//Looting The Himalaya – And The Himalayans, The Telegraph

Looting The Himalaya – And The Himalayans, The Telegraph

In recent months, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh have been in the news. In both states, elected Governments run by the Congress have been destabilized by the ruling party at the Centre, and then dismissed by complicit Governors. In both states, the Congress was able to get succour from the Courts, although how enduring their now restored Governments shall be one cannot say.

The crises in Uttarakhand and Arunachal are the product of over-reach by the BJP and its Party President. Yet the Congress has not covered itself with glory either. The administrations it ran were incompetent and corrupt, while the inducements it offered MLAs to stay or come back were most likely material rather than moral.

Arunachal Pradesh was formed in 1987; Uttarakhand in 2000. These recent events are a depressing sign of how these relatively young states of the Union have been drawn into the dark and dirty underside of competitive party politics in India. That should worry us; but what should perhaps worry us even more is how Arunachal and Uttarakhand are increasingly falling victim to the dark and dirty underside of the Indian ‘model’ of economic ‘development’.

The sufferings of Uttarakhand and Uttarakhandis are well documented in Hridayesh Joshi’s recent Rage of the River: The Untold Story of the Kedarnath Disaster. This is an English translation of a book originally published in Hindi under the (more evocative) title Tum Chup Kyon Rahe Kedar. Joshi is an experienced and energetic journalist, originally from Uttarakhand himself. He was the first reporter to reach Kedarnath after that great pilgrimage centre and its environs were ravaged by floods in June 2013. The disaster occurred in peak tourist season, when hundreds of thousands of plainsfolk descend on Uttarakhand to trek, party, or (most of all) visit the state’s numerous shrines.

Rage of the River is based on Joshi’s reports on the Kedarnath tragedy and its aftermath. His book contains stories of those who died, of those who survived, and, not least, of those who saved lives. Among the heroes of his narrative are helicopter pilots and trained mountaineers, who ferried thousands of stranded pilgrims and villagers to safety. Among the villians are politicians and Government officials. ‘One of the most disillusioning aspects of the tragedy’, writes Joshi, was ‘that, in this hour of need, the administration was missing or proved to be thoroughly incompetent’. Particularly contempible was the behaviour of the Congress Chief Minister at the time, Vijay Bahuguna, who—instead of rushing to the scene of the tragedy—fled his state to hold a press conference in Delhi where he boasted about the (utterly false and fraudulent) ‘achievements’ of his Government.

Natural disasters cannot be avoided, but their effects can be mitigated. The cloudburst that hit the Garhwal Himalaya in June 2013 may not have claimed so many lives had the mountains not previously been ravaged by commercial logging, open-cast mining, and the construction of dams, which left hillsides bare and massively increased erosion, leading to floods. The flouting of environmental and safety norms by building hotels on the banks of rivers added to the human toll as well.

Joshi documents one particularly chilling case of how the commercial interests of outsiders led to the deaths of many Uttarakhandis. On the 13th of June 2013, the water level in the reservoir of the Vishnuprayag dam started rising. Villagers brought this to the attention of officials of the Jaypee Group, the company that owns the project. They urged them to open the dam gates to let the excess water flow safely downstream. The officials, in their greed to generate more power, ignored the advice. The water in the reservoir continued to rise, till one wall of the barrage gave way, the flood waters rushing down the valley and sweeping away villages and villagers in its path.

By juxtaposing his travels before and after the tragedy, Joshi reflects on what his fellow Uttarakhandis have experienced over the years: ‘One disaster after another, hapless people left to surrender to their fate, illegal encroachments by the powerful hotel and construction lobby, countless dams destroying the riverine ecology, degraded forests and poor people trying to raise their voice in protest, but mostly remaining unheard’.

Such is the story of the ongoing destruction of Uttarakhand. To understand the unfolding of parallel processes in Arunachal Pradesh, I turned to a recent essay by Ankush Saikia entitled ‘Arunachal’s Great Hydro Game’. Himself a native of the neighbouring state of Assam, Saikia here presents a grounded, well-researched, analysis of the manic rush to build large dams in Arunachal.

