Redefining the Himalayan Carrying Capacity through a People-Centric Approach

Event Report
Reet Lath

An Immersive Online Discussion Workshop on the Carrying Capacity of the Himalayas: A People-Centric Approach was organized by the Centre for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi on October 9th, 2023. This discussion was part of the #WebPolicyTalks Series: The State of the Environment – #Planet Talks.

The chair for the program was Mr. Tikender Singh Panwar, a Senior Fellow at IMPRI and the Former Deputy Mayor of Shimla.

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Opening Remarks

Mr. Tiendra Singh Parvarg,the event’s chairperson, delivered the opening remarks, setting the stage for an essential discussion on the carrying capacity and sustainable development of the Himalayan region. He acknowledged recent environmental devastation in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Sikkim, reigniting debates about the Himalayas’ carrying capacity. Mr. Parvarg highlighted the journey from a petition assessing the carrying capacity of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh to the Supreme Court’s recommendation for the entire Indian Himalayan range. He stressed the significance of this undertaking, especially in the context of the IPCC’s report on the region’s vulnerability.

Mr. Parvarg delved into the historical context of human settlements in the Himalayas, noting that early settlements weren’t typically on mountain peaks. He highlighted that the British colonial era shifted the perception of the Himalayas, emphasizing utility over pristine landscapes. During British colonial rule, utilitarianism took root in the Himalayas due to the British’s resource and infrastructure needs. The British Forest Policy and Forest Act played a significant role in this shift, and certain rights were registered to facilitate the introduction of railways to places like Shimla and Jindanagar. Timber resources were also essential for the northeast, underscoring the idea that the Himalayas were to be utilized for the benefit of the colonial powers.

Mr. Parvarg emphasized that the Himalayas are still viewed through a utilitarian lens, even after India gained independence. Post-independence, the region experienced development and electrification, leading to debates on development versus conservation. He touched on the concept of “nature development.” The Himalayan region faces contemporary challenges, driven by a new development model focusing on productivity and production. Hydroelectric power and tourism are prioritized, resulting in reckless infrastructure expansion and dam construction. Environmental damage, as seen in Sikkim, persists despite warnings.

In conclusion, he stressed the coexistence of nature and people, highlighting the need to seek a sustainable path forward for the Himalayan region.

Presentation by Architect Romi Kosla

Architect Romi Kosla, an esteemed panelist, was then invited to share his insights on the subject of carrying capacity in the Himalayas. His presentation was divided into two parts, as follows:

  1. National Ground Reality: In the first half, he discussed the overall national ground reality, setting the stage for understanding the challenges. He started by emphasizing the importance of preparing for the future today. He underscored that the survival of the country and its regions in the coming decades hinges on how they prepare for the inevitable changes. Change is approaching swiftly, and Kosla stressed that preparation is key. Therefore, he suggested  a revaluation of priorities. Instead of emphasizing economic development, he urged giving a higher priority to people-centric development. He called for a shift away from traditional macroeconomics, arguing that it should be gradually replaced with microeconomics.
  2. Connecting Carrying Capacity to National Ground Reality: Kosla continued by linking the concept of carrying capacity to the national ground reality. He reiterated that a people-centric approach isn’t limited to carrying capacity but extends to governance at the national and regional levels. Therefore, he stressed the critical need to redefine the “National Order” amidst global changes, defining it as the subsystems governing national wealth distribution.

