By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
Travel has been our Great Educator.
On a visit to Beijing we saw their Great Hall of the People. On telecasts we see it filled with uniformed rows of men in superbly cut dark suits, white shirts and ties: well co-ordinated cogs in a perfectly lubricated globe-gobbling machine. In Myanmar, Cuba and Romania we saw nations frozen in the ‘40’s: dictators hate change, fascist Dictators hate it most of all. Their preferred emblem is a bundle of perfectly trimmed and cut fagots bound tightly around a wood-chopper’s axe. The symbolism is a delight to all Maha-netas.
It is, therefore, very heartening to find that our Chief Secretary has taken a stand against the careless babus who have made a mess of the roads of Dehra and Mussoorie.
Roads are more than communication links in our Himalayan states. Their bordering drains are also the veins which should effectively remove water falling on our mountains. If they fail to do so, water will soak into our hillsides, make them bulge, and then collapse. This also happens if the topography of our slopes is altered. Could such changes in the age-old balance of the slopes have caused the Chorabari landslide? To discover why our state is so sensitive to topographical change, we must go far, far, back to the very origin of our great mountains.
Many millennia ago, when the earth was still young and birth pangs were still wracking its womb, the roiling, serpentine coils of molten rock called magma, pushed up the inter-locking plates of cooler, solid rock, resembling the shells of turtles, called Continental Plates. On these plates stand the elephantine Continents. The slow, upward, thrust of magma raised the bottom of the ancient Tethys Sea, slowly, inexorably, into the sky. The shells of prehistoric molluscs are still found in our mountains and are sold as the spinning discs of Lord Vishnu.
And possibly, the great Valley of Dehradun was once a vast inland lake. Its southern edge was dammed by debris tumbling off the rising Himalayas, carried southwards by the great torrents which eventually became the Ganga and the Jamuna.
As the Mussoorie Range rose out of the lake, over slow millennia, the vegetation had time to adapt and evolve. In particular, the Himalayan Oak, the banj, transformed itself into the protector of our easily-leached limestone range. (Limestone, incidentally, is largely composed of the bones and shells of ancient sea life transformed by the heat and pressures of the tortured earth growing into the Himalayas).
To get back to the banj. The leaves of the banj are water-repellent on top. They shed water. And they also break the force of a deluge. The leaves are not shed in autumn but just before the monsoon, when the rains come slathering in, the carpet of fallen leaves allow the water to percolate, gently, into the ground, recharging our aquifers and invigorating our springs. There is virtually no run-off in an oak forest, no landslides. Moreover, even if an oak grows at the edge of a cliff, it will not grow outwards, but upwards. When oaks reach a certain height, their tops bend over, consequently winds seldom uproot an oak: they do not allow the wind to lever them off the ground. Then there’s the odd fact that the acorn, the oak seed, has to be scarified, and nibbled to germinate. This encourages birds and small mammals to carry these seeds away from the mother plant to eat it at leisure. Oak groves spread.
Finally, we have noticed something amazing. For many decades we had only one Windmill Palm growing in our Oak wood. No other palm species can tolerate snow. Now, a virtual forest of Windmill Palms are thriving under our oaks, their wide leaves virtually forcing all rain to percolate into the ground with no run-off at all. This bonanza of palms coincided with the rapacious “Developers” concretising our hills.
The mountains are helping themselves but they do need the protective hand of our Chief Secretary.
And Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, do use all the influence at your command to prevent our CS from being deputed out of Uttarakhand. In fact, this could be the litmus test of your clout with the mysterious High Command!
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 firstperson articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)