In the din and dust of the Lok Sabha Elections 2014 many a disturbing news items have appeared which should have received attention of all well-wishers of the mountain States and mountain regions, especially those who are fated to live in these ‘ecosystems’ as their integral part, besides other components who seem to attract higher priority of those who periodically raise such deep concerns. What really shakes one up is a news item which informs the readers that a High Level Committee ( HLC ) appointed by the Ministry of Environment has recommended cancellation of 24 hydro-power projects. According to this news item this HLC has also held these very hydro-power projects ‘partially’ responsible for the catastrophe that had hit this mountain State. It has been mentioned that this HLC had been expressly constituted on the directions of the highest court of the land. Interestingly, again quoting the same Committee, the said Committee has also commended the Tehri Hydro-power project helpful in protecting the region from a possible catastrophic impact of high-floods. THDC authorities, for a change, have received some welcome breather from a totally unexpected quarter. One looks forward to some grand advertisement from THDC high-lighting this grand achievement, the new role of a saviour ! The other news item informed that the state has decided to exempt all mountaineering expeditions from the Expedition-fee; which had been imposed way back in 2002-03, not only for earning revenue but also as a part of the package that included compulsory engagement of local guides, porters to promote local income and employment.
Unilateral Bans : Water after Forests ?
The mountain States of India are barely though making out a case for relaxations and a set of compensatory mechanisms which must become an integral part of any such unilateral, scientific or unscientific, act of banning. Such a unilateral ban was commenced in erstwhile UP, way back in early 1980s, with a major natural resource called ‘forests’, and nearly 30 years and many ‘environmental awards’ and unilateral extensions later, it is now revealed that there exists no evidence that such a ban had been helpful, either to the region or the practice of silviculture itself ! Quitely, as two such studies undertaken but not officially high-lighted by the department, these research results do not get leveraged to either promote revival of wood-based small scale industry, or relieve the stress that has been caused for nearly three decades now to the hill-people who are forced to used alternate building material or pay very high price for all wood-based needs of their daily lives. The worst-hit sections have been the poorest, the Shilpkars, the wood-crafts persons, the hill-residents who have lost more than half of their ‘traditional rights and concessions, which they enjoyed as their fundamental right !
‘The Unquiet Woods’ have created huge out migrations from the mountain regions, if the 2011 Census figures are any evidence, with two of the oldest districts of Almora and Pauri registering net-negative population growth over 2001 figures ! The story of the North East, especially the extremism caused by banning for commercial purposes since 1996 and an over all cost of living in the mountains has resulted in sharp decline in economic growth and an evident massive infrastructural deficiencies, as recently acknowledged by a Study Committee chaired by Mr BK Chaturvedi, a Member of Planning Commission. Ultimately a Development Disability Index, which became a proof of the fact that ‘Forests’ do create a disability, in so far as socio-economic development of the related regions is concerned. A defeating silence on the part of our esteemed ‘environmentalists’ towards the plight of the species called the Homo Sapiens, all these years, has forced these States to be reduced to a state of a beggary, begging for various kinds of ‘compensations’. Now, this purported denial of access, to yet another ‘Natural Resource’ with which these mountain States have all these years been described as, ‘ blessed with ’, force them to go for another round of ‘begging’, or making out a case for compensation for being denied access ? It has taken more than 3 decades for the mountain States to make the policy makers realise that the unilateral banning of green felling for commercial purposes, should have been accompanied with a corresponding and integral recommendation for ‘compensation for denying access’. The recommendations of this HLC deserve to be discussed not only in context of just ‘scientific justifications’ but equally on ‘socio-economic development’ considerations of the eleven mountain States of India. For long these States have remained hostage of ‘so-called science’ and administrative architectures like the MoEF and ICFRE who have no mechanisms to regularly interact with the affected States, here the eleven Mountain States, despite the fact that the Twelfth Plan has expressly mandated them to change their style of engagement with the States, in a mode similar to ICAR. ‘Environment” is a residual subject under the Constitution, and it is high time that it was brought under the Concurrent List, so that under a Federal structure, States can demand structures like MoEF and ICFRE to immediately affect change in their functioning. Nothing short of a Constitutional amendment will perhaps bring about such a change.
