Disasters and Climate Change : Role of Bamboo & Tea Plantations

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 15 Jul 2014

Living in a remote mountain region like Munsyari one just can not help but reflect on the condition of Uttarakhand post June 2013 Kedarnath-ghati disaster. What one reads in newspapers especially the utter helplessness of the state and local administration in coping up with enormous quantum of task involved in improving the connectivity through the repairs of roads to hundreds of isolated villages and the disturbing sites of vast regions that lie ruined through de-stablilized mountain-slopes. This compels one to seriously reflect on the present counter–measures that are being taken up by the state government thought its own line-departments via financial assistance accessed through various bi and multi-lateral funding agencies. One wonders if the approach followed is appropriate and solutions really enduring ?

Two Major Aspects

To begin with there are essentially two major aspects to consider for rehabilitation of the post-disaster affected regions ; first, that makes you reflect on various measures that have been taken since our collective living memory which have been directed at stabilizing our disturbed mountain slopes. And, this affects uniformly almost all of our disaster prone and affected parts of the State. This brings to the fore the challenge of coordination between the various related scientific disciplines which have a capacity to offer solutions to our road-making organisations on the one hand, as road-making has got to be taken forward to connect all remote regions of our state. How to ensure that road making and its repairs are undertaken in such a way that not only they are cost-effective but which also prove durable, durable from the point of slope stability. This calls for very close and sustained co-ordination among the various of scientific and research organisations of silviculture/other plantations etc which can suggest vegetative solutions to the stability of slopes and best practices that have been followed elsewhere in sustainable mountain road making. The concept of “Green Roads” has been in the air for a long time but it has remained confined to research journals and preparation of Working Manual alone. In practice, we do not have a single kilometre of road in Uttarakhand which can today be cited as an example of a model of mountain road making. Here the various R&D organisations under the umbrella of the Ministries of Environment and Forests ( MoEF ) as also Surface Transport need to inform the country and common citizens how and what they have contributed to the amelioration of this particular problem, as they have several institutions created in the name of mountain, environment and mountain development, as well as other research institutions under the fold of the Indian Council for Forest Research and Education ( ICFRE ). GBP Himalayan Institute of Environment & Development ( GBPHIED), Kosi Katarmal also needs to explain to the nation , especially the 11 Indian mountain  states as to what has been their practical contribution, in terms of implementation of what they have discovered on this major issue, by way of solutions. One major lacuna in this field has been the way these scientific organizations engage the mountain states, rather the very absence of it in taking on board their main problems on board. More on this later.

The Economic Aspect

Of equal importance, perhaps more, is the second aspect here, and that is to figure out a remedy which addresses not only or just the physical aspect of this mountain specificity viz., ‘mountain fragility’, the physical and long term stabilization of all fragile mountain slopes, with some vegetative cover, but such a measure should also deliver some long term economic benefit/s and economic-stability to the mountain populations that are destined ( or is it doomed ? ) to stay on in such fragile regions ? No one could possibility expect even today some 300 plus villages which have simply become un-inhabitable to be abandoned completely and re-located some where else, as has been discovered through the Memorandum that was prepared by the Government of Uttarakhand for Central Assistance ? What is being suggested is that not only a sizeable amount of money is to be spent on stabilization of these degraded slopes, caused by natural elements or through man-made interventions during the past four decade ( 1970s to 2010s ). Thanks to the existing lack of co-ordination among various agencies and clearer  thinking today we have a situation that wherever you go in Uttarakhand mountain districts we have road-patches which are known more for their defects and ill-effects rather than their main role i.e. connecting remote villages. Uttarakhand today enjoys an unenviable reputation where every major road and district has its very unique ‘unstable and unpredictable’ road-patch, and all journeys can be made successfully only if this particular patch behaves kindly to the traveller. “Lambagar” on the Badrinath route, “Sama-Tejam” on the Bageshwar-Munsyari are but two such patches about which one reads every year unfailingly, disrupting the road communication. This writer is sure every mountain traveller can at least name one more of such cases quite comfortably ! Needless to mention, the catchment-area of these roads and patches have now become synonymous with the ‘epicentre of out-migration’ or economic degeneration. How long are we doomed to remain in this vicious cycle of construction and re-construction blowing millions of rupees down the degraded mountain slopes ?

