Putting an end to commercialisation

WHEN I first visited the Alaknanda valley in the 1960s, there were few footprints on the path leading to the Hemkund-Lokpal shrine and the Valley of Flowers and nature was resplendent in all its pristine glory.

But by 1969, when I set up a research station at Joshimath to study high-altitude Himalayan vegetation, the valley reverberated to the roar of dynamite blasts. At Joshimath, rock faces were being blown apart and forests cleared for human settlements. The forest cover was receding fast towards Auli and wildlife had moved to safer sanctuaries.

Taking advantage of the newly constructed road network, the forest department had expanded timber extraction to the higher slopes, because its concern was increasing revenue. Elsewhere, the ecologically significant, deciduous, broad-leaved forests were being replaced by commercially profitable plantations of pine and deodar.

Then, in July 1970, a flash flood in the Alaknanda river left a trail of devastation in its wake and now I realise the high price that must be paid for human intervention in nature's order. But no sooner were the roads repaired and new bridges built, tree-felling and rock-blasting restarted. When I returned to Delhi, I met H N Bahuguna who was then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and briefed him on the problems caused by unbridled deforestation in the Alaknanda valley. Bahuguna informed me that the valley inhabitants had started an agitation called Chipko against commercial deforestation in Chamoli district. Bahuguna praised both the agitation and its leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and told me he was convinced that the scientific aspects of commercial deforestation in the geologically sensitive Himalayan region needed to be studied thoroughly. Soon a committee, including the Chipko leaders, would be appointed to conduct such a study, he disclosed.

During the entire decade that I travelled in the Garhwal Himalaya, I became convinced that hill villagers are limited in their means of livelihood. Their nutrient-starved land on steep slopes produces little and they rear cattle more for manure than for milk. The villagers genuinely depend on forest resources to provide their basic needs. But as the forest yields valuable timber, trees are auctioned to the highest bidder who is invariably a resident of the plains because villagers can never hope to win the battle of manipulative economics. The government has also always been reluctant to let villagers manage their local natural resources.

In April 1974, I was appointed chairman of a committee to investigate the propriety of tree-felling in the Garhwal region. The forest department presented data on the logging operation in the Reni forest area, including details of the forest area and the number of trees to be felled selectively. The department noted that as Reni was a mixed deciduous forest only conifers would to be logged at the rate of three per 2 ha. The department argued that this was such a small ratio, it could not cause landslides and soil erosion.

The committee held an open meeting on May 26 in Joshimath and heard well-known Chipko activists, including Bhatt and Gaura Devi, who had led a group of women and successfully prevented the felling of trees in the Reni forest.

After reviewing the situation, I pointed out that the department's contention would hold under normal conditions, but the logging was proposed to be carried out in an area that had recently experienced a devastating flash flood and was still destabilised. Besides, the entire area formed a primary watershed of the Rishi Ganga and other streams and was located in the temperate alpine zone.

For these reasons, I decided not to recommend tree-felling in such a geologically and ecologically sensitive area and cited in support of my decision from forestry regulations that prohibit even sanitary felling (to remove diseased trees) in areas damaged by destabilising phenomena such as fire, earthquakes, floods and massive landslides. I wanted to ban commercial tree-felling from the entire stretch of the Kwari Pass, including watersheds of all the adjoining streams, but the official members of the committee insisted the terms of reference limited the review to only the Reni forest. Nevertheless, I argued that as the genesis of the whole problem is rooted in the 1970 floods, the committee should not take purely a microscopic view.

The Chipko agitation survived even though its leaders' arguments against permitting tree-felling were not accepted. This is not surprising because even the state government's geology and soil conservation experts deposed in favour of tree-felling. The Chipko leaders warned that the actual number of trees felled would exceed the figure in the contract so as to make up the contractor's loss incurred from the usual practice of overbidding and for illegal payments down the line. Unfortunately, a confrontation with the forest department was not possible based on a priori arguments. But, at least the committee hearings established that the watersheds were damaged and it would take a long while for nature to heal itself. As the foresters had no suggestions to offer on how to restore a watershed at 4,000 m, I recommended that tree-felling be banned for 10 years in an area of 2,000 sq km but as this should not create hardships for the villagers their rights over forest resources should be respected. It was not until the Emergency was imposed in 1975 and an official four-point programme, including tree-planting -- and by implication, a ban on tree-felling -- issued that my recommendations were finally accepted by the full committee.