The Himalayas have developed as major centers of ecological and cultural diversities. As a mountain chain they are one of the youngest, merely 20 million years old. These lofty mountains have braved natural disasters and have been scarred many a times by earthquakes, landslides, floods etc. However, of late a new threat is emerging. That is the threat of urbanization to the Himalayas.
Natural beauty has always attracted the mankind and the Himalayas are abundantly endowed with it. Indian mythology is full of narratives of sages staying in the Himalayas for penance. Poets, travelers, narrators all have sung and written praises for the grandeur of the Himalayas.
Whether, Alexander the great or the great Moghul King, Akbar all were fascinated by the Himalayas.
The British were more attracted towards the Himalayas because they offered them a place to escape from the sweltering heat of the plains. P. Baron an Englishman and a merchant from a non-descript town of Roza close to Shahjehanpur happened to pass through Nainital in 1841 and for him it was love at first sight. He built a cottage, the Pilgrim's Cottage at Nainital as his summer home. Many more followed suit. By 1858 despite the 'disturbed' north India due to mutiny, Nainital had become a tourist resort.
This was just an example. Like Nainital many more hill towns came up and grew with time.
The problems faced by the Himalayan towns are many. One of the foremost is the growing population of the local residents and the visiting tourists. Like the British, the affluent Indian class is interested in occupying the prime land for constructing summer home/resort etc. The urban centers are more stressed for they are the only place that offers employment opportunities to the villagers and have better facilities. The Himalayan settlements are hard pressed for land and drinking water. Though the Himalayas have been termed as the 'water tower of Asia', yet the drinking water resources of the towns located on the ridges and slopes are limited.
Mass migration of population from villages to towns in search of jobs and boom in tourism industry are some of the factors that have stressed the hill towns beyond limits. Unplanned settlements, waste management, degradation of water resources, natural disaster preparedness, traffic management and falling air quality are some of the key environmental issues daunting the urban areas of the Himalayas.
P. Ghosh of G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Almora with its centre at Garhwal carried out a systematic study of the problem of urbanization and environmental hazards. Through his publication in the Current Science he has identified the problem and suggested ways and means to tackle the issue.
Real estate development is causing significant change in mountain environment and local communities say Ghosh. Any flat land, whether agricultural or otherwise is usurped by the real estate developers. As such land holdings in agriculture sector in the Himalayas are minimal and gradually they are being bought by the builders. The local residents living there since generations know how to construct houses that do not disturbed the precarious mountain eco-system. However, they are gradually being taken over by people with vested interest who have the sole objective of building houses to make a quick buck.
Proper drainage is one of the prime requirements of mountain stability. Of late due to shortage of land, houses on RCC pillars have come up over the 'nalas' by discarding all the norms of safety. In case of a heavy downpour these very pillars can obstruct the fury of the 'nala' and may be even get washed away by the strong currents, carrying all the residents in their wake.
Thus housing sector needs better organization and control.
Managing solid waste and waste water in the mountainous terrains has always been a problem. Throwing litter on the vacant mountain slopes needs to be completely stopped. Any one caught doing so in Shimla during the British days was severely punished. Now we are 'free' to dump our house hold waste anywhere. Whatever is thrown on the slopes, travels with water/gravity down the slope to the river, thus the urban muck slides down to pollute the river. In addition part of it also travels to the subsurface wherever it gets porous top soil or cracked and fissured rocks. Such pollution remains a part of the ground water and it can emerge anywhere as a spring.
'Solid waste should be classified, decomposed to fertilizers and recycled', says Ghosh. Swirling population has made the need for solid waste management a vital issue. Like urban centers of the plains the sewage of hill towns also needs to be treated before being discharged in to the rivers. Till a few years ago night soil collected from the houses of Almora, a picturesque hill town used to be dumped on the slopes on the outskirts. Such practice is an open invitation to diseases and a health hazard not only for the locals but also for the ignorant tourists.
Change in rainfall has completely changed the scenario of availability of drinking water in the mountains. A change in rainfall pattern and anthropogenic intervention has made the springs disappear, thus the problem is compounded for the towns situated on the ridges or higher reaches of mountain slopes.
Two factors are worth considering, one, the spring water will become dearer and dearer over the years and two, the demand for water will go on increasing each day. It is time to switch over from 'flush and forget' system to recycling of waste water, to counter the water shortage. Better governance and management of water supply is of utmost importance. Anke Kirch, a geographer from the University of Trier, Germany, studied the water supply of Manali a tourist town in Himachal Pradesh. Manali is situated on the right bank of Beas River. Water supply to the town is from the river from a collection point at a much higher elevation to avoid contamination. Despite such precautions during peak tourist season water supply dwindles and is polluted. The scenic beauty of Manali is such that people are attracted to the place in hordes. In order to accommodate the tourists a number of swanky hotels, resorts etc have been allowed to come up, but before planning such a tourist centre the basic fact of demand and availability of water supply was perhaps not given due consideration!
Tourism is being given a boost by the state governments in all the mountain states. The concept of facilities in terms of tourism needs to be revised. For example in England there are remote villages in the Lake Districts where houses with self catering facility exist. Many of the houses are at remote places, where the tourists love to trek and reach, leaving their vehicles far behind. Spend a short holiday in the solitude and return back to grind.
Apart from tourism the urban area development authorities in the Himalayan towns need to implement the bylaws religiously, firmly and strictly. This will check unhampered growth of houses on every conceivable plot. There is a dire need for development of proper drainage and sewer networks in the towns. British settlements like Shimla and Nainital are classic example of a perfect drainage system that has saved the townships from several catastrophes. During rains water acts as a lubricant for the slope forming material and carries the mass with gravity causing severe landslides. Alas these drains now have mostly been constructed upon!
Urbanization cannot be stopped, but at least it can be better planned keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the land and hazard proneness of the area.