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Apex court's forestland ruling: Will Himachal Pradesh 'devastate' like Uttarakhand?

Prof Gurinder Kaur* 

On February 15, 2021, a three-judge green bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde allowed the Himachal Pradesh government to clear 614 hectares of forest and move ahead with 138 currently existing infrastructure projects. Apart from this, the bench also approved 289 other projects involving the diversion of 122 hectares of forest land subjected to certain conditions. Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jai Ram Thakur welcomed the Supreme Court's decision. These projects were previously suspended from March 11, 2019 as the Supreme Court barred them under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980 and the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.
The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh said that he discussed this issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The state government also filed five petitions in Supreme Court, one in 2019 and four in 2020, seeking these projects' commissioning.
Disclosing the details of these projects, the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh said that the 138 projects under FCA include 20 hydropower projects, 88 roads, three bus stands, two degree colleges, one Manali ropeway, one helipad, one Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), one cowshed, one Shiv Dham temple, one school and many more. Out of the total projects, 465 got clearance from FRA 2006 by the Supreme Court, including 334 road projects, 53 schools, 20 community centers, 10 dispensaries, seven Anganwadi Centers to name a few.
The bench comprising Chief Justice S A Bobde, Justice A S Bopanna, and Justice V Ramasubramanian also approved the Rs 1,337 crore Green Corridor National Highway Sirmaur and a two-lane national highway in Dharamshala.
Lag in development of state pertains to delays in infrastructural development projects is a worldly notion. The Supreme Court's verdict is commendable since it approves of development projects. However, only time will tell how the government of Himachal Pradesh will implement it. The state of Himachal Pradesh, like Uttarakhand state, is mountainous, earthquake-prone, rich in forests, and covered with snow. It is essential to seek geologists, environmentalists, and locals before any development can occur here. Failing to do so, Himachal Pradesh may have to bear the brunt of the tragic tragedies of Kedarnath (2013) and Chamoli (2021).
Development work in mountainous areas requires removing/cutting of forest cover and mountains/hills. The absence of forests erodes the topsoil cover while cutting off mountains/hills disturb the balance/stability of mountains/hills, increasing probability of landslides, resulting in the massive loss of life and property.
Feeling delighted with the projects' approval, the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh said that the state would proliferate. But such projects fall in the jurisdiction of FCA 1980 or FRA 2006. It is essential to mention here that if the reserved forests or eco-sensitive zones are used for hydropower projects and multi-lane road development projects, this area could be devastated like Uttarakhand.
The construction of a one-kilometer road in the hilly area would extract at least 30,000 to 40,000 cubic meters of soil and stones. During the construction of roads and dams, mountains are usually blown up with explosives causing cracks in them. Consequently, they slide down during the monsoon season either by excessive rainfall or heavy snowfall in winters. This leads to heavy loss of life and property. On average, in the Himalayan region, one person is killed every year by landslides in an area of 100 square kilometers.
In 2014, landslides killed 500 people in the country. A recent avalanche in Uttarakhand has killed 58 people and left 150 missing unaccounted for in the tunnel. A landslide on February 16, 2021 near Garola on Kharamukh-Holi road in Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh jammed vehicles for several hours.
Road widening work was underway at the site, and some part of the mountain blowed up a day earlier with explosives. There are many incidents of landslides that have occured in the country. The landslides destroyed an entire village in Guwahati district of Assam on 18 September 1948, Malpa village of Uttarakhand in 1999, and Malin village of Maharashtra in 2014.
In the mountainous district of Darjeeling in West Bengal, a 60-kilometer road length collapsed in 1968, and thousands of people were crushed to death. In Kerala, 40 people died in 2001 and 60 in 2020, while 67 people died in Mumbai due to landslide incidents. In 2013, about 4200 villages in Uttarakhand were affected, and countless locals were buried under the mountains. Landslides in Malin (2014) in Maharashtra, Kedarnath (2013), and Chamoli (2021) in Uttarakhand have been caused by the construction of dams in environmentally sensitive areas.
Himachal Pradesh state also falls in the seismic sensitive zone. The Indian and Arabian tectonic plates are continually pushing India towards the Eurasian plate, which is likely to cause significant earthquakes from Jammu and Kashmir in the north-western region to Mizoram in the north-eastern region of the country. Geologists had expressed concern after the earthquake in Nepal, 2015 and stated that a major earthquake could strike in the Himalayan region at any time.
A renowned scientist from the University of London, Dr Kesho warned in 2015 that a massive earthquake could hit Himalayan region. An earthquake's jolts were felt in Himachal Pradesh even more recently in 2021 on 12 February at 10:34 p.m. and 14 February at 3:49 p.m. It is pertinent to recall here that Nepal's earthquake of 2015 killed 30 people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Even the earthquake's epicenter was at a distance of 300-400 kilometers away from the Indian border. This earthquake shook 11 states of our country.
The state of Himachal Pradesh is nestled in the Himalayas. Himalayan mountains are also called the third pole of the world as it contains a considerable amount of glacial ice. This third pole melting at a rapid rate due to an increasing average temperature of the earth. Rapid melting of glaciers creating glacial lakes could lead to a tragedy in the state like the recent tragedy of Uttarakhand's Chamoli district. The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh acknowledged that the state would take up the issue of the Chamoli incident while implementing a plan for hydropower projects.
Indiscriminate deforestation could lead to severe water shortages in the state in coming years as trees' roots absorb excess rain and snow water and gradually release this water which flows into rivers, springs, and waterfalls. These projects even include those forest areas which fall under FRA 2006. The law covers the tribal people who are dependent on forests for their basic needs and development rights. The use of their land for development works means the complete displacement of these people.
Even if these people appeal for a lawful hearing in such situations, it often goes unheard. In this regard, based on his research Dr Sujeet has brought out that in the state of Himachal Pradesh, 2,223 appeals were made under the Act in 2018 out of which only 136 were settled. In this way, by using the forestland for development, falling under FCA and FRA is harming the environment and the rights of tribal people.
Sometimes, public welfare institutions such as schools, colleges, and universities are built on forestland. Later on, it comes out that these constructions were not for general welfare but corporate-houses. For example, Manav Bharti University in Solan is involved in about 36,000 fake degrees scandals.
While using the forestland for development purposes, the governments should keep in mind that economic development should benefit people, and people shouldn't be sacrificed for the development. The development should be sustainable and protect the working-class people's interests and not the corporate sector. The Himachal Pradesh government should now seek the opinion and advice of geologists, meteorologists, environmentalists, and local people before embarking on these projects and develop them in such a way as to sustain the natural resources of the state.
---
*Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala; visiting professor, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi

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