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The Himalayas need a separate ministry

The man who represents Sikkim in the Indian parliament argues that this is the best way to sustainable development in the Himalayas

The recent news about Prime Minister Narendra Modi actively considering a new ministry to develop the Indian Himalayan Region is most welcome. In all these years since independence, the centre’s irreverence towards the Himalayas has been wholly unwarranted and shocking. To many of us who have been hammering away at this thought of a separate Ministry, it is the best news coming from this newly formed government.

The Himalayas, that stretch from the Pir Panjal Range in Kashmir to the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh — the junction of India, Myanmar and China — are certainly nature’s endowment to India.

The 2,500 kilometres of Indian Himalayas house some of the most dense and rare biodiversity reserves on earth. Unfortunately, the people who live in these vast mountains are often forgotten. But they have started to voice their concerns and the centre needs to take notice.

Several institutions and NGOs such as the Indian Mountain Initiative (IMI) have repeatedly pointed out that the Planning Commission does not even take the specificities of mountainous terrains into consideration when drafting  their five-year plans. It was only when the 12th five-year plan was  finalised, that a working group on mountains was constituted, due to pressure exerted by members of parliament.

The Indian Himalayas stands tall. These are our water towers. They feed the myriad of rivers that provide water security to millions of people downstream. Yet, today we have enough evidence to believe that these water towers are running out of ice as glaciers continue to recede. In Tibet, satellite mapping shows that just like Antarctica and the Arctic, even permafrost is melting. As a result, less water will flow through our rivers.

We need comprehensive climate change legislation to monitor and arrest the depletion of our glaciers — perhaps an immediate task for the proposed ministry. Such a ministry could also be tasked with managing contentious centre-state issues. For example, should Himalayan states be compensated for preserving their biodiversity reserves?

The Himalayas also bear great geopolitical importance. The region shares international borders from west to east with Pakistan, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, raising security and trade related concerns. With the right approach, there are several opportunities to be explored as far as trade is concerned — especially if we begin to work on our Look East Policy seriously.

My state of Sikkim showcases a great example of what’s possible: the Nathu-la pass was opened to trade after 44 years in 2006 thanks to a landmark agreement between former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Chinese counterpart in 2004. If this border trade can be upgraded to full trade, Sikkim’s economy will receive a huge boost.

Tourism has always been the most important economic activity in the Himalayas. Scores of tourists from the plains ascend to the cooler climes of our mountain cities. One look at Mussoorie and you will see what serious challenges lie before our mountain cities. We simply cannot sustainably develop our mountain cities with the current one-size-fits-all set of urbanisation policies. Transportation and waste management are burgeoning problems that need solutions now.

Strong action needed from the centre

But they won’t be found without the right policy actions from the centre. Take roads for example. No modern technology has found its way into road construction in the mountains. This is due to sheer apathy. Why can’t the Indian Institutes of Technology carry out specialised research on building infrastructure in mountainous terrains? Dams and hydropower are contentious issues, and must be resolved sensitively at the earliest.

Mountain railways have been around since the British Raj. They managed to take the railways to Darjeeling, Shimla and Coonoor hills. And yet, the technology stands where it was in 1947. The Chinese on the other hand have taken succeeded in linking Beijing to Lhasa by rail. It has been 40 years since Sikkim joined the Indian Union and it is still not connected to the rest of India by rail. We have some serious catching up to do.

The people of the Himalayas have so far never spoken other than when they are under stress. Landslides and huge disasters triggered by rainfall or by earthquakes happen every now and then, and sadly they are perhaps the only time the Himalayas feature in mainstream discussions. The 2011 earthquake in Sikkim and the Uttarakhand floods last year are prime examples in recent memory.

The challenge for the proposed ministry is to ensure that all of these issues are resolved by taking all Himalayan states into confidence. With a decisive Modi at the helm, it now looks possible.

P.D. Rai is a Member of Parliament in India, representing the Himalayan state of Sikkim.