I had made two trips in May and June of 2014 to the two mountainous regions of India and China. First one was in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh of India, which lies in the west to the Tibetan plateau. Second one was in the Dauxe Mountain range, a part of Hengduan Mountains, in the Sichuan province of China, which lies in the east to Tibet border. Kinnaur was a lone backpacking trip carried through public transport or friendly hitchhiking. China trip was an organized trekking trip in a group of around 10 people.
In India trip, I travelled the entire distance from New Delhi to Kalpa to Sangla Valley and back to Delhi on road. In China, the distance from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, to Kangding to the base village near Mount Gongga to CoaKe village and back to Chengdu was on road. The total distance travelled in India was about 1300 km and that in China was about 800 km. Time spent on road in India was about 50 hours in public transport and co-travellers’ Innova. Time spent in China was about 15 hours in private mini-bus vehicle. Most of the time spent was in both the journeys was in the hilly areas going up till almost 3000 m above sea level.
The stark difference between both these travels was the quality of roads and the quality of environment in terms of deforestation and landslides adjacent to the hydro projects. Both of these areas have rivers and steep valleys making them suitable for hydro projects.
In Kinnaur district, the biggest dam is at the Kancham-Wangtoo, a Jaypee project, which was started more than a decade ago. There are many small projects all over the valley. Due to the massive floods of July 2013, the roads were still not repaired when I had visited in May 2014. In fact, on the Sangla-Chitkul Road which cuts from NH22 towards Sangla Valley the stones, rocks were constantly falling on our car for over a distance of about 20 kms. The driver of my taxi had his window-shield broken in one of the incidents when the rock actually hit his car! He was keeping a watch on the falling rocks from the slopes above while also looking ahead on the broken road.
In China as well, there were many hydro projects that we passed en route from Chengdu to Kangding. However, the roads were incredibly well maintained. There were a few cracks in the road here and there which could be due to rains or snowfall. But all the main highways G108, G318 were not only very smooth and safe; they had many tunnels to cross over valleys and dangerous routes. We covered a distance of about 10 kms just in the tunnels on our return journey from CaoKe village to Chengdu via Ya’an.
During my entire time in China, I compared everything that I saw or heard or experienced with India. I might have been comparing (Indian)Apples to (Chinese)Oranges (pun intended!) but it was unavoidable. I couldn’t help but gape at the infrastructure development carried by Chinese government in the same difficult terrain and dangerous areas as those in Indian Himalayas. What the hell were we doing wrong?
When I came back I read this story about the village in China which literally carved a tunnel using chisels and hammers for 5 years. Everyone knows China has constructed motor able roads till Mount Everest Base camp. I found that China is even creating more powerful and huge dams. On the other hand, we in India are halting development, because our development is probably resulting in more harm. From what I saw in Kinnaur, I could not help but agree with this report about how the hydro power projects in Kinnaur have actually reduced the place into a landslide infested barren and dangerous region.
Let me be clear about one thing, I believe in development. I believe in construction of roads to connect people and cultures. To promote business and trade. To allow education and personal growth. I also strongly believe in capability of our engineers and scientists to build projects which are both environmentally friendly and allow developmental growth.
What I do not understand is why we have not been able to achieve that in the most vulnerable part of the ecosystem, i.e. our mountains? Is this also due to lack of capital or greed to earn more profits? Is it because the government doesn’t have enough resources to implement the guidelines suggested by environmentalists’ at the time of project inception? Or is it because we didn’t have an active civil body to raise concerns and monitors progress of such projects? Or is it because everyone would rather make money using corrupt means than take up responsibility of such projects?
While coming down from Rampur to Shimla in a taxi, I had a long conversation with the taxi driver who was from the Rampur district. We spoke about the degradation of Kinnaur area and how land was further sliding downwards in the Peo village. Though I sensed a lot of biasness against Kinnaur locals from him due to some local traditional conflicts in the two areas, one more connected to Punjab-Haryana plains and another more connected to Spiti and Tibetian culture, it is possible that locals couldn’t/didn’t do much in this case to avoid such a downfall of this area. Maybe they were happy with the money they got from the land sold for these projects. Or maybe the projects brought work to them that fetched them money. Or maybe they didn’t know whom to approach and how to get heard regarding the rising dust and pollution in that area.
When I think of mountains, I think of trees. I think green. I think of flowers and birds. I think of rivers and not riverbed mining. I think of natural erosion and landslides and not hydro power tunnelling explosions, barren faces of mountains as an after effect. I think of pure natural air and not clouds of sand and dust.
I really do not know where we are failing in our developmental endeavours, but it is high time someone starts a company which can provide solutions into ecosystem preservation. Given the crazy funding activity going on, I am pretty sure a business idea around valley conservation and responsible tourism will be a big hit with investors! Something must be done.