INDIAN HIMALAYAN REGION (IHR) – ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES
The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), which occupies a strategic position along the entire northern and northeastern boundary of the country and administratively covers 10 states in their entirety (Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya) and two states partially (the hill districts of Assam and West Bengal), has wide ranging ecological and socio-economic significance.
- Besides innumerable goods, IHR generates a plethora of services not only for Himalayan inhabitants but also influences the lives of people living well beyond its boundaries.
- Among other services, the region, with its large area under permanent snow cover and glaciers, forms a unique water reservoir that feeds several important perennial rivers.
- With its vast green cover, IHR also acts as a giant carbon ‘sink’.
- IHR also forms a considerably large part of identified Himalayan Biodiversity global hotspot.
Role in Indian climate
- The region, however, is facing environmental problems on account of various factors including the stress caused by anthropogenic activities. Even geologically, the Himalayan ecosystem falls under the most vulnerable category. Therefore the environmental issues being faced by the IHR are of critical importance.
- Managing the Himalayan ecosystem sustainably is critical not only for preserving its pristine beauty and spectacular landscapes, but also for ensuring the ecological security of the entire Indian sub-continent.
(A) URBANIZATION IN THE HIMALAYAS – IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
IMPACT - SOLID WASTE
The continued expansion in urban settlements, influx of visitors, trekkers and mountaineers in the Himalayan region has started to pose high biotic pressure and concomitant indiscriminate solid waste dumping. As a result, the IHR is getting adversely affected.
In the absence of proper management practices and inadequate infrastructural facilities, human induced pollution, such as solid waste, untreated sewage and local air pollution due to vehicles has been continuously increasing in the IHR.
IMPACT - TOWN PLANNING
Rapid unplanned growth of hill towns, construction activities without a proper plan, general non-compliance with prescribed norms and guidelines, and indiscriminate use of land for commercial outfits/tourist resorts have severely and adversely affected the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas.
Large scale land instabilities, drying up of natural water sources, waste disposal problems and changing sociocultural values are known impacts of unplanned construction activities. Deforestation activities - cutting in an area causes ecological damage and slope instability in adjacent areas.
Ban on Plastic in HP
- State government enacted the Himachal Pradesh Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Act, 1995 in order to prevent throwing or depositing non- biodegradable garbage in public drains, roads.
- It has then increased the minimum thickness of plastic carry bags to 70 microns of virgin material, which exceeded the 20 micron thickness recommended by Central Rules.
- Further, the state Government has taken a Cabinet decision to ban plastics altogether in the entire state since 2009.
Participatory Conservation of Lakes in the Region
- The Naini Lake is the sole source of drinking water for Nainital town, an important tourist destination in Uttarakhand state.
- Increasing inflow of tourists, urban waste ma king its way into the lake is adversely affecting water quality.
- To conserve the water body, the residents have switched on to a scientific garbage disposal system – under the project name ‘Mission Butterfly’ by Nainital Lake Conservation Project.
- The sweepers, on a small monthly charge, collect waste from each household and directly transfer it to the compost pits. Apart from the residents, schools and hotel owners have extended full cooperation to the authorities, to save its precious eco-system.
- In addition, they are able to generate income and employment by converting it to manure.
Conservation of Dal lake
- Dal Lake a favorite tourist destination attracting thousands of tourists in Jammu & Kashmir state, is also special for settlement of about 60,000 people within the lake.
- The lake is in peril due to anthropogenic pressure and overall deterioration of surrounding environment.
- The lake has been included in the lake conservation programme of the MoEF, GOI.
- The Lake and Water ways Development Authority (LAWDA), Srinagar, in collaboration with Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and other NGOs has taken up the initiative for lake conservation through education and mass awareness. Use of polythene carry bags has also been banned in the lake area.
Assam Hill Land and Ecological Sites Act, 2006
- The Assam Hill Land and Ecological Sites (Protection and Management) Act, 2006 to prevent indiscriminate cutting of hills and filling up of water bodies in urban areas, which had led to serious ecological problems in places like Guwahati.
- Under the Act, the state government can bring any hill under its purview for protection.
Urban Development through JNNURM
- “The aim is to encourage reforms and fast track planned development of identified cities. Focus is to be on efficiency in urban infrastructure and service delivery mechanisms, community participation, and accountability of ULBs/ Parastatal agencies towards citizens”.
- The duration of the mission is seven years starting from 2005-06 with initially 13 towns.
Recommendations / solutions for Solid Waste Management in IHR
The “development” in the present context has become unsustainable. An integrated approach is, therefore, necessary to protect the environment and achieve required economic development at the same time. Advance planning based on timely and reliable data has become crucial for sustainable growth of hill towns.
- Guidelines prohibiting indiscriminate disposal of garbage, particularly the non-degradable waste.
- Preventive and management steps for solid waste management at the point of origin itself.
- Documentation about the varying composition of waste from the hill towns to expedition tops.
- Promotion of techniques such as conversion of biodegradable waste into biocompost, or vermicompost in place of land filling, open dumping or burning.
