Most hill people in India and in the mountain kingdoms of Bhutan and Nepal do not see their hydrological nexus with the plains below as symbiotic. This is because in the past the plains have been predatory and the hill people have rightfully felt robbed. In siting projects and allocating the benefits, the authorities have paid insufficient attention to the’ interests of the hill areas and populations.
Immense harm has been done to the Himalayan ecology, some of it by the short-sighted exploitation of resources for the sake of the plains. Hills and valleys which have served local needs as well as those of the plains for decades are now in danger of being able to serve neither. They have been badly gouged for meeting immediate local needs for fuel, fodder and food, and by the rash construction of dams.
The answer is to insist on strict implementation of a forward-looking principle, that there be a fair sharing of any project between the upstream and downstream areas and populations. While recent studies have rightly exposed the damage done to the hills for the short-term profit of the plains, many have ignored those strategies by which the natural nexus between the hills and plains can be truly developed for the benefit of both.
There are those who balk at treating the hills and the plains as a single ecological system. They favour India’s treating the hills as a self-contained and self-sufficient universe to be developed for meeting the needs of the local people. They would admit to two types of tradeoff: the plains should meet a part of the food needs of the hills to help reduce the. pressure of cultivaton in the highlands; and the hilts should be cultivated in such a way that they do not add to the load of silt in the plains. But this under-estimates the scope for much bigger and mutually beneficial tradeoffs, particularly in relation to water and gravity. This brings us to the subject of power projects and the hill-plain nexus.
It would be wrong to turn our backs upon large hydropower projects and confine the Himalaya to small units. By their very nature, micro projects have a limited radius of benefit. While they certainly are to be recommended for isolated hill communities, they are no substitute for larger projects, which can be far more beneficial not only in terms of power but in wider economic terms if the hills and plains of a river system are treated as an integrated economic resource region.
No evidence supports the proposition that a large number of very minor projects can be linked to deliver as much power at a main exit point as a suitably located major project. Nor is there basis for maintaining that a major project necessarily causes more ecological damage than would a whole chain of power-equivalent micro projects scattered throughout the upstream hills. On the contrary, it is more likely that a major project, if fully mindful of the ecology, will do much less damage and in a more limited area.
It would be wrong to go back to the atavistic principle that we turn our backs upon large scale hydro-electric projects in the hills and confine the Himalaya to micro projects. The price would be much lower, and the benefits greater, if major projects were not discouraged and at the same time were required to have full regard for the ecological and economic interests of the hills and hill people.
This proposition, writ large, is also the true basis for the most profitable area of economic co-operation between India, Bhutan and Nepal. The whole case for economic co-operation between the three countries rests upon the symbiosis between mountains and the plains below. The true development of this inter-country symbiosis depends on the same strategies as does the nexus between Himalayan and Gangetic India.
The Dalai Lama on Human Thought and the Environment
We excerpt below the Dalai Lama’s views from an address on “human survival” he gave at Oxford University on 12 April.
“Though the human family seeks a secure future, we find ourselves confronted by many problems. The delicate balance of the earth’s ecology is being eroded on land, sea and in the atmosphere. The global population is increasing while our resources are being rapidly depleted. Under the pressure of a shrinking world, no nation or community can afford to neglect the needs of its neighbours. It is no longer a matter of choice; our mutual requirements are bound to one another.
“The need for mutual respect and a sense of limitations is particularly evident in the environment. Industry has been insensitive in its exploitation of nature. Although previous generations could not claim the degree of development we have achieved, at least the world they bequeathed to us was intact. It is time to examine ourselves and correct where we’ve gone wrong. Science and technology cannot solve all our problems. Our faith in material progress has become too uncritical.
“We need to address our troubles at their root; within the human mind itself. Some may dismiss this as a vague or ineffective view. Ultimately, however, human history itself is nothing but the record of human thought. As one brought up in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, I really feel that love and compassion are the very fabric of tolerance. To me, an humanitarian approach to world problems seems the only sound basis for world peace. We have arrived at a critical juncture. We cannot create peace and a stable environment on paper. Time is short and the problems we face are great. Mutual respect is no longer an option – it is the very price of our survival.”