Green bonus not enough to solve the Himalayan environmental problems?


Debapriya Mukherjee
Eleven States belonging to Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) sought ‘Green Bonus’ from the center considering their contribution in environmental conservation and demanded to set up a dedicated Ministry for this region in the presence of Finance Minister and Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission N.K. Singh at a meeting in Mussoorie.Green Bonus practically denotes the money to be given for the effort made by a country, state or community for preservation of green cover that benefits humanity as a whole. This is a new transformative approach to integrating environmental and development concerns in the Himalaya that is the world’s youngest and the most fragile mountain range, represents a unique eco-region, rich in natural resources. Forests represent the most important among them and play an important role in the life of the people through the ecosystem services. such as Supporting services (nutrient dispersal and cycling), Provisioning services (food, energy, timber, medicines), Regulating services (carbon stocking, pest & disease control, productivity of the soil and purification of water and air) and cultural services (recreational, scientific, spiritual) and many more. Most importantly, forest coverage in water catchment area helps to maintain clean and adequate water. The payment demanded by the Himalayan states is reasonable as they are providing this clean water that flows down from the hills to the plains for the benefit of the entire country at the cost of preserving the forests.
Green bonus is technically and logically good idea because the forest surplus states live with a lot of handicaps due to the overbearing existence of forests, its benefit of ecosystem services and environmental amelioration shared by forest deficit states. In these states, more forest cover means poverty, and backwardness. They are forgoing the revenue by not putting up a factory or new commercial places on slope.  The opportunities for development are lost due to forest cover and the society suffers. This green bonus practically acts as green security to check further loss of forests. Simply preserving the existing forest or fragmented afforestaion based on green bonus is not enough to overcome the prevailing environmental crisis in IHR as environmental quality has already been degraded on account of reckless and senseless urbanization, deforestation and industrialization including mining activities. The loss of forest and prevailing environmental crisis along with climate risk do not fall from the sky. Mainly some development policies and practices coupled with existing social di?erentiation in the Himalayas exacerbate the inpact of hazards on the society and environment.  In this piquant situation, this approach demands critical debates around current policies and practices in relation to Himalayan development and sustainability..
Presently in IHR, mountainous cities sprawled into sensitive ecological areas, such as ?oodplains, water catchments, and steep hillsides, which were prone to natural/ecological disasters. Extending the urbanized area into the edges of nearby high mountains and to the adjacent steeply slopes and even on the top of mountain ranges in IHR is the root cause overcrowding, congestion, water scarcity, air pollution, and associated natural hazards, such as ?ash ?oods, debris ?ow, and landslides. In this year, entire nation is in the grip of flood fury as never before. In IHR ,particularly  Himachal and Uttarakhand,  heavy landslide mountains have come down on roads blocking traffic and damaging properties.  The rapid transformation from concentration to diffusion and the acceleration of its development breaking the natural barriers through bridges and tunnels imposed constant challenges on the traditional wisdom.  The people particularly in IHR cleared their forests in the name of development but the planners of mountainous cities was not  sensitive to the mountainous environments and treasure traditional ecological wisdom that respects natural processes. Deteriorating forest cover and increased fragmentation eventually accentuate to habitat loss by causing a decline in many ?oral as well as faunal species and are the primary causes of ecosystem degradation in IHR.  The past decades had witnessed   a series of unprecedented ecological, weather related and geotectonic disasters that have highlighted the vulnerability of this fragile region. The Himalayas, which are also described as the Water Tower of Asia, can have downstream consequences across political borders in terms of water related disasters. Despite massive development e?orts, poverty (especially in terms of human security and development) remains, while environmental vulnerabilities have increased. The population growth and mountain deforestation particularly ground-holding trees, already caused severe soil erosion  that may be presumed   to cause downstream ?ooding. The problem is further aggravated on account of farming onto ever steeper slopes by farmers. These slopes are  un?t for sustained farming even with the astonishingly elaborate terracing practiced. No detailed study has been carried out to assess the adverse impact of these urban cities based on a variety of factors of physical and built environments  including temperature, noise, air pollution, solid waste, wastewater, vegetation, impervious surface, building height, population density, and accessibility to pollution-affected areas considering  the unique mountainous environment that is highly variable in time and space, including their climate, terrain, geology,and ecology. In this context it is pertinent to mention that there is no commonly acknowledged de?nition or assessment of the prevailing environmental quality and ecological services because of its complexity and inherent inter disciplinary characteristics. The major flaw is that investigations have been carried on the productivity, diversity, poverty, vulnerability, and sustainability of natural mountain systems  but not  on the environmental sustainability of mountainous communities.  Generalization of the vast complexity of the Himalayas  is not realistic because there is  no single Himalayan problem and, therefore, no single solution; there were numerous problems and numerous potential solutions.  The problems are not primarily environmental; they are socio-economic and, above all, political. The Himalayas are also not a uniform entity.  They encompass a range of variations in environmental, social and cultural terms, with some basic elements and uniqueness, such as mountains, ice-fed river systems, remoteness, fragility and marginality, niche environment, and socio-ecological complexity. Another critical issue to solve the Himalayan problems is a lack of recognition of the nexus between water-land-energy-livelihoods and politics. Thereby involvement of any institutions  holding particular agenda such as only green cover or protecting the loss of existing forest will  become fragmented and disconnected and  often fail to understand and address the above  interrelated nexus  and thus Himalayan challenges go unabated.
Now we are going to face  a new Himalayan crisis in the face of changing climate, development trends and persistent socio-political failures in representing and addressing the crisis in ways that lead to resilience and improvement of mountain ecosystems and the livelihoods of the people in IHR. A key challenge lies in the methodological approach to linking science and thereby the present Himalayan problems must be  seen through an interdisciplinary lens, blending social and natural science perspectives.  Some important issues including the politics of knowledge, crossing institutional boundaries, cross-boundary collaboration, and multi-scale interactions must be addressed. Simultaneously there is a emergent need for locally engaged policymaking and strengthening of local institutions for evidence-based decision-making. A new form of research and development cooperation must be inculcated based on the trans-formative pathway involving more deliberative, demand-driven, outcome-oriented, locally empowering and innovative e?orts. There is also a need for more deliberative and cooperative politics, crossing the geopolitical boundaries of the Himalayas. In addition to these, new development around particularly vulnerable areas, especially high mountains and steep slopes, and big rivers and streams, must be rigorously prohibited. Also  development activities which may cause natural hazards, such as cut and ?ll, site grading and terracing, stream breaks, clearance of vegetation, must be minimized as much as possible. The fraction of impervious surfaces in the watersheds prone to natural hazards must be regulated by land-use control measures, according to environmental sensitive analysis. For millennia the Himalaya has been a source of inspiration and they are part of the world's priceless natural and cultural heritage. The security of a very large proportion of humankind may be determined on how the resources of the Himalaya are managed.
The writer is former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board based in Kolkata and can be reached at 919432370163 & 916290099509 or [email protected]