- The four `R’s principle’ - Refuse waste prone commodities, Reuse discarded commodities for other uses, Reduce through segregation into categories—biodegradable and non-biodegradable at household/ individual level, and Re-cycling once fully used or completely unusable commodities/items.
- Good quality potable water, available at various locations in hill towns so that people can fill their bottles, on payment basis.
- Awareness and capacity building of the stakeholders.
- Best international experiences & practices followed in regard to preservation of surroundings and prevention of littering in eco-sensitive places, [e.g., Alaska, Gangotri/Leh region, Nepal and China] should be examined and appropriately adopted.
- Need support and innovative thinking on different aspects, ranging from traditional architectural practices, local water management and diverse systems of sewage and garbage management.
- There is a need to motivate residents to switch over to a more scientific waste disposal system in a participatory manner.
Recommendations / solutions - Hill Town Planning and Architectural Norms
- Fragmentation of habitats in hill areas should be prevented.
- Specific areas for rural/urban development should be designated.
- No construction should be undertaken which fall in hazard zones or areas falling on the spring lines and first order streams.
- Architectural and aesthetic norms for construction of buildings in mountain/hill areas should be enforced.
- Deforestation activities shall not be under taken unless appropriate measures are taken to avoid such damages.
- An integrated development plan may be prepared taking into consideration environmental and other relevant factors
- In highly seismic areas like Himalaya, all construction should incorporate earthquake resistant features
- Location-specific technologies should be deployed for construction of buildings
- “Green roads” having channels for collection of water for irrigation purposes should be made a part of the construction norm.
(B) TOURISM – WILL IT BE REGULATED?
Pilgrimage Tourism in Sensitive Areas
- The Himalayas is known to be a home of saints, destination of pilgrimage since time immemorial.
- For example, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri- Yamunotri and Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand, Manimahesh, Jwala Devi, Chintpurni, Naina Devi in Himachal Pradesh and Vaishnav Devi and Amarnath in Jammu & Kashmir, Khecheopalri and other sacred lakes in Sikkim are particularly important destinations.
- Unfortunately, most of these places lack adequate facilities of transport, accommodation, waste disposal and other amenities for the ever growing number of pilgrims that visit them every year.
- Also, there is a gross lack of regulatory mechanism for infrastructure creation, management, and for controlling the tourist inflow in such sites.
- As a result the sensitive ecosystems and cultural values of these areas are facing pressures far beyond their carrying capacities.
Impact - of Commercial Tourism
- The impacts of tourism on mountain ecosystems and biological resources are of great concern because of the high biodiversity and environmental sensitivity of the Himalayas.
- Cultural identities and diversity in mountain regions are also under threat by the economic, social and environmental forces associated with mountain tourism.
- In this context, community based ecotourism emerges as one of the sustainable alternatives to the presently practiced commercial tourism in already over saturated hill towns like Nainital, Mussoorie, Shimla, Kullu Manali, Gangtok, etc.
Harnessing Religious Sentiments for Conservation
There is immense scope of harnessing the religious sentiments of tourists in the right perspectives of conservation and sustainable management of natural resources in the eco-sensitive Himalayan areas.
This can be done through
(i) Encouraging them to undertake participatory plantation for rehabilitation of degraded areas (e.g., Badrivan initiative of GBPIHED in Uttarakhand).
(ii) Promoting the concept of eco-cultural landscapes (e.g., Demazong – Buddhist landscape, Sikkim, and Apatani eco-cultural landscape, Arunachal Pradesh). Both landscapes are highly evolved with high level of economic and ecological efficiencies.
(iii) Involving them in maintenance and strengthening of sacred groves/landscape (e.g., Sacred Groves of Meghalaya: The tribal communities – Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias, have a tradition of environmental conservation based on religious beliefs and customary law and are protected from any product extraction.
Ladakh Himalayan Homestays - Transforming
Local Mindsets towards Snow Leopards
- The Himalayan Homestays programme fosters conservation-based community managed tourism development in remote settlements, by gradually building local capacity and ownership.
- It stands out as an example that aims to be sensitive to both host and visitor expectations without compromising the aspirations of host communities, and at the same time seeks to balance these aspects with conservation of the area’s unique cultural and natural heritage.
Highlights of Sikkim’s Ecotourism Policy
- “Sikkim - the Ultimate Tourist Destination” is the policy motto of the state. The state is employing a system of environmental fees, and permits for entries, and stay time restrictions in some environmentally sensitive high altitude/ pristine areas.
- Operationalization of tourism in various modes, such as village tourism, nature tourism, wildlife tourism, trekking/adventure tourism, and cultural tourism in the state and institutionalization of tourism management at the community level.
- Promotion and use of local art & craft, cuisines, etc., along with organizing tourism fairs and festivals.
- Imparting training in tourism related service industries.
The efforts made by Sikkim can be a basis of responsible tourism in other Himalayan states.
