Uttarakhand was formed after the partition of Uttar Pradesh with high hopes for localized development but since its establishment, the state has lied dormant. It stands at the 20th rank among the 29 states in terms of GDP which is extremely problematic when we look at its economic and cultural potential. Tourism and hydropower form a major portion of Uttarakhand’s economy if not all; the (Chota) Char Dham and the Tehri Dam on Bhagirathi being the biggest players. The Tehri Hydropower Complex supplies electric power to Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Delhi, and four other states along with irrigation and drinking water to the industrialized areas of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. But Uttarakhand allegedly still pays Rs 1000 crore every year for electricity. Clearly, there’s room for development and definite urgency. Uttarakhand due to the many tributary rivers flowing through its hills has great potential for hydropower generation but this process has been dormant for a lot of years because of the ESZ guidelines, on the other hand, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had left room for smaller, sustainable development projects and amendments.
The share of tourism in Uttarakhand’s GSDP is around 25-30%. Driven by faith, lakhs of pilgrims travel every year to the Char Dhams. A sudden tragedy struck in 2013 when heavy rainfall brought floods and landslides to the hills destroying bridges and roads, leaving 3,00,000 pilgrims stranded and helpless in the valley leading to the chaar dhaam. During the rescue operations, helicopters were used which was extremely challenging due to heavy fog, rainfall, and rough terrain. Ultimately, more than 5,700 people were presumed dead. This was a big natural disaster fuelled by the poor infrastructure. To battle these shortcomings, the Chaar Dham All-weather Highway seems like the best move possible.
The burden of these developments, however, lands on our eco-sensitive zones primarily the Gomukh-Uttarkashi stretch which lies in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone and there are definitely a lot of problems there. Eco-Sensitive zones are basically ‘shock absorbers’ for the protected areas and lie midway between high protection areas and common areas. The activities in such areas are limited and strictly regulated.
The hills of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are young fold mountains and thus it is a tough gamble to see whether they will hold up under pressure. Several environmentalists argue that the increased inflow of tourists isn’t necessarily a good thing because along with them come, pollution, garbage, plastic, and commotion. The increased traffic will be accompanied by a whole lot of air pollution. Construction of these roads and dams also include mass-level felling of trees which will leave the hills prone to landslides and floods and open to pollution. Compared to the global environment status, ‘humanity’ simply can’t afford this.
The pros too cannot be refuted and this is where the dilemma lies. Climate change and man-made disasters are facts but they are not Uttarakhand’s personal creations and though we all have to face the consequences equally, one can’t help but think it to be unfair. But this is where other factors come into play. We, at best compromise with life-altering decisions. We analyze whether the pros outweigh the cons.
Uttarakhand has a huge forest cover of over 68% of its total land is one of the few places where forest cover actually increases. So, arguably it can afford to lose a few hundred trees if countermeasures like immediate afforestation are followed. There are provisions to treat the exposed parts of the land with rockfall barriers, soil nailing, and rock bolting; securing them from landslides.
A huge portion – 87km to be exact, of the All-Weather road project lies under the eco-sensitive zone around Bhagirathi. But this 87 km stretch is crucial to the four pilgrim sites and also the national border security. Uttarakhand shares its borders with China whose relations with India haven’t been exactly friendly and there is a constant threat of incoming war. These borders, however, lie in extremely isolated and far-off locations which are almost inaccessible in severe weather conditions. Thus, the roads are extremely strategic and in compliance with national security.
These projects have been cleared by the MoEF and the National Green Tribunal recently. The MoEF amended its guidelines in 2018 allowing the construction of tourism infrastructure and commercial complexes in consultation with the respective Gram Sabha and keeping sustainability regulations in mind.
The Ministry, however, is an organization under the central government. The news of these developments comes right in time for the 2019 general elections and one can’t help but wonder and doubt the integrity of the government’s intentions. Is the government slashing down trees or blowing up mountains left, right and center for its personal gains? Is the government willing to spend crores of money on projects that will ultimately kill the environment and its occupants just for the sake of another win in the elections? These projects are obviously somewhere, somehow a PR strategy. But political propaganda? Not quite. There’s no reason to believe that these projects are completely useless and baseless. They were a part of the ruling party’s memorandum in the 2014 election after all. Maybe the timing of the commencement of the projects is a bit convenient but they are a major boost to the state’s economy and development. There will be some damages to repair but seeing the condition of Uttarakhand in the past, especially since its separation from Uttar Pradesh, it’s a sacrifice we must make.