Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Narmada Bachao Andolan - 30 years of India's greatest people's movement for environmental justice

To mark 30 years of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)'s resistance to the hydro dam projects in the Narmada valley, I dug up this image of the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra of December 1990, that first appeared on the front page of the now defunct 'The Independent', that was launched and edited (for a very short time) by Vinod Mehta.
I was assigned to cover the week-long march and joined thousands of anti-dam protestors led by Baba Amte and Medha Patkar on their march from Barwani in Madhya Pradesh to Ferkuva on the Madhya Pradesh–Gujarat border.

This is where I first met activists like Medha Patkar, Shripad Dharmadhikary, Rohit Prajapati, Himanshu Thakkar, Arundhati Dhuru, Simantini Dhuru, Alok Agarwal, Ashish Kothari, to name only a few of so many more in the following years, who have shaped and influenced my understanding of the greatest people's movement for environmental justice in modern India.

25 years later, the people’s demands for suitable rehabilitation have not been met and neither has the promise of delivery of Narmada waters to the villages of Kutch, but worst of all no lessons have been learnt and the people have come together again to save their homes, villages and forests. "Narmada ki ghati me ab ladai jaari hai" - The slogan I heard first time on this march is ringing again in the valley since last week.

In August 1993 I posted this report for Frontline Magazine- Manibeli's woes .

Monday, July 25, 2016

Glacial lake threatens Sikkim’s heritage village

“Mosquitos and tourists!” Chokdup Lachenpa shouts at no one in particular as he takes a long sip of Tongba (hot beer) from his bamboo mug.  As if on cue, the children chorus, “The first is because of climate change and the second is the cause of climate change,” causing much mirth and laughter among the customers.

We are sitting at Chokdup’s daughter’s tiny teashop-cum-bar in Lachen, a small village perched 2,750 metres above the mean sea level (MSL) on the right bank of the Lachen Chu river in North Sikkim. Outside, in the foggy twilight, across the Himalayas, we can see the headlights of a cavalcade of vans and jeeps that will soon bring hundreds of tourists to Lachen for a night’s halt.

A view of the Lachen Valley

Situated on a grassy mountain slope, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and forests of rhododendrons and conifers, Lachen is so beautiful it has been declared a “heritage village” by the Sikkim government. And that is its problem. The tag is accompanied by “eco-tourism homestays” pushed strongly by bureaucrats.

It is the last stop for tourists going to Gurudongmar Lake, 5,430 metres above sea level. Buddhists and Sikhs consider the lake sacred. Now, tourists from Maharashtra and Gujarat seem to be competing with the peripatetic Bengalis to make Lachen the number one tourist attraction in North Sikkim.

Feeling the heat

What most of the tourists won’t know is that Lachen valley is facing a massive climate crisis. Behind those welcoming smiles, the Lachenpas – the local residents, an indigenous tribe of the Bhutia community – are a worried lot. Reduced snowfall, unseasonal rains and the forest fires of last summer have made them all very anxious.

To make matters worse and potentially dangerous, Lachen is in the path of the streams flowing down from the growing Lake Shako Cho. The lake at the snout of the glacier by the same name is growing because the glacier is melting faster. It is identified to be at high risk of causing a glacial lake outburst flood, a type of flood that occurs when the gravel holding in such a lake collapses.

A dried up snow stream in Lachen

According to an independent risk assessment modelling by a group of scientists led by R. Worni, “The natural gravel embankment holding the Shako Cho Lake inside could burst at any time, releasing a tidal wave of water. Thangu, a village of about 100 homes immediately below the lake, would be obliterated. The ensuing flood could also demolish houses here in Lachen, 11 miles farther downstream, especially those near to the unstable bluffs of the lake-fed river that runs just east of the village.”

Climate change and glaciers

Climate change is already decimating mountain glaciers almost everywhere on earth at the rate of 3% every year. In India, Himalayan glaciers have lost about 10% of their volume in the past four decades. The Jemu Glacier, not very far from Lachen, has retreated by around 20 metres per year during 1975-90, scientist Jagadish Bahadur wrote in his book titled Himalayan Snow and Glaciers – Associated Environmental Problems, Progress and Prospects.

