The recent report released by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India on “Climate Vulnerability Assessment for the Indian Himalayan Region Using a Common Framework” has provided an index-based climatic vulnerability assessment for the Indian Himalayan Region. The IHR consists of 12 states including eight North-east states and the hilly districts of West Bengal in the eastern part, and Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir in the western part.
Over the last several decades, many areas of this sensitive region have undergone a significant climatic change in “frequencies and intensity of extreme temperature and rainfall events”, making certain key sectors highly vulnerable. Reasons can be largely identified with various external factors, which are affecting both natural ecosystems and traditional socio-economic systems of the entire region. Many large scale unsustainable economic development projects are fast desecrating the time-tested human nature relations of such an ecologically-sensitive region.
The report, therefore, is significant to draw the attention of policymakers. The North-eastern part of the eastern Himalayan region is known as the biodiversity hotspot of the Indian subcontinent. It is a reservoir of huge and diverse natural resources.
Two centuries back, that had attracted the attention of the British capitalists, making it a site for various resource appropriations and extractions. Coal and oil fields were first discovered for extraction purposes in 1882 and 1889 in Makum and Digboi in Upper Assam. This activity moved on sequentially even during the postIndependence period with Assam remaining the major supplier of both coal and crude oil for building India’s coal and hydrocarbon industries.
The other mineral reserves of the region like limestone and uranium also cut across its hilly tribal-dominated areas. Despite constitutional arrangement of the Sixth Schedule to protect such resources, various ignoble extraction practices have proliferated over time with the formation of tribal oligarchies.
Rising economic aspirations and loopholes in policies have shown the way for forming such networks of illegal and unguarded extraction of resources, threatening its natural ecosystem.
In Meghalaya, rampant unscientific mining of both coal and uranium fields has been in practice for decades, posing severe challenges for both human and environmental security. Such dangerous extraction practices have been the source of livelihood for many marginalised group while turning only a handful of owners into multi-millionaires.
The recent ban on coal mining by the National Green Tribunal created a huge uproar, which even reached the Parliament, as it affected various interest groups including the region’s political class. Abundant water supply being another natural resource of this region, dam construction has gained attention on the river basin of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries to generate surplus hydro-power for gainful trade with neighbouring nations.
In 2001, the region was identified with 168 mega potential dams with an installed capacity of 62,328 MW, out of which 149 were ranked as A and B to signify their high viabilities. Another 900 mini and micro-dams were simultaneously identified for the power needs of the region. Such massive dam constructions, according to various environmentalists, are highly susceptible for the North-east, which is situated in an active seismic zone five.
A major earthquake in 2011, at the dam site of the River Teesta in Sikkim should have been a wake-up call. Dams also destroy the ecosystem. The Loktak hydro-electric project in Manipur alone has made extinct, at least, seven varieties of fish species and have either degenerated or made extinct 23 varieties of aquatic vegetation and affected a large number of villages.
Thousands of people in the vicinity of the dam construction have been displaced and lost their traditional livelihoods across the states of the North-east. The government and proponents of large dams in the region paint a win-win picture — exploiting the country’s largest perennial water system to produce cheap, plentiful power for the nation, economic benefits through power export, employment generation; end of militancy, flood control and little direct “displacement” of local communities.
Dams are made out to be the panacea for all the problems of the North-east. However, the region’s unique characteristics and past lessons from large dams are enough reason to critically examine such promised benefits.
A close look at some of the projects reveal planning based on inaccurate and inadequate information, legal violations by project authorities, lack of transparency and little scope for effective people’s participation in the decision-making process. Similarly, there has been large scale forest degradation in the region, which is the repository of about 25 per cent of India’s total forest cover having only about eight per cent of the total landmass.
Pressure on land with changing the demographic and economic landscape, decreasing cycle of shifting cultivation, exploitation of forest for timber, indiscriminate felling of trees and lack of scientific management strategies are largely responsible for forest degradation in the North-east.
Cutting down mountains and trees for ongoing infrastructural projects like road building is also bound to threaten the region’s fragile ecology in the long run. The study made by Tsering Karma and others (2018) shows that the Himalayan region is experiencing very high levels of climate change, and its associated impacts on both the biophysical and socio-economic systems are severe.
The eastern Himalayan region including all North-eastern states are subjected to such challenges with huge land degradation, deforestation, the proliferation of invasive species, loss of biodiversity, landslides, invasion of commercial crops, and low agricultural productivity. The climate vulnerability report of the DST finds nine Himalayan frontier states with more than 0.50 index. Six of them are North-eastern states with Assam scoring highest with 0.72, followed by Mizoram (0.71), Manipur (0.59), Meghalaya (0.58), Nagaland (0.57) and Tripura (0.51). Arunachal Pradesh has a marginally lower index with 0.47 and Sikkim has 0.42.
In addition, due to varying altitudes, the region also experiences diverse climatic conditions, extreme weather events, recurring unmanageable floods and droughts. Both climatic and non-climatic stresses are creating imbalances in the larger ecosystems of the region, and lives are increasingly becoming vulnerable to such climate variability.
Apart from the extraction economy, unsustainable growth of urban space, industry, infrastructure, tourism and real estate are also currently accelerating in the North-east at the cost of degrading natural resources and higher climate variability. The report of the DST may ring alarm bells to reframe the policy priority on various such ongoing economic development projects in the region.
As the development process is claimed to be irreversible and is seen as essential for attaining a “better life”, ecological safeguards for such a sensitive region must be taken into account in the policy process for future sustainability. Both environmental and social impact assessment studies have to be integral parts of any development programme.
Also, a better resilience system for climate change with several “adaptation interventions” can be experimented with in the region with appropriate use of technology, ground level change by engaging local communities, coordinated efforts across administrative boundaries and political systems. These safeguards together can help build up awareness on such ecological vulnerability and then turn into a mission.
The DST has already developed a multi-pronged cross-cutting National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem under its National Action Plan. Innovative environmental governance schemes can help in sensitising such a mission at various state level practices. Given such a sensitive ecology of the region, a mere growth-based economic model needs a critical assessment. This is already being debated in other parts of the world by both developmental theorists and post-developmental scholars on the fundamental issues of rights, cultural practices and ecological paradigms.
This debate is more critical in the bio-diverse and resource-rich North-east, which is relentlessly being used by both state and non-state actors for producing economic surplus while putting severe pressures on its long-term ecological sustainability and socio-economic systems. This needs serious policy attention.
(The writer is on the faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)