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The sinking of the sacred town of Joshimath is making headlines for all the wrong reasons! In the 1970’s, the region had seen widespread floods and tree cutting and the village of Raini, in the news now as a result of its complete destruction was the cradle of the ‘Chipko’ movement, which made headlines in that decade.
The writer is an inhabitant of Mussoorie, which is also facing the problem of excessive construction and the resulting slow sinking of the mountain soil. The present situation is a result of unchecked local aspirations, a misplaced understanding of Development in the fragile Environment of the Himalayas.
In Garhwal, there is a Tradition of going to the native village after the death of a family member and installing a stone in memory of the deceased in the village stream. Our ancestral village is Bugani, which is also the ancestral village of the late Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna, once CM of undivided Uttar Pradesh. In our visits to the village to place the memorial stones, we noticed that the village was nearly empty, most residents having migrated. The village has water, electricity, and good roads, the inhabitants are literate and it is situated merely 13 km from the city of Srinagar.
Local people have aspirations that tourism in cities can help them achieve their goals. This leads to the young leaving villages and coming to hill stations and to tourist and pilgrimage spots. Their living standard thereby increases and the economy booms. This attracts businesses from other states. Over the past 2 decades, persons from outside the State have bought property in Uttarakhand and set up resorts and hotels, and land even in far-flung villages has become expensive.
The villages are remote and roads are the single most persistent grassroots demand. With better Roads, there is more tourism, and with increased tourism, the villagers can earn money. Thus development has erroneously become synonymous with hotels, luxury resorts, 4-lane roads, swanky restaurants and modern luxuries even in the Char Dhams.
Unbridled construction and illegal Hotels and resorts have sprung up everywhere in Uttarakhand. Every Road bend is encroached upon and shacks have opened. Everyone, local or outsider, wants a slice of the tourism pie.
The tragedy is that the sacred land of Devbhoomi is now a piece of speculative real estate. The lure of profits is making astute businessmen build large hotels, often illegally, on unstable land as in Joshimath. Any demolition of illegal hotels triggers local protests and demands to regularise the illegal construction.
Uttarakhand needs development, which includes good roads to border areas, schools and hospitals in villages, public transport, Railroads and colleges in the towns. In the present scenario of environmental degradation, we have to pursue development projects like the Char Dham roads, Industrial areas, hydropower projects and so on. What Uttarakhand does not need is the cutting of trees to construct large hotels and resorts. What Uttarakhand does not need is multistorey apartment buildings, bought mostly by non-state residents.
The need of the hour is to regulate pilgrimages to Char Dhams, Rishikesh and Haridwar. There has to be a cap on the number of visitors. Even the volume of tourists to Valley of Flowers, Auli and Hill stations needs to be controlled. Strict land laws preventing the conversion of agricultural land to commercial use must be implemented. Uttarakhand is ecologically fragile and it is the water resource provider to all of North India.
The tragedy of Uttarakhand is that the Chipko movement and the legacy of the Late Sunderlal Bahuguna have been forgotten. The cradle of the Chipko movement, which resulted in a forest law prohibiting the cutting of trees above 6000 ft, is sliding down because of deforestation and invasive constructions.
It is tempting to believe the narrative that all development is bad. The need of the hour however is to find a balance between local aspirations, development and the protection of the Environment.