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The Terrifying Lesson of Chamoli

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We, the Citizens

By Hugh & Colleen Gantzer

News of the ghastly horror that struck in Chamoli, on Sunday, is still trickling in.

It is too early to comment on the heroic efforts of the continuing rescue mission, but we must look beyond this dreadful tragedy. We must ask why it happened. More importantly, is this a gruesome pointer to the shape of disasters to come? We believe it is.

The Nanda Devi glacier broke this month. This is strange. This is February, the coldest month in Garhwal. One reason could be that the coldest month this year is not as cold as it had been in the past!

According to the India Meteorological Department, India experienced its warmest January in 2021 since 1958. A report attributed to the Uttarakhand Forest Department’s Pithoragarh Forest Research Wing says that four common plants- Rhododendron, Kasal, Himalayan Raspberry and Himalayan Cherry – flowered and fruited in late January instead of in late Spring or even Summer. These findings clearly point to warming of the Upper Himalayan Region.

This is ominous. Increasingly, scientists refer to the Himalayas as The Third Pole. The state of the glacial cover of the world’s greatest mountain range has a marked effect on the weather patterns of the whole globe. Why then did the government, reportedly, shut down the Centre for Glaciology of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, last year?

The Supreme Court certainly prefers a scientific approach. Climate change was clearly on the mind of the Apex Court when considering a case from West Bengal. The state government wanted to fell 356 trees to construct five railway over-bridges. A bench presided over by CJI SA Bobde had set up a committee of experts to evaluate the true value of a tree. The committee said that the true value of a tree, with a hundred years of its life-span remaining, would be Rs 72 lakhs, taking into account the benefits it would give to nature and mankind including the cost of oxygen it would emit to the atmosphere.

Presumably, the committee’s opinions have been condensed in the news-report. Trees do much more than emit oxygen into the atmosphere. They absorb gases that would, otherwise, add to the green-house effect plaguing our planet. Then, using a magical biological intermediary called chlorophyll, green vegetation converts the carbon-dioxide exhaled by most living creatures, into the oxygen we need to breathe. It also draws up water from the ground, moisturises the atmosphere, and breaks the force of a rain-storm so that water can percolate into the soil and re-charge the springs on which we depend for our hydration. For us, in Mussoorie, such forest-recharged springs are our primary source of water.

In addition to all these life-sustaining activities, forests also cool the earth, and that is very important.

A study by the Universities of Cambridge and Hawaii points to global heating as the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lead scientist of the study, Dr Robert Beyer, was quoted as saying, “Increased temperature can increase viral load in a species as well as the tolerance of viruses to heat, which can increase infection.” To put that in down-to-earth language, Covid-19 thrives in the heat!

This puts a whole new dimension on the Chamoli tragedy. We cannot afford to ignore the terrible consequences of the heating of our environment. It is not a one-off disaster. It is a sign of things to come. That bhooth will only grow if we close our eyes and ignore its lurking danger. Curiously, this is exactly what our netas seen to be doing, perhaps out of a lack of understanding…

Our State Government seems determined to fell trees in the Shivalik Reserve. Please think again. Please also re-think all projects, like the Dehra-Mussoorie Cable car, which would involve the felling of trees. If you insist on keeping such projects secret then please expect vicious rumours to circulate about the true motives of such hush-hush schemes. Netas are not elected on facts, but on perceptions.

The terrifying reverberations of the ghastly Chamoli tragedy will last for a long time. If human-created climate change had not occurred, this horror might never have happened. Nor might the Pandemic!
This, then, is the terrifying lesson of Chamoli.

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime
Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 half-hour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person 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 is a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)