Friday, December 1, 2023

‘All of Nature’s Fury’ — India Courts Disaster in the Himalayas

The Modi administration’s competition with China is driving development across the Himalayas, threatening fragile landscapes and communities in India’s far north.

India is a rising power, a message Prime Minister Narendra Modi was keen to deliver during the recent G20 summit in New Delhi. But beyond the pomp and circumstance, the sub continent confronts a mounting set of challenges, many of them directly linked to and made worse by climate change. And, according to Delhi-based journalist Ruhani Kaur, Modi’s tight grip over media in the country means information about what is at stake and who is at risk as the likelihood of climate catastrophe grows is increasingly difficult to come by. The Himalayan region is a case in point.

What is it like to be a journalist covering climate and the environment in India today?

Modi came into power in 2014. I was working as the photo editor of a major magazine at the time, and during the pre-election period we saw how corporate media began to self-censor so as not to be seen as too critical of Modi. Suddenly it became not okay to run certain stories. Everyone in the mainstream – where government ads are a huge source of revenue – wanted to make sure that they were not seen as being against Modi. This started pre-election and that is when a lot of journalists left the profession. Some independent outlets were later started. But a lot of people have had to work along the fringes, and they are struggling. Everyone has had to stay small and those who try to fight the narrative face lawsuits and litigation. It’s been tough.

Climate was a key focus during the G20. What are you seeing in terms of New Delhi’s approach to this issue?

There is a huge disconnect between what is being projected by the state and what you see in the field. There is very little information that comes out from the government, and what is put out has very little transparency behind it. The administration has its own planning commission, they produce their own reports.

But their numbers rarely match those of activists or researchers, and there is rarely any justification given for the differences. So, this is where I think environmental journalism struggles the most. When you have two completely different narratives, there is this sort of dumbing down, this notion that reporters don’t have it right, since the official numbers tell a different story, even if they are never justified. And this presents a difficult task for reporters, beyond telling individual stories, to get the complete picture verified because that is where we see this doublespeak.

Do you think the Modi government takes the issue of climate seriously?

I feel like they know what the important metrics are that they need to “project.” I’ve attended some of these climate conferences, and the discussion is usually: ‘what are the targets we need to reach?” And then some statement is put out that we’ve achieved or surpassed the targets. That is almost always the case. But again, there is this lack of transparency on where and how those figures are arrived at.

Are there any signs of progress on climate coming out of India, either at the local or national level?

I think there are a lot of smaller success stories, of people wanting to make a difference. There are stories of people setting up forest reserves, people looking into alternative sources of energy. There is a growing organic market, and alongside it a push to move toward organic agriculture and away from reliance on pesticides. Solar is growing; you see it in rural areas, where people have been given subsidies. And Modi is behind the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, which aims to improve the country’s waste management systems. So, there is a lot of good work happening.

And then there are the Himalayas. What has your reporting found there?

I focus on the state of Uttarakhand, where the highest mountains in India exist. It’s a border state with China to the north. And one thing that is happening now is this race with China to put border infrastructure in place. India’s railways have never gone into the mountains. The government is now drilling tunnels through the mountains. Out of 126 km of rail, 104 km is tunneling through the mountains. They want to take the railway all the way into the Himalayan foothills. And all the red flags, all of nature’s fury is not stopping them or making them rethink their strategies.

What happens in India is, if you want to get the green light for any project, you say it’s for national security. And that is how it is being run currently. The government is currently working on building hydroelectric infrastructure along the border, and that includes construction of roads and railways. At the same time, a new forest act is set to come into place that says that any infrastructure being built within 100 km of the border does not require preclearance, no environmental studies, nothing. This is really counter to all previous environmental acts, including for forests, which prevented even local communities from grazing their herds in their own forests. Now, in the name of national security and development, it’s a free run.

And, of course, when you clear forests in the Himalayas you increase the risk of landslides. 

This year we have seen some of the worst landslides in the neighboring state of Himachal, which is more developed than Uttarakhand, where that development is happening now. So, you can look at a neighboring state and see what the repercussions are. But that is not changing the approach. The problem with these hydro projects so high up in the mountains is that they’re just not feasible; even the roads are not feasible. Activists will tell you it’s not that these roads are being built now; they’ve been building them for 10 years. They just don’t last. So, at some point you have to realize that what you are doing is not feasible for the area, yet no effort is made to adapt or adjust strategies.

So, in the name of national security, Delhi is razing the Himalayas in a race against China by building infrastructure that is bound to fail. Is that right?

Yes, exactly. Add to that the fact that Uttarakhand is where the holy Chardham Yatra Hindu pilgrimage route runs through. Combined with the national security issues, it becomes this amalgamation of making the right promises to Hindu voters and competing with China.

This really garnered heightened attention after reports showed huge land subsidence (essentially, land that is fragmenting and sliding down the mountain) in a holy town called Joshimath in Uttarakhand. Less well-understood is the large-scale migration happening in higher elevations along the border regions. People are unable to live in areas where the ground is literally cracking and where even the basics, like primary schools or proper health facilities, are lacking. That drives more people into lower places like Joshimath, which itself is built on landslide debris and where the ground is already cracking.

What are you hearing from local people in these areas?

They are completely exasperated. There have been disasters; none of this is a surprise. And there are activist groups on the ground trying to get the government to listen, offering solutions. But there is this huge disconnect. Decisions are being made without input at the local level. After the Joshimath landslide, committees were set up to investigate potential causes for the disaster, but their final reports have still not been made public even after eight months. So, people on the ground are saying, at least tell us if where we are living in a danger zone, but the government is not providing that. And for those who are relocated, they become homeless for life: they are never given land titles again. You leave your land, the minute you move out, you will never have land again. And these people in and around Joshimath know that, so they say: ‘we will die with our land.’

Ruhani Kaur is a photojournalist living in Delhi and an Omega Resilience Awards fellow focusing on the impacts of the global polycrisis on India’s Himalayan region. This story is part of a series of profiles of ORA fellows working across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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