The recent events in Uttarakhand have shown, more than ever, that we need a development strategy for the Himalayas that takes into account the vulnerability of the region and the need for environment protection.
We need to think about a pan-Himalayan strategy so that states can evolve common policies based on the region’s natural resources—forests, water, biodiversity, organic and specialty foods, nature tourism – but without adverse effect to the environment.
Forest Preservation: Forests are particularly important for the survival of people in the high Himalayan regions. They depend on the forests for their animals’ fodder and water for agriculture. Forests also preserve biodiversity and prevent soil erosion – vital for the local eco-system. Thus, hydropower and other development projects must not be allowed without compensatory afforestation.
Stop Damming Rivers: Water is another key resource of the region as it flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains. This resource is both an opportunity and a threat to its ecology and economy. Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region. All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a breakneck speed. Uttarakhand, on the Ganga basin alone, has identified projects totaling nearly 10,000 MW of power and plans for 70-odd projects. Their impact of the ecology and hydrology of the region must be seriously evaluated, particularly in the light of increasing extreme climatic events. The funny thing is that all the power will be sold to states on the plain, while the local people are put at risk.
Promote local agriculture: Himalayan states try to boost their economies using their unique products. They also recognize the need to keep their agriculture organic. Meghalaya was the first to declare itself an organic state; Sikkim followed and Uttarakhad is working to promote green agriculture in the state. But they are facing problems such as difficulties in certification and even forest laws. For instance, Sikkim promoted organic cardamom crop, but discovered that forest laws do not allow cultivation on ‘forest’ lands, even though it is done without destroying forests.
The soil on the hill slopes are deficient in nutrients, so shifting cultivation or considerable efforts to manufacture manure are tried; needless to say, the returns are meager and labor almost completely discounted and undervalued. Thus, there is need to start dialogue on the future of agriculture in this region.
Promote tourism but with safeguard: Adventure and nature tourism, alongside religious pilgrimage are the most obvious route to economic development in the Himalayan states. But this must come with inbuilt safeguards as the ecology is highly fragile. Some common safeguards can be as follows:
- Similar to sanctuaries and national parks, create a provision of buffer areas within 5-10 km, surrounding the pilgrimage sites, where development is restricted.
- Give strict priority to the local community in all economic activities of the tourist or pilgrimage spot. Create local community interest in management of these sites.
- Make it mandatory for the tourists to remove and take back all non-degradable items. This can be implemented through a security deposit and checks at the designated entry points.
- Increase the rate of entry tax charged by all hill towns. More fragile ecosystems should have higher entry tax. The collected fund should be used for creating better and eco-friendly tourist facilities and strengthening the ecosystem.
- Promote homestead tourism, instead of hotel/motel tourism, based on policy incentives.
- Promote reuse and recycling of waste, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources at all hill tourist spots.
- Restrict the number of private vehicles in all fragile areas of the hill towns to reduce both pollution and congestion.