“Bringing the forests back at 9000 feet” by Consumer Voice
Bringing the forests back at 9000 feet
Lakhs of pilgrims descend on the pilgrim spot of Gangotri every year. The just concluded ‘kaanwar’ yatra not only causes traffic chaos in cities, but also harms the Himalayan glacier of Gangotri as ‘kaanwars’ are allowed to freely enter the Gangotri national park area. The government has done its bit to save the Gangotri glacier from disappearing by limiting the number of pilgrims who can be allowed to go to Gaumukh, but are these localised efforts enough to save the age-old glacier from disappearing? Can the Ganga Action Plan conserve the river in time, before it is too late?
High up in the Himalayan reaches, a conservator is fighting all odds to regenerate forests in Gangotri and Gaumukh, from where the trees have all but disappeared due to increased human activity.
Harshwanti Bisht is an academic, a mountaineer, an environmentalist and an author – all rolled into one. A native of Garwhal, Dr Bisht was always interested in environmental issues. As a mountaineer who had scaled the Mount Everest in 1984, her love for the mountains led her to undertake pioneering afforestation work in Gangotri. The legendary pilgrimage stops of Bhojbasa and Chirbasa, which are called so because of Bhojpatra and Chir forests there, were just denuded places with tea stalls when Harshwanti Bisht decided to turn things around. Now, thanks to her efforts, there are plantation nurseries at the height of 3,600 metres about sea level and the plants have a survival rate of 60-65 percent.
Consumer VOICE talks to the Arjuna award winner who takes stock of the situation in Gangotri.
Consumer VOICE: How has pilgrimage impacted the river Ganga and its source at Gangotri and Gaumukh?
Harshwanti Bisht: Pilgrimage to Gangotri is an age-old tradition, but tourism is a modern phenomenon. Till about a hundred years ago, the pilgrimage spot of Gangotri was marked by a small temple and the river Ganga used to run free from Gaumukh. Now, there are hundreds of concrete structure shops, guest houses, hotels and dharamshalas at Gangotri and an annual tourist influx of lakhs of people. The tourist inflow was encouraged by the construction of a giant iron bridge over the Jadh river at Bhaironghati in 1985, which made the way to Gangotri entirely motorable. People had unrestricted access to the fragile ecology of the Gaumukh glacier, which is one of the biggest glaciers in the world, and now is fast receding. The stoppage points of Bhojbasa and Chirbasa en route the trek to Gaumukh had ugly tea shops and a tourist bungalow. Since there was no alternate source of fuel, the Juniper and Bhojpatra trees would be cut down for firewood. The alpine forests were all but destroyed by haphazardly planned tourism activity. During my treks to the area in the 1970s, I used to see many types of alpine flowers in the area. We don’t see them anymore here.
Consumer VOICE: How did you get involved with conservation work in Gangotri?
Harshwanti Bisht: I started to work on conservation campaign in Gangotri in 1989. Being a mountaineer, the experience of working in higher altitudes sustained me in my work. The increased tourism does help the local economy but it destroys the environment. I would take my students to treks to show them how the Gangotri environment was being degraded. Then I applied for permission to raise a plant nursery of indigenous species like Birch, Salix and Poplars at Chirbasa. Four years later, permission was granted by the forest division. Very soon, we raised a young plant nursery of Bhojpatra (Betula utilis), Bhangil (Salix babilonica) and Pahari Pipal (Populous ciliate) at Chirbasa.
Following this success, I was allowed to initiate afforestation at Bhojbasa over a 12-hectare area. To save the plantation from horses and ponies, I was also permitted to put up a barbed wire fencing. Two thousand and five hundred saplings of Bhojpatra, Salix and Populous were planted for the first time in Bhojbasa area in 1996. Plants were taken care of by two men for ten years. The growth rate of the plants was on average 6-8 inches per annum with a survival rate of 60-65 percent. The climate at such high altitudes is dry and cold but still, after ten years, the trees have grown upto 4-5 feet in height. Now we have the first successful plantation of Birch in the Indian Himalayas.
Consumer VOICE: Has the environmental situation in Gangotri improved now?
Harshwanti Bisht: In the last few years, there have been some positive changes in government regulation as well as in people’s attitude towards conservation of the river and glacier. Now, the forest department does not allow more than 150 people per day to embark on the Gaumukh trek. The tea stalls have been shifted out of the area and there is also a restricted number – 10 to 15 – of ponies which are allowed inside the Gangotri National Park area. Now that people have actually seen flourishing nurseries of plants, they are convinced that it is not impossible to regenerate forests, even in such adverse climatic conditions.
Consumer VOICE: How is the river Ganga coping with environmental pollution?
Harshwanti Bisht: It is good that Ganga has been declared a national river but just proclaiming it as a national river is not enough. In the Uttarkashi region, the river has been dammed in several places for hydal projects and electricity generation, but if the river itself is going to disappear, from where will the electricity come? The Ganga pollution starts from the Himalayan region itself. The untreated sewerage waste of the houses, shops and guesthouses by the riverside is dumped into the river. The solid waste which is dumped in landfill somewhere, also leaches into the river downhill during the rains. The Ganga Action Plan II has provisions for laying down of sewerage lines but nothing has been done about it till now in Uttarkashi. We are still making do with the waste disposal system of the 1960s, even when the population has increased manifold in the meantime.