Actually the story is about the Garhwal part of Uttarakhand since that’s the region I have visited a few times in the recent past. However, the situation is symptomatic of a much deeper problem and where we are headed collectively as a society.
My last visit to Garhwal was in the year 2006 when I had visited the then-beautiful villages of Ukimath and Chopta crossing the then-pristine river basins of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. In mere nine years, the region has seen a 180 degrees shift in its ecology, economy and society when a self-sustaining society was hit by money and ‘growth’ economy. The Garhwal side of Uttarakhand has seen rapid urbanization in the past six to seven years; so much so that all aspects of natural beauty are completely obliterated. This urbanization can be seen mostly in the Shivaliks and the Middle Himalayas and continues unabated despite the region’s propensity to natural disasters. Village elders who had experienced the earthquake epicentered in Chamoli in 1991, talk of how the geology of the region has changed after the event rendering the mountains more fragile. In Uttarkashi, entire mountainsides have collapsed just like that in the recent past.
Massive deforestation due to developmental projects, by the forest department, timber mafia and then by the communities themselves has left hill ranges after hill ranges without a single tree (Tehri-Garhwal). Other hills have been taken over by agriculture which also has led to loss of tree cover, with the result that there has been rapid soil erosion and degradation. Wild animals, due to habitat and food loss now come down to the fields to forage destroying crop harvests. This situation has been compounded by the fact that 90% of farming is dependent on rainfall which has now become very erratic leading to regular crop failure. So, men across villages started migrated in hordes fuelled by and also fuelling the urbanization process taking place in the valleys. More ambitious of the lot came down to the plains, in cities like Chandigarh, Dehradoon, Delhi and Mumbai. One young guy I met works in a ship which takes him to the Gulf region.
The money earned by them has helped in improving their economic condition and now most of them have pucca homes, vehicles, satellite TV and other amenities in their villages. The younger generation, especially guys who have completed their education, look down upon agriculture as an occupation. They all want to earn money by doing ‘jobs’ and since there are no jobs in villages, they are also migrating to the plains. As a result, now most of the villages are populated by only women, old men and men who have small businesses or are alcoholic. A once self-sustaining society now buys almost everything from outside including food.
The younger generation women complain of a tough life in the hills and those belonging to prosperous families find it difficult to trek up or down hill sides. One such woman in a village in Chamoli said that she would prefer a road behind her village rather than a forest which is of no use to her. In the meanwhile, the micro climate continues to get hotter, rainfall and hail is becoming more erratic, snowfall has vanished from regions and the flora and fauna of the region are changing.
I spoke to people and heard them all out. And I remained a mute spectator to the process of rapid destruction of a unique ecology and life, which I could see from afar but could not explain to them. In this rapidly changing situation, only the village elders are baffled: as to why many things have become so difficult despite much ease of life. As one elderly man in another village in Chamoli said, one can’t keep buying food as it doesn’t grow in the sky. When everything gets over, people will have to come back to the land and grow their own food.
The Himalayas are fragile and need an alternative development strategy and plans which will help save and sustain the ecology of the mountains and its communities. If you believe in this, please add your voice to our campaign on Greenpeace Extra platform. The Himalayan Niti Abhiyan is spearheaded by like minded NGOs on ground.