The lessons of other cityscapes might not always be relevant to Kathmandu planners. But there is India’s Doon Valley.
Rapid introduction of modern transportation and growth of centralised economies has sparked uncontrolled urbanisation all over the Third World. The problems associated with urbanisation in mountain regions of developing countries are compounded by the high valleys’ limitations of geography, ecology and economy.
Kathmandu, Thimphu, and other “urbanising valleys” of the Himalayan region are faced with the challenges of hosting large populations in resource-poor hillsides. Fortunately, they stand to benefit from the experience of Doon Valley in Garhwal, which is unique for having actively sought to come to terms with expansion and development. While the activists of Doon do not have all the answers, they have shown that sustainable progress cannot come in the Himalayan valleys in the absence of dialogue, information, activism, legislation and litigation.
To understand the lessons of the Doon and to positively influence the current course of Kathmandu Valley’s development, one needs to understand the air and water patterns of Himalayan valleys, the economic importance of urbanizing mountain regions, the need for public environmental awareness, and the need to enact new laws for change.
The conflict between urban expansion and resource scarcities is present both in the Doon and Kathmandu Valley, says Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, an Indian ecologist who has worked and lived in both valleys. Both face all the problems of mountainous areas while simultaneously experiencing quick and unplanned urban-industrial growth, he says.
The bad news is that Kathmandu is not far behind the Doon in the problems of ravenous urban growth. The good news is that the government and people of the Doon were able to mobilise and address the threat, which leads one to hope that perhaps the citizens and planners of Kathmandu Valley will be able to avoid major mistakes.
Certainly, it would be wrong to perceive Kathmandu and the Doon as twin valleys. Kathmandu Valley is a former lake-bed deep in the Mahabharat Leith mountains, with its ancient city-States and long history of urban cultural achievement. Doon is a low-lying valley, 800 m to Kathmandu’s 2,300m, nestled behind the very first front of Himalayan foothills, the Shivalik. Both Valleys, however, receive abundant rainfall and have rich bio-diversity in their (remaining) forests.
Doon Valley is located 240 km north-east of New Delhi; its eastern and western reaches are demarcated by the rivers Ganga and. Jamuna. Like Kathmandu Valley, the Doon has several towns within its expanse. There is the main town of Dehra Dun, as well as Vikasnagar and Rishikesh, the pilgrimage center on the Ganga. Mussoorie, the well-known hill station, is situated on a ridge nearly 2,000 m above Dehra Dun.
During their 150-year presence in the Doon, the British built up Dehra Dun as a cantonment town. They cleared the forests for settlement and agriculture, and brought about rapid economic change, introducing transportation and linking the valley to the economy of the plains. The recorded population of the valley rose from 20,000 in 1823 to 127,000 in 1901, an increase of nearly 650 per cent in fewer than 80 years.
While they were responsible for the conversion of a wild and forested valley into an urbanised one, the British did leave behind an exceptional record of natural resource management in the Doon. These controls began to unravel soon after Indian independence, when plainsmen and hill people, including a large number of Nepalis, arrived in search of economic opportunities. By 1989, large chunks of the remaining Doon lands, strictly protected by the British, had been colonised by a population that had risen to 600,000.
WATER, TREES AND ACTIVISM
As the town of Dehra Dun grew, so did limestone quarrying activities in the northern flanks of the valley, which created serious problems of land degradation and water scarcity. Industries established with Government incentive spawned pollution, congestion and slums. The city’s demand for timber and fuelwood threatened the remaining woodlands, which the British had left well-protected. Like densely populated valleys in other parts of the world, the Doon began to suffer the effects of air pollution and temperature inversion. The three largest sources of air pollution in the Doon today are industry, lime kilns and automobiles.
Like Kathmandu Valley, the Doon is simultaneously water-rich (during the monsoon) and water-starved. Lack of water is what will ultimately limit Doon Valley’s growth potential. Though water management has been a major concern of the valley administrators since British times, there is as yet no system to deal with dry season scarcity. The allocation of limited water is often left to political expediency.
Even when augmentation of water supply is considered, the proposed solution is to pipe in water from elsewhere instead of conservation of the heavy rainfall. A proposal to build a reservoir on the Jamuna met with such fierce criticism for its extravagance that it has now been abandoned and planners are finally examining prospects for recharging groundwater levels, reducing runoff during the rains, and improving water storage within the valley. It nevertheless seems likely that increasing demand for water will lead to over-exploitation of groundwater, with its attendant over-use and contamination.
