The Himalayas are one of the most vulnerable geographical regions on the earth. Fragility and vulnerability of the Himalayas has been understood and defined in several ways by scientists, scholars and local communities residing in the region. One of their most prominent features is the ‘precarious balance’ of the ecosystems, where even small changes in the landscapes lead to rapid and wide-ranging impacts. Home to about 80 million people, in the Indian Himalayan region many practice mountain agriculture, pastoral traits and varied forest and nature -based livelihoods in diverse ecosystems, including species-rich forests and grasslands.
Covering around 16.2% of the Indian state’s landmass, the region is home to a rich and remarkable biodiversity, housing 30.16% of India’s fauna and 50% of India’s endemic flora.
Himalayan states provide critical ecosystem services to the country. Around 41.5 per cent of the geographical area is under forests according to the National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystems, under the National Action Plan for Climate Change, they comprise a third of the country’s forest cover.
Apart from being one of India’s major carbon sinks, the world’s youngest mountain ranges also are the birthplace of three major river systems, the Indus, Brahmaputra and the Ganga. Originating from glaciers and snow bound peaks; their length and size, and the area they cover is larger than most peninsular rivers; their rapid, high velocity, meandering flow which is constantly shaping the young and malleable Himalayan valleys; their propensity to carry silt and form rich plains to facilitate a fertile agriculture downstream is another unique feature.
Yet, given our extractive economic development model these mountain, forest and river ecosystems are referred to as ‘resources’ to be exploited for profit.
Rarely ever are these seen and regarded as natural ecosystems that are already providing services and support life systems, both human and non-human.
The economic growth led development activities have disturbed these systems leading to unsustainable and unprecedented social, economic, cultural and ecological impacts in the Himalayas.
Hydropower development is being undertaken in the entire Himalayan region of India, to develop a potential of about 115000 MW power. A series of these projects are being built bumper to bumper on the streams and rivers to harness the capacity of the rivers to produce power to its maximum. Arunachal Pradesh followed by Uttarakhand, Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir are being transformed into hydropower hubs. These projects have changed land use, caused landslides and impacted the riverine ecosystems at an enormous scale.
Lack of adequate and thorough scientific planning and impact assessment studies, non compliance of environmental norms and social accountability laws, diminishing space for democratic public participation in decision making processes have further worsened the situation in the past few years.
The Himalayan states have been lagging in the implementation of pro people and pro environmental legislations like the Forest Rights Act 2006, which strengthen community involvement in the conservation of environment and instead have followed the failed ‘plains’ model for unregulated development at the cost of local livelihoods and ecology. The latest move of the Central government to dilute the 1994 Environment Impact Assessment notification through a new draft amendment is yet another step in the race to the bottom. The 52 signatories in ten Himalayan states have strongly opposed this notification completely, because of its provisions which are meant to enable the ease of doing business at the cost of the environment and local communities.
The EIA 2020 notification, if passed, will Ï% allow industries and project proponents to start work before gaining environment clearance vide the post-facto clearance route Ï% dilute the provision of holding public hearings for a series of projects by allowing exemptions – for instance highways and other linear projects in border areas will be not require public hearings Ï% dilute the norms and conditions for post clearance compliances Ï% make the EIA reports even more substandard than they already are Ï% conceal information about ‘strategic’ projects by not putting information on the same in the public domain
Already the EIA notification was weakened in 2006 and this new proposal is about further institutionalizing the changes that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has continued making in the last few years, in favour of the corporate lobby, to facilitate and ease clearances for development projects .
Whereas the nature and magnitude of the current ecological crisis demands that a strong, robust and participatory framework on environmental governance be set up and implemented.