Re-visiting Bamboo and Tea Plantations

Uttarakhand has approached the Union Government and other funding agencies for financial assistance and as far is known most of them have committed their assistance to repair and rehabilitation interventions, through their road-making expertise, restoration of various buildings that serve socio-economic benefits to the affected population and so on. This writer has also had occasion to discuss with majority of such institutions and agencies and from an understanding of their interventions proposed it is evident that in such restorations, repairs of buildings and constructions while money will be spent, physical targets would have been achieved in terms of kilometres of road lengths built, repaired, upgraded etc and thus theoretically re-connecting the regions and villages which had been rendered isolated, but all this would only amount to doing ‘more of the same thing’, without giving a thought to achieving the dual objective of re-connecting the locations, stabilising the degraded mountain slopes in such a way that such restorations also provide an impetus for economic stabilisation and revival of an economy that has been seriously ruptured by the recent natural disaster(s). Problem with the international agencies and the experts that they tend to bring that they already have solutions for any problem any region may have. The quick ‘cut and paste’, including the environmental and even ethnic impacting gets done even before you can name the international funding agency ! The senior bureaucrats either do not have the capacity to suggest the kind of solutions that they should have been in a position to do and the politicians are equally concerned to announce the amount of money they have been able to secure, regardless of the approach that is being followed. Disasters, bring in their wake a certain mind-set which is comfortable to listen to sounds that assure every body that quickest possible efforts are being made, the amounts being committed are such which assures you of a corresponding counter-action. No long term solutions can be considered seriously in the midst of such a complex mix of solution-providers. Certainly there are some efforts towards so-called ‘livelihoods promotion’ and such like interventions but only time will tell if there was a right connect between these interventions and their intended objectives. As regards others, it has to be frankly more of a tokenism rather than a real substantive effort, as in any case it is beyond a single non-state player’s capacity to look at such long-term solutions, both financial size and time-duration wise.  

It is a set of such concerns that caught this writer’s attention towards a news-item appearing from Bhim Tal date-line, linking cultivation of a certain species of Bamboo both with the over-riding need of stabilisation of badly- degraded mountain slopes, both along nearly all road-alignments as also elsewhere, on the one hand, and throwing up long enduring possibilities of reviving a sliding local economy though multiple uses of bamboo, as a plant-species, on the other ( Dainik Jagaran: Uttarakhand Mein Bhi Hogi Chinese bans Ki Kheti, 10th July 2014). The news-item also carried a quote from one of our well-known floriculture-cum- tissue- culture experts, Dr Akhilesh Tyagi.

Development Boards for Tea and Bamboo

This allows this writer to share with the readers two anecdotes that ultimately led to establishment of two of our several Commodity Development Boards, one each for these two plant species. This writer cannot agree more with what Dr Akhilesh Tyagi has been quoted about the potential of promotion of bamboo-plantations, all over our state wherever the roads are going and even where they are not. Most of the initiatives that got taken up during the first two governments viz., the Nityanand Swami Government and later ND Tewari Government ( November 2000 to October 2005 ) have been put together and published in as many as three volumes, namely Food For Thought & Action( 2004), Patwari, Gharat and Chai (2004) and Inside Uttarakhand Today (2007), all three published by the doyen of scientific publications of Dehradun, M/s Bishen Singh MP Singh, Chakrata Road, Dehradun. Those readers who are keen to know more about these two initiatives have no option but to read several articles available in these books, written chronologically, as the progress in each theme took place. All these, in retrospect, demonstrated that Uttarakhand made a beginning, which triggered certain developments which were far ahead of their times and which now need to be re-activated, re-vamped and scaled up after incorporating the lessons learned.

That large scale tea cultivation in Uttarakhand is a realisable possibility has now been demonstrated over a large range of mountain altitudes, from eastern-most Champawat district, Ghora-khal near Bhim Tal, slopes of Kausani, Almora-Bageshwar districts, Dharam-ghar and Birpur in Pithoragarh districts of Kumaon division, across Pandu-khal-Gairsain ridge, Kali-mati and Adi-Badri-Nauti ring, Garur-Gwaldam and several other pockets, in Garhwal region. True, it had its origins during the President’s Rule regime in UP but the real expansion became possible after Uttarakhand came on its own. With nearly more than 600 hectares now already covered with new tea-plantations, and with a private sector tea-processing unit at Kausani, with some five more of smaller sizes, it has managed to survive the adverse periods through which it has passed since 2005. Very often its present state of distress gets mistakenly exemplified with what one sees as skeletal remains of devastated tea-gardens in peripheral regions of Dehradun. Harish Rawat Government, if it is serious to revive a development culture, which received a serious haemorrhage during the ensuing BJP successive governments, needs to look up what ails this potentially environment friendly cultivation option for our mountain regions lest it dies out due to the criminal neglect it has endured during past 6-7 years.