Immense opportunities for adventure cum ecotourism in the Himalayan region (e.g., Annapurna Conservation Area project, Nepal; Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve ecotourism approach, Uttarakhand) could be harnessed through community involvement.
Tourism + art and culture
Linking of tourism with initiatives like Rural Business Hubs (RBH), as introduced in North East region, which envisages promotion of quality rural products like handloom, handicrafts, agro products, herbal products, bio-fuel, etc., may be considered as yet another aspect of promoting eco-tourism in the IHR.
The Government of Uttarakhand has restricted the number of tourists visiting the origin of the river Ganga – Gangotri area to 150 per day.
Recommendations / solutions
However, considering the sensitivity (both cultural and natural) of this region, strict operational guidelines are required to be enforced across IHR with region specific provisions for facilitating and promoting community based ecotourism.
Recommendations / solutions – Regulating Tourism and Pilgrimage to Sensitive Areas
- Pilgrimage tourism in the Himalaya requires both development and regulation so as to reduce congestion and resultant pollution.
- The accommodation and road transport infrastructure needs to be developed in pilgrimage sites.
- The pilgrimage tourism is a kind of “economy class” tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region. Suitable accommodation and other facilities need to be made available accordingly.
- All existing sites should have adequate provision of garbage disposal and management.
- An inventory of historical, sensitive a nd sacred sites including sacred groves should be prepared and their vulnerability should be assessed.
- The access to such sites of incomparable value through vehicles needs to be restricted beyond a certain zone.
Recommendations / solutions – Promoting
Ecotourism and Regulation of Commercial Tourism
- Eco -tourism villages, parks, sanctuaries and other areas should be identified to establish a primary base for ecotourism.
- Village communities, especially youths, and rural women should be involved in Ecotourism.
- Restrictions on the entry of vehicles and visitors per day/ per group should be imposed in sensitive ecological sites.
- Local art, crafts, cuisines, and dishes should be promoted and made an integral part of tourist experience in order to ensure economic benefits to the locals and their cultural integrity/ entity is not lost.
- Best practices on commercial trek king should be imposed on a mandatory basis
- Creation of log/bamboo huts should be promoted in busy mountain areas.
Recommendations / solutions for related segments
Rejuvenation of Springs and Degraded Sites
- Special attention should be paid to recharge of ground water and quality of mountain lakes/wetlands through restoration of forests.
- Detailed geological mapping should be conducted to identify the spring recharge zone and locate geological structures.
- Nuclear water prospecting technologies should be used to map the water sources and prevent the construction activities in such locations that could damage or adversely affect such sources.
- Engineering measures to protect recharge zone from biotic interferences.
- Social fencing measures, e.g.
(i) digging shallow infiltration trenches, mulching.
(ii) construction of stone-mud check dams in gullies to store rainwater and check soil erosion; and
(iii) land levelling, maintenance of crop field bunds to allow stagnation of rainwater should be enhanced.
- Vegetative measures with the aim to enhance rainwater infiltration and reduce rainwater runoff.
- Involvement of stakeholder community should be ensured at every step of the Spring Sanctuary Development. The maintenance and aftercare of the interventions have to be ensured through their involvement.
Rain Water Harvesting
- All buildings to be constructed in future in urban areas should have provision for roof-top rain water harvesting
- The institutional and commercial buildings should not draw water from existing water supply schemes which adversely affect water supply to local villages or settlements.
- In rural areas rain water harvesting should be undertaken through such structures as percolation tanks, storage tanks and any other means.
- Spring sanctuary development should be undertaken in the spring recharge zones to augment spring water discharge.
- Rain water collected through storm water drains should be used to clean the waste disposal drains and sewers.
- Ground water aquifer recharge structures should be constructed wherever such structures do not lead to slope instabilities.
Ecologically Safer Roads
- For construction of any road in the Himalayan region of more than 5 km length where the same may not be tarred roads and environmental impact assessment is otherwise not required, environmental impact assessment should be carried out in accordance with the instructions to be issued for this purpose by the State Governments.
- Provision should be made in the design of the road for treatment of hill slope instabilities resulting from road cutting, cross drainage works and culverts using bioengineering and other appropriate techniques.
- Provisions should be made for disposal of debris from construction sites in appropriate manner at suitable and identified locations so as not to affect the ecology of the area adversely.
Further, the dumped material should be treated using bioengineering and other appropriate techniques.
- No stone quarrying should be carried out without proper management and treatment plan including rehabilitation plan.
- All hill roads should be provided with adequate number of road side drains and these drains shall be kept free from blockage for runoff disposal; further, the cross drains shall be treated suitably using bio-engineering and other appropriate technologies so as to minimise slope instability.
- The runoff from the road side drains should be connected with the natural drainage system in the area.
- Fault zones and historically land slide prone zones should be avoided during alignment of a road, where for any reason it is not possible to do so, the construction should be carried out only after sufficient measures have been taken to minimize the associated risks.
- Ridge alignment should be preferred to valley alignment.
- Alignment should be selected so as to minimise loss of vegetal cover.
- Encouragement should be provided for use of debris material for local development.