and nearby villages of Meghalaya  have remarkably increased particularly during summer  because  the local people aged more than 50 years reported that they could not think of  using fan or air conditioner about 30 years back. According to weather report, average temperatures in this Himalayan region have risen by 1.5°C, far higher than the IPCC predicted.  Rainfall patterns too, have changed, with less rain in non-monsoon periods and bursts of excessive downpour during the monsoon. Glaciers are vulnerable to this rising temperature and changes in precipitation. If the trends of reduced snowfall, increased precipitation and shrinking of Himalayan glaciers continue at this pace, the results will be catastrophic for millions of people in the Himalaya due to frequent occurrences of floods and landslides. The poor people who are not responsible for this devastation would be the victims of nature’s fury. Sadly policy-makers in India and elsewhere are reluctant to accept a glaring and dangerous truth though combined human activities have stressed the Himalayas close to their limit.
In addition to these, the unique biodiversity hotspot in Himalayan region has become hunting grounds of the notorious mining industry. Small-scale mining for harnessing resources including minerals without an integrated and holistic approach to deal with the resource management has caused severe ecosystem damage. The disappearance of 15 Meghalaya miners in December 2018 is the clear evident of the failure of the authority concerned to comply with the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order to impose ban on surface coal mining (primitive Rat-hole mining – nonexistent anywhere else in India due to safety concerns) due to severe environmental problems. Because huge quantities of mine spoil or overburden (consolidated and unconsolidated materials overlying the coal seam) in the form of gravel, rock, sand and soil  are dumped over a large area adjacent to the mine pits. In addition, the absence of post-mining treatment and management of mined areas are making the environment more vulnerable to degradation and leading to large-scale land use changes. . The rivers flowing through the mining belt are now severely contaminated the rivers with complex, ill-defined mixtures of contaminants due to mining (coal and limestone) activities as observed in many rivers in Meghalaya and Assam during our visit to these areas. Many of these contaminants remain elusive. This has raised concern for the environmental safety and sustainability because the model of safe mineral exploration and exploitation under ‘rat-hole’ mining have not been implemented by the coal mine owners despite the increase in the number of reported death of mine workers and deterioration of environment.
Frequent violations of the NGT’s order and courts’ directive have already eroded the trust of common people in regulatory agencies leading to loss of democratic accountability. It is obvious that there is emergent need of strong enforcement of environmental rules and regulations to promote cleanliness of air, water and soil as the environment is one of the major components of sustainable development. This incident clearly exposed that the NGT order was not practically devised to maintain environmental sustainability through scientific assessments and proper public participation.
Obviously corruption at all levels of our polity is a heavy financial burden upon the country. But the final straw that breaks the Indian elephant’s back is not graft, but sheer inefficiency – an almighty innate inability to get it done in a systematic manner with requisite technical inputs. If this practice continued, people will have no respect for the effort made by the government.
Policy-makers must actively engage with scientists and experts on the problems facing the Himalayas and their people to make sustainable development work. Another option is to create awareness among the people about the geological vulnerability and ecological fragility of their mountain home so that people  can overcome the power of the  supporting this unsustainable development would surely force more compliance of laws and regulations to protect it. Also there is emergent need in India to include basic knowledge of the geology and ecology of the Himalayas in their school curricula. If students have clear understanding about their environment, they will demand on sound scientific evidences clean environment.

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi