The recent events in Uttarakhand have shown, more than ever, that we need a development strategy for the Himalayas that takes into account the vulnerability of the region and the need for environment protection. There is no doubt that the region needs economic growth. But this development cannot come at the cost of the environment. It will only make the already risk-prone and ecologically fragile region more vulnerable and development more “deadly”. We also know that climate change will exacerbate the vulnerability of this region.

The question is what should be the development strategy for this region? Most importantly, we need to think about a pan-Himalayan strategy so that states can evolve common policies and not follow the race to the bottom. It is also clear that these strategies will have to be based on the region’s natural resources—forests, water, biodiversity, organic and speciality foods, nature tourism—but will need to address the specific threats so that growth does not come at the cost of the environment.

The Himalayas have seen two distinct phases of its rich forest resources. The first phase was the extraction of forests for “development”, which led to widespread deforestation in the region and increased vulnerability to landslides as well as deprivation among people dependent on forests for their basic survival. These concerns led to the first directive against green felling—the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in the 1980s and the subsequent directives of the Supreme Court to check forest-based industry in the Himalayan states. But these actions, however important, have not considered how forests can be used to contribute to the economy of the region. State revenue from forests has declined. Local anger against forest departments has increased. Clearly, we need a different development strategy, which is based on the use of the region’s important resource for development and local livelihood security. Instead, what we are seeing is that large tracts of forests are being diverted for hydropower and road projects.
The standing forests of the region are an important reservoir of biodiversity; these provide protection against soil erosion and increased flooding in the plains and are sinks for carbon. One way ahead would be to develop a strategy to “pay” for these ecosystem services of the standing forests of the region and to ensure that the proceeds are shared with local communities. The 12th and 13th Finance Commissions have included the concept of compensating states for standing forests in its report. Unfortunately, the funds provided for these services are meagre. More importantly, no money has been given to states as yet. The Himachal Pradesh government is currently working on assessing the ecosystem and carbon sequestration services of its standing forests. This issue should be discussed and a common policy evolved so that Himalayan states can “value” their forests better.

This policy must also include the voices and concerns of local communities, dependent on forests for their agriculture and basic needs. All studies in the high Himalayan villages show the role of forests—most crucially as fodder and water sources for sustaining agriculture in this region. How can forests be used to build local economies has to be the big question.

The region’s other key resource is the water that flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains. This resource has to be discussed, both in terms of its opportunity and as a threat to its ecology and economy. Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region. All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a breakneck speed.

The development of hydroelectricity is important as it provides the country with a renewable source of energy and is a revenue source for the state. However, we need to understand the impact of this development on the ecology and hydrology of the region. It is feared that the hydrology will be impacted because of climate change—and extreme events. It is also clear that the impact of the Uttarakhand flood was exacerbated because of the number and poor construction of the hydropower projects. These projects must be reviewed.
The policy for water-based energy in the region needs to be carefully balanced to take these concerns into account. The policy should lay down mandatory ecological flow provisions (at least 50 per cent in lean season); a distance criterion (5 km) and tough enforcement measures and penalties for ensuring that construction of the project does not harm the mountain stability or local water systems.

Then there is tourism. High mountain, adventure, biodiversity and nature tourism is the most obvious route to economic development in the Himalayas. But this tourism is greatly dependent on the ecology of the region. If the environment degrades, tourism will also be impacted. On the other hand, tourism has impacts on the environment, if not carefully managed. The Uttarakhand flood teaches us that we must learn to build sustainable models for pilgrim-based tourism in the fragile hills. There is a problem of pollution, litter and solid waste disposal in most high Himalayan tourist sites. Construction activity is unchecked; in most cases hotels and lodges come up in the most fragile areas.

The move towards eco-tourism needs to be promoted carefully so that best practices can be learnt and disseminated. Most importantly, local people must benefit from the tourism economy. In Leh, for instance, where the government has consciously promoted homestead tourism, there is greater attention to fighting pollution in the town and protecting the ecology. We need policies to promote mountain tourism for local benefits.

These issues are not new. But what is new is the need to respond more urgently to the changes that are beginning to be seen in this climate vulnerable region. It is also clear that development will be critical for the region to cope with climate change and its variability. This is the opportunity to use new models of development, based on the region's ecology and traditional knowledge and culture, to build an economy capable of withstanding these changes.