What strongly commends tea-cultivation on a very large scale in Uttarakhand today is its proven success in cultivation, in-situ creation of self-employment, a production regime tied-up with land, most productive use for a single –crop agricultural situation, long term benefits to the farming families, resistance to dry-periods, the extremely valuable soil-binding quality of the tea-bushes and finally a decision that was taken to convert all existing tea-cultivation into organic, which has given it a brand equity, and market price, quite comparable to the world-renowned Darjeeling tea. If any positive cue is to be taken from the developmentally aggressive Modi Government, at the Centre now, and its Scale-centric vision, the first sector that Uttarakhand Government must push hard should easily be to quickly review all that presently ails our tea-cultivation effort in the mountain districts. Its tell-tale neglect is represented by the fact that ( a ) there is no full-time Director for Tea Development Board/Directorate, ( b ) there is no senior Technical Expert after Dr Tamang left for Darjeeling and ( c ) a policy log-jam leading to non-settlement of rates for green tea-leaves linked to renewal of tea-leave supply assurance to the private factory . It is literally the very last opportunity to revive a most potential development sector and if it is not done this year we might as well say good bye to this major initiative to revive mountain economy through land-based production activities.   

Bamboo : Most Versatile Substitute for Wood & Metals

Uttarakhand’s Bamboo development initiative was in fact a strong and immediate response to a Union Government’s initiative to launch a massive Bamboo Mission in the country, in June 1999. It was announced by the Indian Prime Minister on the World Environment Day in June 1999. A Cane and Bamboo Technology and Research Centre ( CBTC) was established at Guwahati by INBAR ( International Network for Bamboo And Rattan) and by the time the new state was trying to stand on its own legs efforts were made to ensure that a proposed Regional centre gets established in this part of the country. Dr Rao and Sanjeev Vasudev were contacted that is how a conceptual seed was sown about a potential future for bamboo in this newly born state. The rest of the story has been documented in a series of write –ups that are included in the first book, ‘Food for Thought and Action ( see essays starting with Potential & Prospects of Bamboo Cultivation in Uttaranchal, pages 65-78, followed by pieces at pages 79 – 87,199 – 203,  342 – 344, 350-360 ending very interestingly with a eye-opening realisation that the bamboo-use tradition is as integral in out mountains as it is now known to be in at least four North Eastern States. The tour note entitled  ‘Bamboo and Fibre Tradition of Jaunsar ( Koti)’, included as the last essay of this first book ( pages  509-514 ). This writer found that the Koti villagers of our Jaunsar had been using bamboo for as many as eight domestic uses, to wit, Boonga ( a basket ), Kukadani ( a hen cage), Gilta ( broad based basket), Tokra, Soop, Pithaura ( for grain storage, large capacity), bamboo-fencing of courtyards, fields and of course bamboo-poles, for house-making, various kinds of supports. How little indeed we know our remote villages and their resourcefulness !

The real conviction however was drilled home, as far as this writer was concerned, when he visited the headquarters of the Western District of Sikkim, as a part of celebrations that were taking place all over the world, as an integral part of The International Year of the Mountains ( IYM), in 2002, organized by the United Nations, led by the Republic of Kyrghizstan, a Central Asian Republic. When this writer visited the ancient capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim, deep inside a nearby forest, near the venue of the Sikkim Civil Society IYM celebrations, in company with his batch-mate, late lamented Chief Secretary Sonam Tenzing and Dr. Shekhar Pathak, all of us were simply struck by the amazing vegetative diversity that surrounded the principal old-Capital site, it had one of the densest forest-cover one had ever come across.

“ How are you able to maintain such a wonderful bio-diversity, don’t you ever use wood for your domestic purposes, was a spontaneous question on everybody’s lips ?’ ‘No, we just do not touch our trees’, was the answer of the community, all our wood-related and most of the metal-related requirements are addressed by our bamboo-stocks, which we grow at all altitudes. And it is our Forest Department who supplies us our bamboo-seedlings from their nurseries, as they do in the case of the ‘ Badi Ilaichi’ ( big cardamom, spice for which Sikkim is famous), was their simple reply.

