The inability of human beings to adapt to climate change at the pace it is taking place is undoubtedly a reason for the preventable harm being caused to life and property. In Uttarakhand, for instance, for quite some time, it has become government’s task merely to try and keep up with the challenges posed by freak weather and its impact on people’s lives – be it the hopeless task of maintaining roads on sliding hill sides, attempting to shore up villages and fields being eroded due to natural processes, or providing succour to people cut off by snow or rain fall.
The political compulsion to continue with the old practices is so strong that thinkers and planners are unwilling to consider the alternatives. They are happy to continue throwing precious resources into maintaining the processes of the past, rather than swallow the bitter pill of reason. The fact is, the hills are overpopulated. Nobody recognises this more than the hill people, who are taking every possible opportunity to migrate. The traditional economy of the hills, which was based on ‘making do’ within the available resources, has been replaced by a dynamically unstable model that brings growth, but is environmentally unsustainable. To continue with it is to hollow out the mountains, making it even more difficult for people to live there.
The creation of Uttarakhand and the inclusion of a substantial area in the plains were supposed to have been a solution to the problem. However, political tokenism has made it imperative to continue with a large human population that consumes many times what it used to earlier. Not that it is impossible to live in the mountains, but it requires capital investment many times greater than is being done at present, introduction of advanced technologies, with a highly developed set of life skills among the people.
The latter is, of course, being attempted by government and other agencies, but the insistence on keeping the people stuck in the hills during the process makes no sense. It is better to be realistic and allow those most affected by environmental decline to take refuge in safer areas.
A corollary to the political approach to the hills is the reluctance to focus on development of the plains to cope with the inevitable migration. This means that the job-seeking youth, in particular, have to go further afield to make ends meet. About time the government adopted some realistic policies without being too bothered by the chauvinistic, self-serving and sentimental pressure brought to bear by the hill-lobby. The ‘sustainable’ model of development mooted by some NGOs is based on keeping the people mired in a way of life that forces people into a life of drudgery, particularly the women. This is a trap best avoided.