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Char dham highway to Gangotri? Illusion of replanting 2 lakh trees facing destruction

By Bharat Dogra* 

Protecting the Ganga river is a cause dear to the heart of all Indians. Nowhere is the need for protection greater than near the origin of the Ganga river or Gangotri, in Uttarakhand Himalaya. So it is shocking to know that thousands of trees face the threat of being axed here in the near future. A strong national campaign is needed to save these trees.
This threat is related to the Char Dham highway project -- more particularly its remaining stretch from Uttarkashi to Gangotri. This over-centralized highway project has caused avoidable loss of tens of thousands of trees and much other, equally avoidable ecological and social harm by insisting on road width to be wider than what local conditions allow.
Now the same thoughtless, insensitive approach is being pushed ahead in the most ecologically sensitive region that leads from Uttarkashi to Gangotri, a region that is also considered to be most sacred in spiritual terms by millions of people.
This spirituality as well as ecological sensitivity is closely related to the exceptionally rich and valuable biodiversity of the area including numerous herbs. While most of the threatened trees are deodar trees, the felling of these big trees is invariably accompanied by loss of several smaller trees and plants and much harm to other biodiversity including herbs.
Suresh Bhai, a social and environmental activist of this region who has been striving hard to save these trees for nearly five years, says, “If you count both the big and small trees then as many as two lakh trees are threatened.”
Although the government has been talking of re-planting trees, such protection in real-life and wild conditions is more of an illusion, in terms of the actual survival and healthy life of trees. However other more realistic options are available. These range from reducing width of highway to finding alternative routes where tree loss is minimal and at the same time there are additional local benefits such as providing connectivity to some remote villages.
Some social activists as well as panchayat representatives have been deliberating on such alternatives and they have also been speaking to local authorities who have been sympathetic to their proposals but at the same have stated that the final decision has to be taken at Delhi.
So here is an opportunity for highway authorities to do things differently in this last stretch of their Char Dham Project. For a change they should interact closely with local communities and come up with alternatives which can prevent about ninety per cent of the ecological and social harm which the Uttarkashi-Gangotri stretch currently involves.
Clearly once a determined decision to save tens of thousands of threatened trees is taken, it will be possible to find ways and means of achieving this. It is a question of how much value the authorities assign to saving trees. Time and again it has appeared from their actions and decisions that they are paying only lip sympathy to the cause of saving trees.
Another problem is that they work on the basis of highly over-centralized contracts which do not allow for the kind of changes to minimize local harms that are possible only with decentralized planning with close community involvement. As a result massive avoidable damage has been caused in terms of thousands of trees gone, hills destabilized by the thoughtless use of explosives, poor road cutting and planning which locals say has also harmed their farms, orchards and even homes.
Massive amounts of debris have been thoughtlessly dumped into rivers, creating immense problems. The region has become much more prone to destructive, bigger landslides and floods as result of all this, and more danger zones are appearing. Himalayan people, living in fragile, geologically young areas, increasingly realize that they will have to suffer the consequences of over-centralized, ecologically and geologically destructive constructions for a long time.
Traditionally the visits of pilgrims were linked more closely to livelihoods of local people who set up small establishments to meet their needs along roadsides. The highway culture has been disruptive towards these small livelihoods, apart from harming farms and orchards, and this is another factor that needs to be considered while correcting earlier mistakes.
Enough harm has been done already. Let there be a new beginning now, so that in its last stage this highway project takes away some real learning of community based ecological protection, something which can then be useful elsewhere too.
However these hopes will be realized only if a strong, consistent voice for protecting these trees arises not just from Uttarakhand but from all over the country. This is the call of Gangotri today -- save me from further destruction, save the trees which protect me. We really need a strong campaign for saving these tens of thousands of trees. It may be difficult, but it is possible.
---
*Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Man Over Machine (Gandhian ideas for out times)” and “Planet in Peril”

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