When ‘Development’ Marches Through Himalayan Forests
Indian elephant with calf. (Photographer: Avijan Saha)

When ‘Development’ Marches Through Himalayan Forests

BloombergQuintOpinion

The state of Uttarakhand, lying in the mighty Himalayas, seems to have decided that neither its mountains nor forests should stand in the way of roads and airports. A slew of decisions will take a toll on people and wild animals, further destabilise mountain slopes, and exacerbate human-wildlife conflict.

Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat recently announced the state would expand the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun. 10,000 trees near the existing airport—part of an old forest—are slated to be cut for this project. And the state government also went a step further – it announced the denotification of the Shivalik elephant reserve for the same project.

Uttarakhand has an elephant population that is mostly confined to the lower reaches of the Himalayan mountains – areas like Rajaji National Park around Dehradun, and Corbett Tiger Reserve. Denotifying an elephant reserve for an airport changes things administratively. It does not however answer the question of what is likely to happen to elephants who need wilderness areas to live and shelter in. When their passage is blocked, elephants are forced to enter inhabitated areas and are likely to be hurt or hurt others. Loss of forest habitat forces them to take food—from farms, orchards, and places where rations are stored—worsening the man-animal conflict.

A signboard for the Rajaji National Park. (Photo: Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board website)
A signboard for the Rajaji National Park. (Photo: Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board website)

There is also another, larger question at hand – how does it make sense for a state to squander away its trademark?

Uttarakhand is recognised for its forest-clad, montane sights. The Corbett Tiger Reserve was India’s first area protected for tigers and remains, arguably, its most famous. Tourists flock to the state for Himalayan beauty, which is restricted to just a few areas in India: in North India, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have a majority of mountain-escape visitors. All infrastructure, therefore, ought to be in consonance with nature and wildlife. Yet the last few months have demonstrated a lack of environmental foresight and commercial logic – overlooking people’s protests and law. The answer has been provided before questions of sustainability have been asked – it appears the projects must go through at any cost.

(Photographer: Neha Sinha)
(Photographer: Neha Sinha)

A case in point is the Char Dham project. A road project meant to link four holy spots—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath—another huge tourism draw. But roads in the mountains are not the same as roads elsewhere. In order to improve road connectivity, hills were blasted and denuded, and environmental governance was bypassed. The project was showcased as smaller, unconnected projects to circumvent an Environment Impact Assessment. Since then, landslides on the freshly-blasted areas have occurred, and three people lost their lives as boulders fell on their house.

The leopard is an inhabitant of Uttarakhand’s forested slopes. (Photographer:  Avijan Saha)
The leopard is an inhabitant of Uttarakhand’s forested slopes. (Photographer: Avijan Saha)

‘An Environment Impact Assessment is mandated for 100+ kilometres of road construction. The project is for 889 km but was divided into 53 small projects, each less than 100 km. It was shown that each of these sections are different projects and therefore do not need an EIA,’ environmental researcher Mallika Bhanot told BloombergQuint.

In order to do this, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways circumvented its own circular, which recommends an intermediate road width.
Elephants spotted by tourists on a wildlife safari inside Rajaji National Park. (Photo: Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board website)
Elephants spotted by tourists on a wildlife safari inside Rajaji National Park. (Photo: Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board website)

‘What is ideally recommended for hilly terrain by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways’ 2018 circular is intermediate road-width of 5.5mtr tarred surface. This circular was violated by MoRTH itself as it continued the project on double lane plus paved shoulder design of 10mtr tarred road-width,’ Bhanot says.

The Supreme Court has taken note. In a September order, it directed that the 2018 circular by MoRTH should apply henceforth. This circular stresses:

‘Challenges have come to the fore in adhering to these standards in the context of National Highways and roads in hilly and mountainous terrains. These challenges arise on account of destabilization of hill slopes and progressive damaging effects on road alignments and structures in higher contours on hills due to excavation works, requirement for large-scale felling of precious trees, associated environmental damages. Resultantly, there arises need to provide largescale protection works, acquisition of additional land for Right of Way (ROW), etc..The carriageway width shall be of intermediate lane configurations, i.e. of 5.5 m width (18 ft), with two-lane structures (23 ft.)’

As MoRTH itself says, the difference of a few metres is felt more keenly on a mountain-side. Not only do slopes get destabilised by road expansion, but there is also the loss of topsoil and trees – indeed the very mountain itself.

And a lot of the hill-blasting has already occurred, irreversible in its impact.
The Verditer Flycatcher is one of the striking birds found in the Himalayas. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)
The Verditer Flycatcher is one of the striking birds found in the Himalayas. (Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Both issues, of the airport and road expansion, have been protested by citizens from Uttarakhand. People have filed petitions, lawyers have sent representations and hundreds have gathered to emphasise that it is their life that will be impacted by facilities aimed at tourists. These projects also fly against the local, deeply felt understanding of how a mountain state should be preserved.

The elephant in the room is the wildlife.

Increasingly, it is being felt that wildlife is cannon-fodder for various politically expedient projects. Rajaji National Park has a railway line. These trains are killing elephants. This year, for the Kumbh Mela, the government suggested the Park be used for constructing accommodations for Hindu devotees. The park is already highly fragmented, cut through with traffic for Haridwar. As a result, one portion has held a tiny tiger population of just one or two tigers. For tigers too, highways with fast traffic are a problem–a speeding vehicle killed a young male tiger on the highway. He was the hope for a new tiger population for the park. Now, to boost the tiger population, tigers from Corbett are being moved to Rajaji. The first tigress has been caught and tranquilised for this.

(Photographer: Neha Sinha)
(Photographer: Neha Sinha)

Uttarakhandi wildlife is currently battling new highways, railway lines, deforestation, airports—and apathy. All under the guise of ‘developing’ a state whose calling card is clean mountain air and wildlife.

The denotification of the elephant reserve is a legal way out for the authorities determined to expand the airport. What’s the way out for elephants?

Neha Sinha works with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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