Rewind to 2003. I was meeting the secretary in-charge of Irrigation in Uttarakhand, with a request to save the canals of the Doon Valley, when they were being covered for road widening. “You asked for the state, you asked for the capital! These things will continue to happen now,” was his nippy and dismissive response. Seventeen years since then, I have still been wondering, “Did we really ask for this mindless destruction?”
By now, thanks to the infantile wailing of some Doon Valley citizens like me, most of us are aware that the felling of ten thousand trees is proposed in Dehradun’s Shivalik Elephant Reserve in the forests of Thano, for the expansion of the Dehradun airport at Jolly Grant. For those who have flown into Dehradun, or even climbed up to Thano Top, a cursory aerial view reveals enough evidence that the airport has already caused immense damage to the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and the forests of Thano. Is it not poetic justice that Dehradun as a destination is coded by the airport authorities as DED? Might as well add an A to it and call it dead!
A couple of years ago, I happened to be in a meeting where the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand was addressing a group of tourism stakeholders and senior officials of the state, when the Union Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister walked in. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, the then state secretary in-charge for Civil Aviation began to impress upon the visiting central minister, the need for Dehradun airport’s expansion so that the state could earn revenues by providing night landing and parking of aircraft that find it difficult to land in New Delhi due to traffic congestion. The union minister politely punctured the argument saying that India’s biggest international airport was already coming up at Jewar in Greater Noida, and there was little opportunity for Uttarakhand in this regard, even if night landing facility was added or expansion undertaken at Jolly Grant.
But, as they say, where fate shuts one door, callous officialdom backed by an unimaginative political class and their nexus with the construction lobby, opens another. Officials are now threatening to send us to the border, to face a Chinese build-up, for daring to oppose the felling of these trees. The new fig leaf is national security. What they do not mention is that the government’s track record in maintaining and operating the really logistically significant airstrips in Uttarakhand — Gauchar and Pithoragarh, has been nothing short of dismal. One also fails to understand what strategic advantage a commercial airstrip could offer when the wholly equipped Sarsawa Airbase is just a few flying minutes away. Moreover, today’s fighter aircraft are taking off from ever shorter airstrips, even express highways. Clearly, there is more to this expansion, ostensibly for Airbus flights, than meets the eye.The mystery deepens when we realise that the new expressway from New Delhi has already reduced the driving time to the valley to about 3.5 hours.
I have no argument against connectivity and the tourism dividends a big airport can yield. But Uttarakhand is becoming a classic case of creating a spectacle by setting one’s own house on fire. We are creating tourism infrastructure by destroying the very experience a visitor seeks – the experience of free roaming wildlife, green spaces and flowing rivers. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on pilgrimage values, that our state was once known for, and bringing them into tourism, we are trying our best to do exactly the opposite – corrupting pilgrimage with values of pleasure-seeking tourism. I don’t visualise hordes of international tourists lining up to see our spanking new, large airport. Do you? Anyways, in the age of Corona, air-travel is already stigmatised as the biggest virus vector. People are increasingly wary of air-travel, and here we are, foolishly expanding our capacities for benefitting a privileged few, in the process destroying our only hope for clean, breathable air. In a country where air pollution has emphatically emerged as the number one killer, much bigger than Corona or any other virus, this is as stupid a crime as any.
I was in Bengaluru early this year for a conference on water, and we were taken on a field visit to several lakes around Devanahalli that have been contaminated by the pollution caused by their new and expanded international airport. In Dehradun’s case, the expansion will bring the airport right next to the Song river, a major feeder for Ganga downstream before Haridwar. Can we then prevent the Ganga from getting contaminated? By expanding the airport near the river, are we not jeopardising the nation’s water security?
Leaving this entire development debate aside, what really takes the cake is the callous attitude of the officials in conducting the Environment Impact Assessment for the expansion. If the forest officials consulted, as the National Airports’ Authority report states, could not find any Schedule-I species in an Elephant Reserve, they need to be sacked and sent back to school.Even a child knows that elephant and leopard, for that matter even Hill Mynahs and Hornbills, are a part of Schedule-I, and an integral part of the forest proposed to be destroyed. That we are systematically eating into their habitats and forcing them into extinction is also common knowledge.
But the destruction of the Thano forest is not the only evil gift we are getting this Diwali. Another ten thousand or more trees are up for chopping for the widening of the Mohand highway. This is a newer project and the files seem to be moving even faster on this one, between Dehradun and New Delhi. In the face of such mindless destruction in the name of progress, I can only recall Edward Abbey’s words, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.”
Only pressure from the citizens can stop this horrific destruction from unfolding before our eyes. Stand up and be counted, before the JCBs drive in.
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?)
Sunday, 25 October 2020 | Lokesh Ohri
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