As Uttarakhand picks up the pieces after recent cloudbursts that claimed a dozen lives and damaged infrastructure, noted environmentalist Anil Prakash Joshi has warned of a much worse scenario in the coming years, if necessary, safeguards are not put in place to conserve the fragile Himalayan ecology.
“A reckless exploitation of natural resources in a blind pursuit of development will further aggravate the situation and may lead to far worse human tragedies. So, it is better to wake up before it is too late and take enough preventive measures,” Joshi told PTI in an interview on Sunday.
It is high time an international debate began on growing ecological insecurity of the world and the perils of rising air pollution and depleting water resources, he said.
“Around 200 years ago the challenge was economic insecurity as there were no roads, no infrastructure, no jobs. But now the challenge has changed to the growing ecological insecurity of the world which comes with economic growth,” Joshi, who was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2020 for his contribution in the field of environment conservation, said.
The responsibility of a Himalayan state like Uttarakhand is bigger in tackling this challenge as the rivers originating from the state fulfil the irrigational requirements of the rest of the country, he said.
Joshi coined the term Gross Environmental Product (GEP), an ecological growth measure parallel to the GDP. His coinage gained currency with Uttarakhand officially accepting it as a growth measure in June, 2021.
On mega infrastructure projects underway in Uttarakhand such as the Rs 12,000-crore all-weather road project and the Rishikesh-Karnaprayag rail line, Joshi said development is an irreversible process but it must go hand in hand with conservation of the ecosystem.
“We can’t put the clock back even if we want to but striking a balance between development and ecology is a must,” he said.
He expressed his personal preference for rail link projects over road projects which according to him are more damaging to the Himalayan ecology.
Joshi cited the example of Switzerland which is often compared to Uttarakhand because of its scenic beauty, saying it preferred a widespread network of rail routes rather than roads. “It has helped preserve the country’s picturesque locations,” he said.
Rail networks are far more sustainable and environment friendly than a network of roads which need periodic repairs and are highly damaging to the environment, he said.
Compensatory afforestation as a concept is good but it does not work in the absence of enough water resources, he said.
He suggested digging enough water holes alongside largescale plantation drives to make up for felling of trees during the making of roads and building infrastructure to make compensatory afforestation more effective.
Citing the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy in which thousands perished and the glacial disaster that struck Chamoli in February 2021 killing over 200 people, the founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO) said enough has happened to awaken the authorities to the dangers of a mad race for development showing utter disregard to the environment and ecology.
“A preventive mechanism has to be developed. Rainwater conservation, water recharging mechanisms have to be put in place. Relocating populations living along riverbanks, especially those within 100 metres from rivers, also deserves serious consideration to ensure their safety.”
Citing the cloudbursts that hit Dehradun, Tehri and Pauri districts earlier this month killing at least a dozen people, washing away bridges and damaging houses, Joshi said people living close to rivers were the worst hit.
So, the option of shifting such settlements farther away from riverbanks and making them safe must be tried out, he said.
Twelve bodies have so far been recovered from the cloudburst-hit areas of the three districts and a massive relief and rescue operation is underway in search of around seven people who are still missing.