Even Gurudongmar Lake, the local attraction, has shrunk considerably, according to the residents, raising a question about the sustainability of the tourism industry. The rich biodiversity is also at risk.

“Lachen was the first village to ban plastic water bottles in India. We have always practised organic farming, we have no industry that emits carbon dioxide, we have no emissions, we own very little, nothing compared to the people from the cities,” Hishey Lachenpa states as she serves me another glass of hot tea.

Hishey Lachenpa in her tea shop

The rest of the teashop customers have left to placate the tourists emerging, after slamming car doors, the babble of Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali demanding tea, hot bath water, soda, room heaters and food.

Hishey is 18 years old and studies in class 12 in a public school near Gangtok. She is back home during the summer vacation to help her mother, who has converted a tiny 12 x 12 feet toehold into her home, grocery store, teashop and bar. Hishey’s father is a monk and rarely visits them. She sleeps here with her mother, sister and an adopted younger brother.

“This year we had very little snowfall. Normally we have snowfall from December to February. This year we had snow only in December and then a little in January. But the rains seem to have come early. It will surely affect the potato farmers in Thangu.” Hishey, who has studied climate change at school, says with some authority. Numerous studies have shown that climate warming has forced plants and animals to higher altitudes.

A flash of lightning heralds the long threatened storm. Two men walk into the teashop with the news that a landslide has blocked the road to Gurudongmar lake and the Indian Army can do nothing about it until the next day. So there is no need to wake up and leave at 3 the next morning. They buy two nips of rum, borrow two glasses and disappear quickly.

Traditional houses in Lachen

Gatuk Lachenpa’s house is the oldest in town, a simple two-storeyed stone, earth and lime structure that withstood the September 18, 2011 earthquake. But almost 70% of such old houses in Lachen have now been torn down to make way for gaudily painted, hurriedly built, brick and cement tower blocks, which look most fragile and unsafe, but will help maximise the benefits of tourism.

“Traditionally, Lachenpas used to cultivate barley, maize and buck wheat for their staple and potatoes, turnips, radishes, cauliflowers for their vegetables. But due to erratic weather and fear of water scarcity in the future, most of them are increasingly abandoning their farms to profit from the booming tourism business,” says Gatuk, a farmer who has just built a 50-room hotel, right next to his ancestral home in the middle of the village.

Minimising negative impacts

“Peak tourist seasons are March through May and September through November.  Seventy percent of tourists passing through Lachen are Indians. They typically stay 1–2 nights in Lachen before heading off to Gurudongmar Lake. It is good business. We have to make the most of it till it lasts. While maximising the benefits of tourism, we have to minimize its negative impacts.”  Gatuk says.

Angden Lama Peak seen from Lachen

Measures like banning plastic drinking water bottles and segregated garbage management and replanting of trees are seen as steps towards minimising the negative impacts of tourism. But Lachenpas do not know how to cope with climate change impacts and least of all about what to do if the lake overhead bursts its banks.

Sikkim’s chief minister Pawan Chamling had once famously said, “Sikkim is a mini-theatre which in a way displays how climate change triggered by non-natural forces at the global level could bring disastrous natural calamities.”

Lachen clearly is the main stage where all the catastrophic scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are being played out every day.

“The biggest worry is water scarcity. We used to get about 10 feet of snow but last few years we have only received 2 feet. The barren patches on the Angden Lama peak where our water comes from is a constant reminder of how climate change will change everything for us in the near future.” says Palzar Lachenpa, the current Pipon of Lachen, the traditionally elected head of the local government, the Dzumsa.

“We have only just recovered from the devastation caused by the 6.9 magnitude earthquake of September 2011. All the houses have been rebuilt. Many have added extra rooms to accommodate more tourists. We will never be able to recover from another disaster. We know we are sitting right under its nose, but what can we do?” Gatuk says worriedly about Shako Cho Lake.

Climate calamity

Unseasonal rainfall, unusually stormy weather, landslides, receding glaciers, short winters, accelerated snowmelt, longer summers, fears of water scarcity, failed crops, mosquitoes, crows, tourism pressures and the clear and present of a lake that can burst its banks – Lachen is in grip of a climate calamity but this finds no mention in the Sikkim’s State Action Plan on Climate Change.

