There Are Ecological Limits to Growth – Just Look at Himachal Pradesh

As the state's situation worsens, the only two choices in front of the Himachali people will be mass agitation or mass exodus.

Himachal Pradesh is located in the region of the world considered to be the water tower of the Indian subcontinent. But what happens when the high mountains – repositories of snow and thus water – start running dry? The immediate cause of the water crisis in Shimla, which made national headlines in the last 10 days, may have been gross mismanagement by local authorities, but the larger issues must be central concerns that need long term solutions.

These include decreasing snowfall, reducing discharge in the rivers impacting the supply on one hand and rapidly expanding tourism, the increasing concentration of populations in urban centres crossing carrying capacities and forest degradation on the other.

Streams and springs, the essential sources of drinking and irrigation, are also being depleted thanks to hydropower projects and municipal and industrial pollution. Drilling and blast-tunnelling for these projects have disturbed the hydrology of the region, reducing the discharge of spring water across the state.

Not only have these projects unleashed a new ecological crisis – there also seems to be an inverse relationship between installed capacity and revenues from power. Ten years ago, Himachal Pradesh had half of the current installed capacity – 6,228 MW – and made Rs 1,300 crore in revenue. In 2017, the installed capacity was 10,519 MW and the revenue was Rs 1,000 crores.

While the hydropower slump may be due to the vagaries of the national power market nationally, and the growing cost of hydropower, the role of geological challenges in construction and extreme climatic fluctuations, meaning raging floods in one season and depleting flows in the next, can’t be played down.

Further, these projects were built to provide power during peak summer, when glaciers and snow melt increase river flow. However, Himachal, which was supplying power to other states in the summer, has for the last three years, been buying power from Punjab in this season. Clearly, power generation has been hit by falling water levels in the reservoirs.

According to the Central Water Commission, the Pong Dam reservoir in Himachal Pradesh had 6% storage. It was 22% last year. Despite this crisis, the current state government continues to push the construction of new power projects, which makes no long term financial or economic sense.

The other critical issue is falling incomes from the state’s agriculture sector. This sector’s contribution to the state gross domestic produce has been on a sharp decline over the last few decades, going from 14% in 2012 to 9.40% in 2017.

Recent reports on apple production in the state indicate that this sector will soon cease to be the Himachali farmer’s goose that lays the golden egg. This year, annual apple production in the last two years has fallen by 0.83 crore cartons. Further, the production in 2007 was 2.98 crore cartons, when the area under apple cultivation was half of what it is today (2.2 lakh hectares).

While there are many reasons for this decline, experts believe a changing climate and rising temperatures are having an adverse impact on flowering. This year, several apple orchards have also been razed because they were on ‘forest land’. It is ironic that the state government has been so enthusiastic in evicting occupants from forest lands at the orders of the court while the forest department itself has – since 1981 – diverted more than 12,000 hectares of forests for hydropower projects, cement industries, tourism and road expansion, all ecologically destructive activities.

The forest department has also destroyed mixed forests and grasslands with chir plantations that now cover 30% of the state’s forest area and attract forest fires every year, further depleting the soil and moisture regimes. The estimated area affected due to forest fires this year in Himachal was more than 4,000 hectares, and economic losses crossed Rs 1.16 crore.

Such destruction of the forest ecosystem has deeply impacted the three pillars of natural-resource-based livelihoods in the mountain economy: farm, forest and livestock. Despite the excellent scope of pastoralism, Himachal’s meat production has been plummeting. Towns and urban centres rely on milk from markets outside the state. In the rural areas, while milk production has gone up marginally, farmers have been are buying a large percent of fodder from Punjab at Rs 7-10/kg, making cattle rearing unviable.

Tourism may be making money, with more than a crore tourists visiting Himachal every year, but if rivers are drying, lush forests are being burnt down and mountain slopes are being covered with cement structures, will tourists still want to visit the state? A tourist destination is a ‘spent destination’: once an area opens for tourists, it is sure to become less of a tourist attraction in the long run, unless of course regulations are implemented by local community members and the preservation of local ecology, culture and society are their central features.

Himachal has the status of a special state and therefore access to development funds from the Centre to propping up its economy with a financial debt of Rs 46,500 crore. If Himachal wants to address its economic problems, it will have to pay attention to the environment and ecology.

Unfortunately, the discourse on ‘environment’ in Himachal has been restricted to climate change seminars at academic institutions. There is no dearth of data about what’s happening on the ground but it has not been translated to action because the action has to be at the level of policy and governance, and a complete shift in the way we think about ‘development’. To seriously address the environmental crisis, we need to work on:

  1. Preventing change in land use and commercialisation of natural resources for extractive and polluting industries
  2. Reestablishing farm-forest-livestock linkages to restore sustainable and local livelihood options
  3. Thoroughly assessing carrying capacity and ecological footprints before initiating constructions
  4. Involving local communities in governance and protection of ecosystems

The ‘Himachal’ development model is often cited as one worth replicating in states like Uttarakhand, for example. However, as its situation worsens, the only two choices in front of the Himachali people will be mass agitation or mass exodus.

Manshi Asher and Prakash Bhandari are environmental activist-researchers working in the Himalayan region.