For this writer it was the major lesson learned in the International Year of the Mountains ( 2002 ) as were quite a few others when he happened to visit, Nepal, Kyrghyzstan and Chneg-du in the Republic of China, the same year. Bamboo & Fibre Development Board was a physical manifestation of the need to have a dedicated Commodity Board to take an ambitious economic agenda forward. The various essays that make up the Food for Thought and Action ( 2004 ) contain the theory and practice of an idea that got triggered way back in 2002 and it is yet to cover miles that it was expect to travel by now. Is Uttarakhand already experiencing the ‘Last Mile Fatigue’, one just wonders. Bamboo and Tea plantations are two Big Ticket ideas that Uttarakhand Government needs to systematically pursue if it wishes to see development climbing up the mountains. In time to come while the Homo Sapiens species might feel inclined to travel downwards the vegetative species has only one way to go up, the colder climes, in the Age of Climate Change challenges. The various articles contained in the three books mentioned in this essay one would observe that it is these two vegetative species that are able to adapt and flourish in an amazing range of climate and altitudes. That is the first and necessary condition and qualification for any kind of ‘economic plantations’ that needs to be given top priority for mountain development. In addition to climate change adaptability the other major qualities these two species have is their well-known ‘soil binding’ quality, the precise remedy for our highly fragile slopes. It is a Climate Change and Disaster Reduction and Mitigation agenda, in so far as our planners and funders should be looking forward to and not mechanical and uni-linear solutions, which are now under implementation in the World Bank, ADB and even JICA projects, as far as one is able to read through these ‘quick-fix’ solutions

Our ‘Forest Baggage’

This writer has often been confronted with the question, now that he has retired from active involvement in development programmes, what does he think is Uttarakhand’s biggest baggage of problems ? My unequivocal answer to this poser is ‘Our Forests & Their Present Management Architecture’, period. Of late, this writer has been consistently writing on this very agenda, namely; how the Ministry of Environment & Forests have failed our development agenda in general and mountain development agenda in particular. One of the biggest hurdles in the speedy development of our mountain regions is undoubtedly the ‘ most unfortunate coupling’ of ‘mountain development’ with ‘environment and forests’, administratively speaking. Its the anchoring of ‘mountain development’ under the Ministry of Environment & Forests that has spelled the doom of ‘mountain development’, the fountain-head of all ills that have dogged our development !  The Twelfth Plan document has already acknowledged that the present architecture and mode of engagement of our Indian Council for Forestry Research & Education ( ICFRE), and its various Institutes, with the Indian States, has to undergo a fundamental change. The Twelfth Plan document mentions the example of a sister organization, handling the Agriculture & Allied sector, the Indian Council for Agriculture Research ( ICAR ), which has Regional Committees of States, based on agro-climatic conditions. This writer has also commented on the unfortunate failure of institutions like GBP Institute of Himalayan Environment & Development ( GBPHIED), which has been long on Research Papers and Articles by its scientists and short on suggestions for practical development in mountain situations. GBPHIED, as we all know now, has been conspiratorially and systematically deprived of resources, man-power and freedom to operate ever since it has been created. After the departure of its eminent director, Prof AN Purohit, it has not had the advantage of being headed by an eminent scientist who could tell the junior minions in the MoEF their rightful place and talk directly to the Secretary or the Minister himself. It is indeed the best example of how to give the dog a bad name and hang it ! One of the former Secretaries of MoEF even went so far down to belittle its significance that this Institute has not been able to receive the importance that it always deserved. The ‘splendid isolation of this country’s Forestry & Environment Sector’ from the daily needs of the millions of resource –poor people, especially in the mountains, has been the main reason for their ever growing poverty and lack of infrastructural development. All this will have to change, sooner than later. Pushing the realisation that perhaps promotion of Bamboo, as a substitute for wood ( as also metal as we found later ) has been easily one of the toughest challenge this writer faced during this period. This piece deserves to be ended with an anecdote, on this ‘Forest Baggage’, that this hapless state continues to endure. One only hopes that Modi Government’s proposed Himalayan Technical Institute also falls prey to the same circumstances and comes out still-born under the dead-weight of ‘Forest Baggage’ and what this writer has termed the ‘CV Enhancing Development’ of our otherwise well-meaning scientists and technocrats – where ‘common man’ has no space worth talking about.

As this writer, as FRDC, accompanied the then Forest Minister for the inauguration of the first Bamboosatem at  our Lachhi-wala ‘picnic spot’, just short of the destination, he asked if this writer was aware how bamboo-plantation is considered ‘not a very auspicious kind of activity’ and that is why we do not see much bamboo plantation enthusiasm, in this ‘Dev-bhumi’. As he had been battling with this very sick and unscientific mind-set ever since it was resolved to push bamboo development, mainly from the Forest officials, almost all ranks, this writer had half-expected this major observation from the top-man himself. Please do not worry at all, he replied to the Forest Minister, it would be entirely his pleasure to plant the first bamboo-seedling and lighten his mental-baggage, before the formal seedling inauguration by the Hon Forest Minister ! One thought our Foresters during their training at the Forest Academies are made to nurture  ‘scientific temper’ and one  hardly expected such inhibitions from them but his experience has been just the opposite. Our ‘Forest Baggage’, believe you me dear readers, is very very heavy indeed.  

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