Catastrophic flash floods in Uttarakhand have taken the conflict between economic growth and ecological conservation to a new pitch.
Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna is making hapless attempts to defend his stand of opposing the notification of an eco-sensitive zone in the Bhagirathi valley. Environmental activists are feeling vindicated because some of their worst predictions have come true.
It would be fatal for the public discourse to remain stuck with a false choice between conservation and economic growth. Now, nothing less than a citizen’s assessment of future growth will break this logjam.
This is the conclusion I reached after an intensive six-day tour of more than 16 river valleys of Uttarakhand in early March. The tour was organized by Ravi Chopra, founder of a non-profit research organization in Dehradun called People’s Science Institute, and Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam, a foundation that works on water and sanitation-related issues.
At Syalsaur on the banks of the Mandakini river, village activists described how their homes and water sources are being destabilized by blasting of tunnels for run-of-the-river hydel projects. Much of this region is also on seismic zone five, with high risks of earthquakes.
“There are many ways to generate electricity,” said Sushila Bhandari, an activist of the Nadi Bachao Abhiyan, whom we met at Syalsaur. “There is only one Mandakini and only one Alaknanda. Once damaged, these rivers will be lost forever.”
Within government and the private sector, this view is easily dismissed as romantic and out of sync with reality. Similarly, activists feel the builders of dams are blinded by growth mania and recklessly destroy the environmental base on which life and economy depend.
What then are possible points of intervention?
First, most activists and environmental engineers are not asking for a complete hands-off approach to nature. Their plea is for a thorough review of what kind and scale of construction Himalayan ecosystems can sustain. Secondly, there is now a substantial accumulation of knowledge, both traditional and modern, about ways of making optimal use of ecosystems, as opposed to extracting maximum benefits.
An optimal approach would use the same rivers to generate electricity, irrigate farms or supply water to towns, in ways that may alter but would not destroy the river’s microbiology and hydrology. Then both public planning and private sector investments would be designed on the principle of environmental flows, a concept that takes a more well-rounded view of the multiple functions of natural resources. The opposite of this is to see a river simply as a moving body of water that is wasted if it is not fully harnessed for human settlements or industry.
Thirdly, deciphering the difference between optimization and maximization is difficult, but not impossible. The technical dimension to this task, involving multiple disciplines from microbiology and botany to geology and soil sciences, will remain imprecise and a constant work in progress.
But these technical issues are minor compared with the heart of the problem, disagreement about what is our end goal.
Do we want growth now, for a decade or two, or for a more sustained period? This question cannot be processed either by ecologists or economists alone. The former would fight for more eco-reserves. The latter rejects many environmental concerns as being exaggerated. In this context, even mobilizing citizens to rise in defence of the environment is not enough.
Saving a few rivers in Uttarakhand, if at all possible, would be a temporary and illusory gain. Unless the definition of growth is itself re-examined and reconfigured, both sides could win a few battles now and jointly lose the war. In that case, we would neither save the environment nor have sustained growth across generations. This is why a citizens’ assessment is now an urgent imperative. This would necessarily have to be an endeavour based on diversity of perspectives, knowledge and purpose.
Back in the early 1980s, the then newly formed Centre for Science and Environment brought together a talented group of engineers and other professionals to produce the first Citizens Report on the State of the Environment in 1982, a path-breaking endeavour that shaped the discourse on environmental issues.
Today, such a monoculture of concern, while important in its own place, cannot help to address the root causes of why Himalayan ecosystems are in decline, nor can it help us to cope with the dire dangers of extreme weather brought on by climate change. Viable solutions can only come from those who see ecology and economy as a continuum.
There is a new generation of both scientists and entrepreneurs who understand this. Many of these younger people are swept up in an excitement about social enterprise and innovation that combines social, environmental and business good.
There will surely be a surge of this energy in Uttarakhand as the reconstruction work begins. But long-term answers depend on a political engagement with the future of growth, with finding ways to measure growth both in terms of megawatts of electricity generated and enhancement of the ecological base.
The author is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org