Along with water scarcity, deforestation is also a problem common to Kathmandu Valley and the Doon. The Chipko tree-saving movement which started in the neighbouring areas of Garhwal in the early 1970s also had an impact on Doon Valley. Local citizens challenged the Government’s forest management practices and were successful in stopping commercial tree felling in the Uttar Pradesh hills from 1982 to 1997. Though the tree-felling did not lead to environmental legislation, it started a process of environmental awareness and social activism.
Following the lead of the concerned villagers, additional conservation efforts have been successfully undertaken by government agencies, environmental groups and the people themselves. The Forest Department has in recent years created plantations along roadsides and on public wastelands. Elsewhere, the government has ceded management to local groups, supplying support in the form of seedlings. This type of state-citizen cooperation has been the key to ecological stability of the Doon. “The identification of the people’s interest with the safety of the forest was the only way to save the valley’s natural resource base,” recalls Bandyopadhyay.
THE COURT CASE
Whereas the Chipko movement represented the start of environmental activism in India, it was limestone quarrying which became the center of a classic conflict involving development, conservation and social equity in the Doon. Debris from the quarry sites covered large parts of the hill slopes, damaged agricultural and pasture land, choked river beds and canals, upset urban and rural water supplies and left ugly scars on the way up to the tourist town of Mussoorie.
For the first time in India activists were able to take a case on the environment all the way to the Supreme Court. The issue before the Court was concern about the Doon’s environmental su stainability versus the granting of mining leases by the government. To give administrators a scientific basis upon which to form their opinion, the Department of Environment in New Delhi commissioned an ecosystem evaluation of Doon Valley. In the early 1980s, a group of investigative journalists exposed the hazards faced by villagers living near quarrying activities. Their reports fueled the public protests.
The key to the success of the anti-quarry activists were the issues of social equity and resource constraints rather than romantic notions of preservation of natural beauty. Could Doon Valley afford to turn away from economic prospects of cement factories and quarry contracts? On the other hand, could it deny the local inhabitants access to forest fuelwood and fodder “for the sake of conservation”?
Because they had access to information regarding the ecology and economy of their valley, the Doon residents grew competent in scientific debate. They refused to be intimidated by sophisticated corporate representatives and government officials. Non-violent sit-ins, blockading quarry sites and other such actions marked the case as it made its way to the Supreme Court, exploring the far reaches of the law regarding natural resource management.
The Supreme Court gave its judgement largely ill favour of the citizens of the Doon. Its interpretation of urban environmental concerns referred to the living condition of the poor and their access to basic natural resources. It recognised not only the people’s right to survival, but the right to life in a healthy environment free of avoidable hazards to themselves, their land, their cattle, their air and their water. It ordered certain quarries permanently closed, and ordered the environmental rehabilitation of quarry damaged areas.
LESSON FOR KATHMANDU
In brief, the lesson of the Doon’s experience in natural resource management thus far has been that scientific information on ecosystems, when competently used by public interest groups, administrators and lawyers, can successfully transform active and enlightened public interest into sound growth management plans. It is important that scientific issues and existing data reach the lay citizen in a form that he/she can relate to and act on.
Following the Supreme Court verdict, the Indian Government went on to take positive steps by declaring Doon Valley an “ecologically fragile zone”. It ordered the valley’s polluting industrial activities, such as mining, quarrying — and cement production — stopped. The authorities have also gone beyond set forest conservation areas to target additional areas for afforestation; they have regulated and planned urban growth and developed a system for monitoring and controlling new industries.
The Doon’s development and conservation efforts are today monitored by the powerful Doon Valley Board, set up by the Department of Environment in New Delhi. For its part, the Uttar Pradesh Government in Lucknow has established the Doon Valley Special Area Development Authority.
Does all this governmental action mean that the public has lowered its guard? Not really. The valley’s urbanisation and industrial growth continue to be characterised by protest and criticism. Recently, opposition to a proposed urban master plan prepared by the Town and Country Planning Organisation of the U.P. State Government led to the eventual closure of a cement factory near the town of Rajpur.
To meet the growing needs of its urban, agricultural and industrial sectors, Kathmandu Valley will have to develop policies and priorities that are based on a solid and researched understanding of the environment and society. Environmental policy-makers must have interdisciplinary knowledge which allows them to take informed decisions on urgent matters of natural resource management. Above all, governmental and independent sector institutions which claim to work on the environment must hone their scientific skills and prove their social commitment.
Is Kathmandu Valley ready to move beyond `empty’ environmental speech-making, as Doon Valley clearly has? Do the “experts” in Kathmandu have a full understanding of the ecology and the economics of the limits to the use of available air, water and land? Only when these limits are determined, publicised and understood can the public and the decision-makers set the course that Kathmandu Valley’s future will take.
Beaudry is Associate Editor of The Independent weekly in Kathmandu.