Formula for ‘Assessing Developing Disability Index’
What is being suggested, as has now been made out in the case of ‘forests’, for every natural resource, while a case is made out to deny access to its bona-fide owner, the affected State in such a case, the Expert Committee should also be compulsory mandated to work out and recommend a ‘compensation for denying such an access to harnessing a natural resource’. The amount of academic effort, very often inert-disciplinary, should also include a socio-economic cost calculation, and all recommendations recommending any access must also spell out its compensatory package. Going by the history of similar recommendations in respect of ban on ‘forests’, one need not even hope that the averred to High Level Committee even bothered to look at any socio-economic implication of such denial of access that the affected ‘undeveloped mountain regions’ will have to suffer from ? It was not a part of the Terms of Reference ( ToR ) would be a stock reply of the so-called experts, but what prevented them from suggesting that such terms must always be an integral part of any such study of impacts. If impacts on the ecosystems are important so are impacts on people who are destined to remain in these regions. One is not suggesting that species of fish or a certain species of endangered plant is less important than a species called the Homo Sapiens. Are Homo Sapiens also an integral part of such eco-systems or not ? If yes, and impacts on all species are being so closely investigated why leave out this not-insignificant species ?
Exempting Climbing Fee
One hopes that the Tourism ( or is it Forests ?) department looked at the very rationale of fixing of Climbing Fee, as also the accompanying conditions that were included as an integral part of the new Climbing regime, sometime in 2004/05. Unless the GO has since undergone any change, as this writer had issued that order as the then Chief Secretary, this package ensured a single-window approach aimed at streamlining the multiple-point clearances which were then required, creating quite a few hassels and uncertainties for all climbing parties, the local porters never got any preferences, and being mostly restricted area security clearances for all out-siders involved a major security risk. In short, this new regime was not much liked by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation ( IMF ), who reserved for themselves much of the charges they levied from the very beginning and Mr NN Vohra, the then IMF Chief ( presently Governor, J&K ) tried his charming best to dissuade us from such a move. This writer has no quarrels with a neo-rich State like Uttarakhand, what with World Bank and ADB loans and assistance, what we need to ensure is that such a free-bee does not cut into the employment opportunity and other benefits which were aimed for the locals, and works at cross-purposes with the objective of making Uttarakhand a self-reliant State.
Uttarakhand a Potential Beggar State ?
First with Forests, now with ‘Water’ Environmentalists fast taking over, or are they over-lapping each other again ( ? ), and unwittingly pushing Uttarakhand into a perpetual ‘Begging-Bowl’ mode vis a vis the various National Accounting mechanisms ( Planning Commission and Finance Commissions ) initiatives like Exemption on Climbing/Expedition Fee do not bode well. Whoever made such a brilliant suggestion, as it would not affect his/her pocket, should also be made to seek the Expedition Fee that gets charged by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation ( IMF ) exempted, as the latter takes virtually no responsibility whatsoever when anything goes wrong with any Expedition. One hopes that those in position are aware that the region that was affected by the June 2014 Catastrophe is easily the most sought after destination for all Climbers, the world over. Further, are we really ready to bear all the risks involved with such Mountain Expeditions during the coming months when even the ordinary traveller is seriously pondering over the preparations that are being flashed through full-page advertisements ? One who comes for Mountain Expeditions, let this be understood, is not to be mixed up with a Char Dham Yatri, who is usually inexperienced in the risks that are involved when heading towards the white-peaked peaks. Expedition-fee exemption, if anything, only reveals how little we know about our mountains, and the potential they hold for the real welfare of mountain-people. Have we resolved already that we will ever remain a Beggar State, joining our revered ‘environmentalists’ who do not recognise mountain –people as a part of the mountain eco-systems ?