Three Key Goals for Tomorrow:

  1. People-Centric Economy and Governance: The need for an economy and governance system that prioritizes the welfare and well-being of the people. Historical significance: He highlighted India’s 75-year identity shift, blending socialism and capitalism. The welfare of the impoverished often took a backseat. He outlined India’s economic development, moving through Rostow’s growth stages. India’s principles combined socialism and capitalism, resulting in nationalized industries for economic progress.
  1. Deepened Democratic Structure: The importance of enhancing and strengthening the democratic structure. Historical significance: The speaker lamented that, in the last 75 years, India’s people-centric constitution had been forgotten, and the governance structure had drifted away from the ideals enshrined in the constitution.
  1.  Renewing the National Order: A call to revamp and rejuvenate the existing national order, which has been in place for 75 years. Historical significance: The speaker delved into 1947, when India adopted a people-centric constitution but retained colonial and elite-oriented government structures. He criticized this policy as anti-peasant, anti-local governance, and anti-urban, emphasizing centralized political control. Over 75 years, it resulted in a prosperous Indian middle class, but left many in poverty despite India’s strong national identity and global recognition.

Balancing Infrastructure Development and Sustainability

The speaker expressed hope for further discussions, and introduces Mr. Rajnish Jain, a regional manager from Action Aid India. He discusses the issue of infrastructure development in the Himalayan region and the hopes and expectations surrounding the construction of all-weather roads, but also the negative impact that such roads can have on the local communities and environment.

He  suggests that the focus should be on sustainable development that prioritizes the needs and well-being of the local people, rather than just economic growth. Instead, the speakers recommend developing business models that encourage sustainable and ecologically friendly practices, such as piped water systems, rejuvenating springs, and harvesting rainwater. An example is provided of a local man who was unable to provide an example of a successful piped water system, highlighting the need for local-specific solutions that can be implemented at the community level.

Issues in the Northeast Region

Mr Mrinal Gohain discussed issues in the northeast region, particularly Manipur and Sikkim. They mention conflicts related to resources, land, occupation, mining, and water. The degradation of Sikkim’s environment, specifically its rivers, is highlighted. The discussion touches on concerns about the Chugang Dam collapse, the need for representation of mountain states in politics, and the desire for the northeast to have a say in the nation-building process. The speaker emphasizes the importance of being heard and participating in a way that aligns with the region’s interests.

The speaker discussed the issue of deforestation in Assam, particularly in the 90s when large-scale deforestation led to the development of the plywood and timber industry.  He mentions rampant mining and the influx of various individuals, including politicians and dam manufacturers, into the northeast for infrastructure development. The speaker highlights the sensitivity of the region due to geopolitical concerns and discusses the need to balance development with environmental conservation, while referring to a recent event in the Dima Hasao district of Assam involving the replacement of an old railway line.

Resource Gap and Inequities in Mountain Economies

Ms Manshi Asher brings to light the resource gap and global inequities, especially as they relate to mountain economies and environments. She mentioned the theory of Himalayan degradation, which attributed environmental problems to hill populations’ practices, including sheep rearing. The speaker emphasizes the importance of considering the diversity of livelihoods in mountain regions beyond agriculture.

She also discusses how certain practices and policies, like sheep rearing, a green felling ban, closure of grazing areas, pastoral sedentarization programs, and limitations on access to pastures, fuelwood, and timber, were systematically targeted during the colonial period.  These policies led to changes in architectural and other practices and alienation of communities from their resources. While addressing the impact of urbanization, resource extraction, and the privatization of resources, which led to a breakdown in community livelihoods, she argued that this development model induced fragility in the Himalayan region, as it eroded the resilience and adaptive capacity of communities.

Suggested Solutions

The speakers emphasized the need for more rigorous and qualitative assessments, considering geological, ecological, and socioeconomic impacts when evaluating development projects in the region. They provide examples of studies that highlighted risks but were disregarded in favor of project approvals.

They question the purpose of carrying capacity studies and emphasize the importance of setting clear objectives. They stress the need for a people-centered approach that prioritizes environmental justice, sustainability, equity, and autonomy. They argue that in a neoliberal extractivist market economy focused on profit maximization, decisions and studies may remain unimplemented. They highlight the importance of robust governance mechanisms, democratic decision-making, transparency, accountability, and community-based monitoring to ensure successful implementation of environmental regulations and principles.

Acknowledgement: Reet is a research intern at IMPRI.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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