Why Uttarakhand is at the cusp of a tragedy of epic proportions

Progress that ignores indigenous beliefs will wreak havoc in Uttarakhand

40-Soil-erosion-on-the-banks Rage of the river: Soil erosion on the banks of the Bhagirathi, near Uttarkashi | Arvind Jain

Anyone travelling into the hills of Uttarakhand on the char dham route would immediately realise that Indians are at war with their own sacred mountains. The gashes and scars of the all-weather road, the railway tunnels and numerous dams are proof of human aggression against nature. And the mountains are retaliating with grave consequences.

What we do not realise while undertaking construction on a large scale in the Himalayas is that we are jeopardising our own survival.

What we do not realise while undertaking construction on a large scale in the Himalayas is that we are jeopardising our own survival. These mountains, with the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the polar caps and with glacial coverage of 33,000sq.km, are aptly called water towers, as they provide around 86 million cubic metres of fresh water annually, critical to the survival of the largest population concentration anywhere in the world. We will do well to remember that without water, survival is impossible.

Uttarakhand, which hosts some of the most revered pilgrimage spots and is also the source of two major rivers of India, finds itself at the cusp of a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. In more than 600 large and small settlements, the ground is shifting beneath people’s feet, forcing them to flee from their villages. A mountain of government-generated data stares us in the face, and we choose to ignore it.

For instance, an inter-ministerial group wrote a decade ago that significant lengths of the tributaries of the Ganga had been fragmented because of hydro-projects, causing irreversible ecological damage. Another report tells us that the Tehri dam has held back high-altitude Ganga sediments which has adversely impacted the unique self-purifying quality of the Ganga waters. The Forest Survey of India tells us that Uttarakhand has lost 268sq.km of forest between 2013 and 2015. The state now has only 45.3 per cent forest cover, while it should ideally be at least 67 per cent. NITI Aayog has pointed out that 60 per cent of the water bodies in the Indian Himalayas are on the verge of drying up. The Chopra Committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, told us that the Char Dham Pariyojana has experienced landslides at every half kilometre during the monsoons. Railway tunnels for the Rishikesh-Karnaprayag line are further destabilising slopes and damaging rural and urban settlements.

The Uttarakhand Himalayas are home to communities surviving on meagre landholdings with largely calcined soil and small herds of livestock. The agriculture calendar is guided by the single principle of storing stuff during the harvest season, to ensure survival during the long, harsh winter. It is a tough life of isolation and subsistence. Increased connectivity should have made life easier, and yet, never has one seen a bigger exodus to the plains than in recent times. Today, the state has upwards of 3,500 villages where the populations have turned unviable, almost half of these are completely deserted, labelled by government agencies as ghost villages. The last census has shown a substantial decline in populations in the border districts of Uttarakhand. So, why is there a huge gap between what communities need and what our governments deliver?

Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist says humans have systematically misunderstood the nature of reality, and chosen to ignore the minority of voices, like those of indigenous communities, that have intuited as much, if not more, on our world. The modern technocratic world has been seriously misled because we have depended on that aspect of our brains most adept at manipulating the world to bend it to our purposes. The brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us apprehend and thus manipulate the world, the right hemisphere to comprehend it, to see it for what it is. So, rather than simply understanding our surroundings, as the indigenous communities did with their work of gods, we take the success we have in manipulating it as proof that we understand it. What we think of as development, therefore, is an act of subversion.

Today, this manipulative thought process is dominant and seeks to suck the very life out of our mountains. Nature is giving us a warning every decade or so in the form of disasters like Varunavat, Kedarnath, Rishiganga and now Joshimath. With climate change, these incidents will begin to occur with greater frequency. We are vulnerable because the fabric of community living lies in tatters. As people find that they have no agency over jal, jangal, jameen and now jawani―water, forest, land and now even youth―communities are spiralling into despair, losing their spirit.

Yes, people in the hills also want jobs, connectivity, education and health care, but all this need not come packaged with the distress that forces them to leave home. Economic development must not lead us on the path of ecocide. Our modernity must never aim to trounce a tried and tested system of social living. Progress that does not respect geography and indigenous beliefs will continue to wreak havoc and break the Himalayas, and with it will break the resilience of its communities, as is happening now. Development that sacrifices forests and rivers will never work for the Himalayas, in fact it will imperil the plains, too.

Ohri is an anthropologist, author and filmmaker who has worked extensively on the Himalayas, where he lives.