There are a staggering 156 dam projects proposed for Arunachal Pradesh. The companies involved are the usual suspects—Jaypee/Reliance/GVK/Jindal et al—firms who are ‘in’ with the political class in the Centre and the States, and with whichever party is in power. These projects are finalized without any discussion or debate, with state politicians signing on in exchange for a share of the proceeds in advance. One official whom Saikia spoke to, while himself in favour of dams, was dismayed by the lack of consultation. In his view, villagers should have first been spoken to by the state government, and then one or two dams built and be shown to work. Instead, there was ‘a large-scale signing [away] of the state’s river rights’ to companies with no long-term stake or interest in Arunachal or Arunachalis.

Saikia presents the views of those who are for, as well as those who are against, dam building. But from the evidence he provides it is hard to see this story turning out well. These mega-dams, as and when built, will decimate forests and biodiversity, increase erosion, displace tribal communities, make local livelihoods harder to sustain, and in general further marginalize the Arunachalis in the life of the nation.

Arunachal Pradesh is renowned for its natural beauty. It is also unique among the states of the North-east for not having had a major insurgency. However, the future our rulers have designed for it shall see its ecological heritage and social stability submerged, if not destroyed, by a wave of large dams and larger reservoirs.

Saikia’s essay was published in the February 2016 issue of the Chennai-based magazine Fountain Ink. Two months later, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist priest peacefully protesting against dam projects near Tawang, was arrested by the police. When a group of the Lama’s admirers organised a march against his arrest, they were fired upon by the police. Two people died, a monk among them. These happenings were not covered in the ‘national’ press (I read about them in the small-circulation Kolkata weekly, Frontier) but shall have doubtless left scars within Arunachal that will be hard to heal.

Large dams in the Himalaya cause immense environmental and social damage. If these costs are properly factored in, then even in narrowly economic terms these projects are unviable. Further, both Uttarakhand and Arunachal are sited in seismically active zones; if a major earthquake does (as earth scientists predict) take place, and some dams breach, then the tragedy will be of such a magnitude as to render the 2013 floods trivial by comparison.

Down the decades, the people and resources of both Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh have been instrumentally used and abused by the dominant classes of the Indian heartland. Hridayesh Joshi’s book carries a perceptive foreword by the writer Bill Aitken, a naturalized Indian who has lived in Uttarakhand since the late 1950s. This is how Aitken describes the process of development, or more accurately maldevelopment, as it has unfolded in the Himalaya over the past half-a-century: ‘Those who live in Uttarakhand and dedicate their time to sound environmental sense, like [the Chipko leaders] Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, were not listened to and contractor raj became the order of the day—digging, mining and sapping the unstable Himalayan slopes. Instead of judicious development of the world’s highest and steadily rising mountain range, short-sighted and unsustainable development was resorted to’.

Aitken adds that ‘Government policy has tended to view the Himalayan states and their small populations as fair game for satisfying the material needs of the plains majority, who clamoured for more comforts at the expense of the hill people’s natural assets’. We plainsfolk have raided Uttarakhand and Arunachal for wood, resin, medicinal plants, minerals, drinking water, and hydel power, leaving a trail of devastation behind for the hillfolk to cope with as best, and as bravely, as they can. Even when we visit these Himalayan states as tourists and pilgrims, we treat their people and heritage merely as resources to be consumed.

To be sure, Uttarakhandis and Arunachalis need a better quality of life. But this will not come to them by means of the rapacious forms of development we currently subject them to. Rather, it must taken the form of, among other things, ethically and environmentally responsible tourism; the re-integration of forest management with rural livelihoods; micro-hydel, run-of-the-river, projects, that serve local villagers as well as (or prior to) a distant ‘national grid’; the promotion of solar energy; and, above all, real participatory development, where each village, each valley, each watershed, can take decisions on how best to use nature’s gifts in a sustainable fashion rather than have these dictated to them by unfeeling, corrupt, netas and babus based in Dehradun or Itanagar or New Delhi.



Ramachandra Guha

(The Telegraph, 23rd July 2016)