“We are doing more than our fair share to reduce carbon emissions but we need more information on adaptation to climate change, we have very little understanding of what is happening. Everything is unpredictable now — rain, snow, summer, winter, everything. We need precise weather information, we need early warnings systems and we need better predictions. More information, any information, to help me and the Dzumsa to better prepare our people for what is to come,” says the Pipon.

First publised on . 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sonam Wangchuk's Ice Stupas Are Firing Up Interest From Ladakh To The Swiss Alps

"The possibilities are endless." Sonam Wangchuk could be talking about any of the many ideas he has thrown at me in the last hour, but in this case he was referring to the "ice stupa", a conical two-storey-tall artificial glacier that was drip-releasing frozen water in the middle of a very hot and dry May, irrigating 5000 poplar and willow trees on the outskirts of Phayang Monastery in the mountain desert of Ladakh.

The applications of ice stupas range from irrigating dry and arid mountain deserts to mitigating dangers posed by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFS). Most of all, Sonam is excited about reviving the rural economy of Ladakh by promoting ice stupas as a winter attraction for tourists.

The Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers...
This is an idea that has already been lapped up by the tourism authorities of Switzerland. Sonam Wangchuk has been invited by the president of Pontresina, a municipality in the Engadine valley near the winter sports resort town of St. Moritz, to build ice stupas to add to their bouquet of winter tourism attractions. After this prototype is built and tested, the Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas in 2017, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast-melting glaciers in the upper reaches of the Swiss mountains.

"In exchange for the ice stupa technology, the Swiss will share their expertise and experience in sustainable tourism development with the people of Phayang, to revive the dying economy of the village," says Wangchuk.

Read the full story on Huffington Post India

Letting go a precious resource

Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti claims that her Ministry is already promoting rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge measures in the country. A Master Plan has been drawn and circulated to all state governments for harnessing surplus monsoon runoff to augment ground water resources.

Unfortunately, going by the actual financial allocations and institutional directives, rainwater harvesting is clearly not high on the minister’s agenda either. It is a state’s problem after all, is the constant refrain heard from the central corridors.

Here we are dealing with a full blown disaster and our only hope is to somehow survive next two months, most likely hotter than this April, and most certainly the hottest years in hundred years, after which we may have a good monsoon, as per Indian Met Department’s predictions. A monsoon that most likely will be wasted again because we forgot to fix our ancient rainwater harvesting bodies, the tanks, the ponds, the lakes, the backwaters, the rivers and the bunds.

Apathy, India’s biggest environmental threat; corruption, India’s biggest development roadblock; and greed of corporate stakeholders are at the core of the failure of implementation of rainwater harvesting policies in most cities across India.

The way forward requires a paradigm shift in water governance and the first step to achieve that is to identify, strengthen and provide legal validity to local institutions and empowerment of local communities, for ensuring equitable and sustainable use of water within ecological confines.

Both persuasive and legislative measures to involve local communities and stake-holders in the creation and maintenance of existing rain water harvesting bodies is a must and for that if criminalizing and penalizing non-conformance is the only way, then so be it.

Read the full article on Governance Today.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

No deal in Paris ?

On the cold morning of December 12, 2015, Aurora, a giant animatronic polar bear, stood forlorn and forgotten outside the temporary convention centre set up in the Le Bourget Airport, the venue of the Paris Climate Summit. Inside, it was the last day of the 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As expected, the conference had run into extra time of one entire day. After 21 years of haggling, another 21 hours didn't seem to bother anyone, and red-eyed delegates who had stayed up all night helping their governments negotiate tricky text options were seen huddled around the coffee booths. All of them aware of the burden of the failed Copenhagen Climate Summit that must not be repeated. Climate change had already unleashed runaway disasters in the four years since that last attempt to bring the world together to take action. All hopes of an outcome, good or bad, were now upon Laurent Fabius, the President of COP 21, who was shepherding the world’s governments to finalise a treaty that will have grave impact on the future of the planet as we know it.

For the first time in 21 years of knowing that they had to deal with the phenomenon of global warming, nearly 200 nations were on the verge of “recognising that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions and also recognising that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasising the need for urgency in addressing climate change .”

Finally when Laurent Fabius struck the specially designed green gavel, the most memorable achievement of the Paris agreement was that “it aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.”

- Read the whole comment on Sanctuary Asia