Imagine a place with green rugged hills, deep valleys, sparkling blue rivers, apple and cherry orchards, sleepy little towns and villages and friendly and humble people. Travel further up and let this place open up to the ever enchanting snow peaks of the high mountains and deep forests.
Now take this same image and add concrete and cemented building all along the highways, put in hundreds of vehicles on the streets, throw some plastics in the still green rivers, put electric poles randomly over all hills, blast a few hill sides and construct dams across the rivers. Now cover this picture with a haze of dust and fumes and add people who are rude and money minded.
High mountains of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Photo: © Bipasha Majumder
There! You have the perfect picture of the current condition of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand or better known as 'Devbhoomi'. I had returned to Uttrakhand after a five years hiatus to find it completely changed. In 2007, while crossing Srinagar from Chopta, I remember thinking that they have rightly termed this state 'Devbhoomi' - a land so beautiful that only Gods could reside here. In Oct 2012, I was dying to get out of Srinagar thinking for an insane moment that perhaps Mumbai is better.
I learnt later that under Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, the state government is planning to connect all villages and as our driver said, "The mountains are being blasted indiscriminately." And add to that almost 600 dams are either being constructed or okayed or proposed to be built across Ganga and its tributaries. While traveling in the state, I saw at least four dams being built within a stretch of 150kms and heard of more being planned or regions tested in the higher altitude.
So where does one draw the line between development and sustainability? Being an eco-fragile Himalayan state and also the place which is the source of India's most important river system, is the state not responsible and answerable to the rest of the country?
Fourteen kilometres away from Joshimath, in the Niti valley are the villages of Lata, Reni and Tolma. These villages are situated in the fringes of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and have been struggling since the 70s (Chipko Movement) to preserve their beloved forests, right to their land and livelihood and a traditional way of life. Here people still live in traditional huts, do small scale farming and rear sheep. Life is tough due to the harsh climate of the high mountains but for the people here, they know no other life than being under the aegis of their beloved Nanda Devi. Some aspects of development have reached them also like a good tar road, vehicles owned by the community, cellphones, limited electricity, TV and computers. Yet they know that their lives are intricately entwined with their forests, rivers and the mountains.
Standing on top of the ridge between the rivers Dhauli Ganga and Rishi Ganga and looking at the final bastion of untouched and uninhabited wilderness, I wondered for how long can these people hold on before the cancerous growth of 'development' overtook them. Their fight against the construction of another dam on Dhauli Ganga, right in front of their village is already greatly threatened – due to the immense pressure from the government and the infrastructure company and more so by greed which somehow always follows this kind of 'development'.
Ridge overlooking Dhauli Ganga and Lata village. Photo: © Bipasha Majumder
Dhan Singh Rana, a 60 year old dynamic Sarpanch of Lata village (and the leader of the Jhapto Cheeno Movement ) said that he will continue the struggle as long as he can. "We got our homes and this land, the forests and all natural resources from our ancestors. We have to respect that and pass it on as it is, as we got it, to our children."
It's a simple yet very strong understanding of the connectivity of our lives to nature. I wonder whether the people of (ex) Uttaranchal, who fought for a state of their own, really have understood that this is not what they had bargained for.
People told me that the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand is still faring better. But I do not have it in my heart to go there and see the truth for myself. I will let the images of the deep dark forests, wide valleys and meadows and the panorama of the majestic Himalayas stay unchanged in my mind a little while longer.
Bipasha Majumder is a communications officer with a leading NGO. The steady destruction of nature and wildlife, especially in the Himalayas, which she calls her ‘home’ is an issue very close to her heart.
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