Many people cherish memories of visiting Mussoorie ( located near Dehradun, capital of Uttarakhand ), even called the Queen of Hill Stations in India. The famous hill resort houses the L.B.S. IAS Academy where the country’s future top civil servants are trained.
The Mussorie hills divide the Ganga and Yamuna river systems which have their origin in Western Himalayan region and hence water aquifers here a wider ecological importance which extends much beyond the local region. The limestone rocks of the region are known to be extremely porous in terms of retaining water and maintaining numerous water springs and water sources which are very important for meeting the water needs of the fast increasing population of this hill resort and nearby villages.
At the same time their geological formation is fragile and these are highly susceptible to any disturbance. Their indiscriminate mining had set in motion a series of very destructive landslides about four to five decades back. This writer along with two colleagues Kunwar Prasun (of Chipko movement) and Navin Nautiyal had then visited several of these villages and prepared booklets and articles which were used in a case filed by a leading NGO the RLEK in the Supreme Court in its petition to check destructive mining . This indiscriminate mining was then stopped on the orders of the Supreme Court and a project for planting trees was also launched.
All these memories came rushing back to my mind when I read recently that all these gains may well be lost and a new spate of landslides may be triggered by an approximately 3 km. tunnel bypass project in Mussoorie which is already billed at Rs. 700 crore ( one crore=10 million ) at an initial stage but may end up costing more in financial terms.
However its ecological cost will be certainly much more as the heavy construction and boring work as well as the felling of around 3000 oak ( considered invaluable for water and soil conservation), maple and deodar trees is likely to unleash landslides, disturb water aquifers in a zone of critical importance as well as disrupt the natural limestone-based water conservation system, endangering water springs and sources.
All this is being done in the name of reducing traffic jams and congestion. This is a problem, no doubt, but there can be other ways of reducing this instead of unleashing such ecological havoc which is still avoidable. Certainly much more can be achieved at one third of the proposed economic cost of this project spent on a number of improvements to reduce traffic jams, if the work is done by careful planning which involves local people closely.
But careful planning is exactly what appears to be missing here. Although nearby Dehradun is a leading centre of geologists and foresters, several of them, including those in official positions, have spoken of being in the dark about these important developments and being surprised by the sudden announcement of the project at higher levels. If various alternatives had been considered from the outset involving local consultations, certainly solutions for reducing traffic problems without unleashing ecologic havoc would have emerged.
Still, at this early stage, it is certainly not too late to consider alternatives and thereby save a lot of public funds with better alternatives, while at the same time also saving even more valuable trees and water sources.
It is very short-sighted to think of solving traffic problems on hill roads with a project which is sure to result in higher incidence of landslides. As has been seen in several projects, bigger problems can emerge later with frequent hillsides once fragile, unstable hills have been excessively disturbed.
In fact a strong plea should be made for taking a more careful look at all the rapid speeding up of construction and widening of highways in the Himalayan region and the havoc these often cause on nearby tree growth as well as on life of nearby villages as well. Some time back on the recently widened Parwanoo- Solan highway in Himachal Pradesh, I made it a point to stop at inquire and various points from where such disruptions had been reported from time to time. It was very disturbing hearing from people about how even the existence of their houses and in at least one case even their entire hamlet is threatened. Many small local shopkeepers had been displaced. These are the silent, hidden stories of the costs of highway and bypass development that you will not read in their publicity literature. People told me that the number of trees felled and damaged is much higher than what is officially admitted. An experienced person in the Char Dham highway area told me that when a big tree is felled several smaller trees and numerous plants are gone just like that as collateral loss. So my urgent plea to all the rapid bypass-highway developers is to give the due consideration to ecological and social impacts, starting with the Mussoorie tunnel project.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Save the Earth Now Campaign. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna- Chipko Movement and Struggle Against Tehri Project.