I have just returned from a brief trek in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. There is the familiar exhilaration that always comes from having spent treasured moments amidst the hallowed snow-capped peaks. But over the past few years, a growing foreboding is taking hold that this precious and most fragile inheritance is slipping out of our hands, relentlessly and perhaps irretrievably. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's commitment to safeguarding the environment and his special emphasis on sustaining the fragile ecology of the Himalayas have come not a moment too soon. But to paraphrase the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization dictum, environmental degradation begins in the minds of men - and that is where our battle for sustainable existence must be fought and won.
On the road to Gangotri from Uttarkashi there is the quaint village of Buki, from where the trek commences. From afar, the village - perched on the side of the mountain and overlooking the fast-flowing Bhagirathi - looks idyllic. However, very soon one is confronted with the detritus of urban living, including plastic waste, discarded shoes and pieces of clothing and much else. The "use and discard" culture is taking hold in these once remote villages as well. But then one was soon in the middle of an extensive deciduous forest, full of ancient pines, oak, cedar and horse chestnut trees and criss-crossed by thundering mountain streams whose ice-cold water was still clean and fresh enough to drink. This is one of the rare forests in our country with trees that are easily a few hundred years old, some with a girth of several feet. I worry that with the Gangotri road so close by, it is only a question of time before this incredible patch of green, too, will become a pleasant memory preserved in our photo libraries.
On the road from Uttarkashi, I saw how entire hillsides have crumbled and plunged into the Bhagirathi. I have travelled this stretch before, but never had to negotiate as many and as extensive landslides as I had to on this trip. This is partly the result of deforestation in the upper reaches and partly the loosening of an already unstable and young mountain terrain from the serial blasting required by the building of an extensive road network, as also the serial hydroelectric power projects constructed on the Bhagirathi.
Haphazard and unplanned development has turned Uttarkashi into an urban sprawl perched precariously on the banks of an angry Bhagirathi. A flash flood of some intensity would wipe out the homes and livelihoods of thousands. Is this what the village Buki is destined to become in the future? And will the glorious forest at its doorstep disappear as both greed and sheer survival take their toll?
As I trekked into the higher reaches, the mountain peaks soon became visible and remained a constant companion over the next couple of days. This is a stretch of Himalayas that includes the famous peaks of Bandarpoonch, Gangotri and Jamunotri, but our destination was the base of the mountain known as Draupadi ka Danda. As is usual in these mountains, there are multiple legends associated with virtually every bit of landscape. Some locals believe that the peak in question is the staff that Draupadi was carrying with her when the Pandavas traversed this Devbhumi, "God's own land", on their way to heaven. Just before being carried into heaven she planted her ancient version of our modern hiking stick into the ground and that is where the mountain stands today. As a trekker I prefer this legend to others. And indeed the landscape that greeted me on arrival lived up to its hallowed origins. There is something in these mountains that at once vastly expands your sensibilities and also humbles you into an awareness of your own insignificance.
I was soon made aware of how this paradise is beginning to tatter at the edges. The base of the mountain used to be a glacier not too many years ago, but it has now receded several kilometres, leaving behind a stretch of damp moraine and mud. It is still called Dokharani Bamak by the local people, "bamak" being the local word for glacier.
But Draupadi ka Danda also happens to be the peak favoured by the Nehru Mountaineering Institute for its popular mountain-climbing training courses. I discovered later that a team of trainees was already at the site when, on the way back, I came across several porters carrying the team's supplies and equipment back to the Buki roadhead. Among the supplies were diesel generators and domestic gas cylinders that were apparently in use at the base camp - this at a rarefied height of 5,000 metres. This deeply saddened me. To think that a bunch of impressionable youngsters were being conditioned to believe that their creature comforts were far more important than the spoliation of the most delicate and fragile ecology anywhere on our planet. More than mountaineering skills would it not be better to start by inculcating in our younger generation respect and reverence for nature, make it aware how much our survival is tied to the preservation of these glorious mountains and how it is the young who must lead the way to a sustainable future?
On the way down I camped at an open meadow called the Tela Bugyal at a height of 2,600 metres. It is surrounded by dense forests on all sides. It also happens to be the base for the Nehru Mountaineering Institute, so several porters had already gathered there awaiting the main team from Draupadi ka Danda. From at about five in the evening right up to nine at night the diesel generator was on spewing its toxic fumes into the pristine air. There was loud music coming from the mobiles the porters were carrying, while there was much shouting over those mobiles for calls being made to loved ones both far and near. There was much excitement that the "signal" was back.
We must celebrate the benefits and conveniences technology has brought us, including being able to get a signal in remote mountains. But it is time to harness the same technology to ensure that we do not extract from Nature beyond its ability to regenerate its generous riches.
Let us hope that there will be many more generations that can continue to share the legend of Draupadi ka Danda and imbibe its cautionary tale.