Preserving the Himalayan ecosystem necessities administrative transparency and an ongoing engagement with scientific consensus
My frequent visits to Meghalaya, aiming to explore the causes of the blue colour of Lukha river and to Sikkim for rapid environmental assessment of Gangtok and many other cities in the Himalayan region for imparting training on environment assessment, clearly exposed that in the name of development, situation of the iconic and majestic Himalayas at the top of the world that possess around 15,000 glaciers, holding around 600 billion tonnes of ice and sustaining 1.65 billion people is certainly perilous. The Himalayas are Asia's water tower and lofty glaciers in the Himalayan region store huge amounts of freshwater that feeds the continent's eight largest rivers including the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. More than 1.3 billion people living in the basins of these rivers rely on them for sustenance.
In the present scenario, global warming grabs headlines for its adverse impact on the Himalayan environment but many of the other pressures on the fragile mountain region merit more attention.
Economic growth to meet the increasing demands raises energy needs. Rampant dam-building for hydropower in a region with high seismic activity and fragile geology as well as infrastructure development like road construction is the clear evidence that the policy-makers who approve these schemes in haste either do not understand the scientific evidence or choose to ignore the far-reaching consequences of such major changes in a sensitive area.
In this context, it is pertinent to mention that the tremendous biodiversity of the Himalayas is being lost because the Himalayas are under severe stress from the economic demands of a growing population. There are also the side effects of unregulated tourism, antiquated policies and centralised governance of natural resources. In a real sense, the degradation of the fragile and unique Himalayan ecosystem is going to adversely impact water and food security for millions of people across South Asia and South-East Asia, including India.
Over the last 40 years, the average temperatures in the city and nearby villages of Meghalaya have remarkably increased. The local people aged more than 50 reported that they could not think of using a fan or air conditioner about 30 years back. According to the weather report, average temperatures in this Himalayan region have risen by 1.5°C, far higher than the IPCC predicted. Rainfall patterns too, have changed, with less rain in non-monsoon periods and bursts of excessive downpours during the monsoon. Glaciers are vulnerable to this rising temperature and changes in precipitation. If the trends of reduced snowfall, increased precipitation and shrinking of Himalayan glaciers continue at this pace, the results will be catastrophic for millions of people in the Himalaya due to frequent occurrences of floods and landslides.
In addition, the unique biodiversity hotspot in the Himalayan region has become the hunting grounds of the notorious mining industry. Small-scale mining for harnessing resources including minerals without an integrated and holistic approach to deal with resource management has caused severe ecosystem damage. The disappearance of 15 Meghalaya miners in December 2018 is clear evidence of the failure of the authorities concerned in complying with the National Green Tribunal's (NGT) order to impose a ban on surface coal mining. The absence of post-mining treatment and management of mined areas compound the situation, making the environment more vulnerable to degradation and leading to large-scale land-use changes. Additionally, limestone mining and processing of limestone in the cement industry generates overburden and fly ash, which ultimately finds its way to rivers. The rivers flowing through the mining belt are now severely contaminated with ill-defined complex mixtures of contaminants. Many of these contaminants remain elusive.
In this view, it is pertinent to mention that the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) were not practically devised to maintain environmental sustainability through scientific assessments and proper public participation. On the contrary, EIAs are outweighed by economic and political concerns leading to legal disputes and public contestations surrounding the project. The procedure and processes being adopted to prepare EIA for environmental clearance have already eroded the trust of common people in regulatory agencies, leading to the loss of democratic accountability. In India, numerous procedural and bureaucratic challenges, as well as powerful political leaders exert pressure to reform EIAs through streamlining and simplifying environmental licensing processes.
With reference to industrial development in Himalayan states, the project proponents create a perception of the necessity for intervention based on discourses about regional poverty, the need for more investment and the supposed sustainability benefits of a project. Generally, EIA de-politicises developmental interventions by positioning project evaluation within bureaucratic and institutional logic of technocratic management but in practice, there is little scope to address corruption, larger territorial transformations and human rights violations.
Despite stipulating industry-specific standards and strong guidelines to carry out EIAs, enforcement is poor, corruption is rampant and the justice system is slow. But the revelation of corruption or manipulation in EIA is tricky and difficult to prove because it is a practice inherently subtle, hidden or not evident though its existence seems certain. The manipulation depends on the interests at stake and political or lobby pressures. A clear case of EIA manipulation is the premeditated use of false information. False information may include, for example, fraudulent use of baseline monitoring data of ambient air, water (river, drain and groundwater) and soil. Such data, in many cases, is undervalued to lessen the expected impact on environmental components, lest the concerned committee refuses to recommend the issue of the EC. Therefore, the project proponent or consultant does not feel any need to monitor the actual status. But critical appraisal will clearly reveal the flaws in the data. Sometimes part of the information that supports a project is not false but exaggerated. Another typical manipulation that is difficult to detect is to hide information. For example, the emphasis on industrial development and export-oriented growth overshadow the environmental and social risks particularly by industries importing raw materials and/or extracting raw materials from the earth leading to dumping of hazardous solid waste on land.
Policy-makers must actively engage with scientists and experts on the problems facing the Himalayas and their people to make sustainable development work. Another option is to create awareness among the people about the geological vulnerability and ecological fragility of their mountain home so that people would surely force more compliance with laws and regulations to protect it.
Dr Debapriya Mukherjee is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal