This is the concluding article of the five part series on the hill state of Uttarakhand that suffered massive flash floods on June 16, 2013. The tragedy left scores of dead. The body count varies from 780 to 10,000. Officially thousands are missing till now and presumed dead. There is no count of the death of cattle and mules, the source of livelihood for many in the region. These posts will deal with the issue of tragedy, disaster management and the age old debate of development and conservation in the Himalayas. The title has been borrowed by the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna’s statement.
The holy Trinity in Hinduism depicts Shiva as the destroyer. However, this is only one aspect of the god who lives in his Himalayan Abode. He is also credited to be the harbinger of change. He resorts to destruction as a last resort to pave the way for new beginning.
Many religious minded residents of the Kedarnath Valley in Uttarakhand also feel they have been the recipient of the wrath of god as they were living an unsustainable life. This view can be dismissed as religious gobbledygook or sheer pessimism but given the enormity of destruction and the task of rebuilding at hand this thought can act as a trigger for new template of development.
The question is what will that new development model be? For this the locals as well as the government will have to look into their own past as well as outside for clues.
The first thing should be a list of things that they shouldn’t do anymore to protect the fragile hill ecosystem. This includes being strict in their building laws. People should also desist from making multi-storied houses. Roads should be made keeping alignment in mind and use of dynamite should be kept at minimum.
Before the tourism became the mainstay in the Kedarnath valley there many vocations that kept people gainfully employed for better part of the year.
Agriculture was one of them. The hilly region is home to fine quality of potatoes, rice and lentils. It also produces fruits and flowers as well as rare herbs. All these items have a huge market in the plains and metropolis.
There was a time when the Kedarnath valley had a bustling apple business. All that is history now. Similarly, many families were adept at spotting the right herb for local medicines. These herbs could fetch a fortune in the national market.
However, lack of storage facilities and transportation forces locals to sell their stuff to hoarders at a throw away price during the season which is then sold by the same hoarders at a premium in the cities at a later date.
If a strategically planned cold chain is built in the area and locals are provided with good transportation facility using the cooperative route it would go a long way in harnessing the agricultural potential of the region.
During the last 15 years youth and middle aged people have been weaned away from the fields by the lure of the quick buck in the tourism season.
Most of the work in the fields has been taken over by women. They can only work during the day time and are hesitant to guard the field during the night. Those who are willing are stopped by the men folk from venturing out in the night. This gives the animals a free run and they destroy crops at will.
Also as the older generation of men have either passed away or are too old, they are not in a position to transfer their age old agricultural wisdom to the neophytes. The government can chip in by asking agricultural experts to help the people in getting back to the land and taking up agriculture as viable business option. It will also help in inspiring the men in the area to keep a night vigil.
In case of herbs, the problem is of dying local wisdom. Immediate efforts should be undertaken to list all the traditional practitioners and those who have knowledge of the Himalayan herbs. They should be given permits to find a certain quantity of herbs that would be enough for them to live decently. Care should be taken to check over exploitation of such herbs.
The area is rich in handicrafts. There is a story that goes like this. During the rehabilitation period an NGO found a village called Chilon where people were making sheep wool blankets and coats. The NGO had already given 200 sheep to another village.
So it tried to build a business model by asking the sheep owners to sell their wool to people in Chilon who in turn would make the blankets. They refused point blank saying even they knew how to make the blankets. It came to light that under the influence of tourism only Chilon had kept the tradition alive while all others had left it for better options. But now these options can be revived as they make good business sense.
Moreover these plans will be kept aside by the locals the moment tourism will start picking up pace in the next five years. To check this phenomenon the tourism traffic in the eco sensitive zone will have to be regularised as it is done in the Amarnath Yatra in the Kashmir valley. The restriction in number of visitors will be opposed tooth and nail but the government should stand fast and resist any temptation to once again revive the business as usual model.
The new template of tourism should be – eco tourism. The farmers in Alps and tribals in South Africa have been roped in to maintain the ecology, biodiversity and big game animal in their pristine form and they get paid to maintain the nature.
For this the central government should heed to the demands of the state where it has asked to comprehensively evaluate the ecological services Uttarakhand offers to the country. According to the state estimates Rs. 25000 crore should be the value of their ecological services but the finance Commission has pegged it at just Rs 41crore and tied it with afforestation programmes.
This needs to be re-evaluated as compensation to farmers and residents will also form a key part of this monetary help. Uttarakhand government did present a comprehensive climate change mitigation plan in December 2013 and earmarked Rs 9000 crore for it. But how far will it succeed will depend on the political will of the leaders and the desire of the locals to make the transition a success.
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