Post COVID Times: Himalaya Cometh Calling

Dr V.K. Saraswat
Dr Rajan Kotru
Dr Ashok Kumar Jain

In tougher times, the tough gets going. However, to make it happen we need courage, commitment and charisma to take appropriate decisions that are backed by sound thinking, and a steel will to act. But true leadership is also about ethics of taking honest decisions for one and all, when it matters. COVID times have demonstrated India’s will to survive socially and economically. Barring few skirmishes with migrating workers, delivery of survival and recovery packages for poor and marginal, and self-discipline breaches, India has been resolute to ensure thatJaan, Jahan and Jazbaare sustained. The Prime Minister’s Speech to Nation on 12th Mayhas casted the rhythm with which we need to move forward on the future course of recovery. Accordingly, the Five key Pillars:Economy, Infrastructure, Tech-driven System, Demography and Demandare targeted to make the shift from a Survival to Revival Strategy. But given India’s geographical complexity and economically diverse situations theabove 5 pillars can be adjusted in their unfolding as per the regions and contexts while we seek sharpening of our “Self-Reliant” status.
The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) provides a clear case for using one of the key pillars above “demography” as dividend to vibrant Post-COVID scenario. The IHR has shown the bright light when it comes to the minimum number of CORONAinfections and casualties registered here so far. Though it hosts a population of meagre 50 million, it does get a floating population of visitors, multi-fold than the above resident numbers which contributes to State GDPs substantially (In Uttarakhand up to 50%). As in other parts of our country,the major chunk of migrants have also returned to their States in IHRsince past three months.
Prior to COVID arrival, the IHR was already haunted by plethora of challenges such as climate change, land degradation, urbanization, resource-depletion and natural disasters, andmigration was looming as depopulating threat, with overall deteriorating socio-economic and environmental consequences, both for mountains and downstream. Intensive use triggers multiple stressors apart from threats of climate change and globalization.From the regeneration starved Bhoj Patra forests in the treeline space, and the proven case of retreating glaciers from the crown of the Himalayas, to receding natural forest cover of the northeast, and increasing trend of water insecurity and waste accumulation, the holy Himalayas are sinking from their glory. This despite the fact that Himalayas are the seat of our nation’s multifaceted heritage values, aesthetic beauty and sacredness apart fromproviding theinvaluable ecosystem goods and services to millions in the plains of India that include neighbouring countries too.
The ecological health of the IHR is an imperative as it acts like a mighty wall all along the northern border of India which covers an area of about 590,000 km2. Clearly, in a fragile mountain ecosystem, the communities traditionally are deriving myriad socio-cultural, ecologicaland economic benefits. It is therefore a unique occurrence that demography can now be used in the Indian Himalayan Region for contributing to a “Self-Reliant Nation” that generates locally, circulates globally and sustains equitably whilemaintaining the deserved dignity of the Himalayas as our cultural and spiritual cradle.
Reorganising demography in the IHR would mean using local resources and skills and the value added onesbrought by returnees, using its “Niche Value” as crown of India.The demography of IHR and challenges thrown by COVID can be used as basis for renewal as time will move slow for tourism, pilgrimages and adventurists. Of course, the travel in IHR will not be the same Post-COVID, hence we have the opportunity to redesign our development plank in IHR.
Demography can be linked to economy which due to special value of IHR must be “Green”. In simple terms we may mainstream organic agriculture and horticulture, and existing other environmentally and socially friendly value chains (e.g. medicinal plants derived from sustainable forest management or agroforestry for pharmaceuticals, local crops for nutraceuticals, or water security linked to Himalayan springs,etc.) based on entrepreneurship models that create local jobs and convert existing human capital into future business managers that are competitive in branding, marketing, and networking. Precursor to such models could be the mountain district/region-wise identification for products (as done by many states like Lacadong Turmeric in Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya) that promise higher production, quality “niche value” and are backed up by processing centres in peri-urban and rural areas. The Himalayan Region Development Fund could be created for financing such ventures. Similarly, more medicinal plants could be identified for higher production by State and other institutions such as ICAR, FRI, Field Research Laboratory, DRDOand relevant Universities and further research on drugs based on these medicinal plants could be pursued with the support of Ayush Ministry.
Further, this is the most apt time to out-scale authentic eco-tourism including rural tourism in the Himalayas.Building on local entrepreneurship (e.g. waste to economy enterprises), strengthening interlinkages within value chain nodes (e.g. linking scaled-up organic produce to local hotels and Restaurants), using returned skilled workers and local unemployed youth in restoration of degraded mountain landscapes.We can decongest heavily urbanized towns (e.g. Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Darjeeling, Gangtok) and with the support of relevant departments, new tourist centres can be created using carrying capacity basedregulations for the entry of tourists.Cheaper loans, tax benefits etc. mixed with own capital and recent financial stimulus packages could trigger returnees to invest as per their design and stay back. The required local capacities could be assessed generally by Skill Ministry and State Skill Councils on fast track and customised trainings could also be delivered to relevant entrepreneurs. For instance,fallow and degraded lands could be made available to such entrepreneurs. Further strengthening and updating of local vocational centres and their networking to other state of the art institutions could be a very useful investment.
The above tourism development could be supported by the pillar of Infrastructure that promotes green buildings (energy efficient with local architecture) eco-friendly roads, rail networks, ropeways and use of e-vehicles. We could create demand of services and products reaching to one and all and thus bringing economic dividend equitably through responsible tourism.Ladakh is adopting a “Carbon Neutral Model” of development so why not emulate such a concept and apply it across IHR. Hence basis could be laid for reinforcing alternate energy generating sources such as smaller hydropower, wind, geo-thermal, solar and bioenergy from local resources (e.g. wood chips, waste, corn etc). Outreach of Ujjwala Scheme could be further improved making LPG available at the remotest corner. Besides this, IHR has huge resource of bio-mass and same could be harnessed for generation of clean power.
Surely, to design future customised infrastructure or practice of farming, all relevant modern, adapted and gender-sensitive technologies need to be used that contribute to local resilience building but also enhance efficiency and quality. In simple terms, a mountain specific certification process of local organic agriculture productsand fruitscould be made mandatory that uses advance technologies for preparing organic manures at faster pace, use water efficiently and storage of local quality produce for longer times.
Mainstreaming of digital technologyapart from online awareness-building and information sharing then could connect to branding and marketing related networking. Overall,it can also help reduce the need for expanding physical connectivity in the fragile areas (through roads), which has major landscape disruptive impacts. Digital connectivity (for keeping in touch) and ropeway development (for transportation) could improve accessibility.This could also openup investment potential for hard/software production and the needed entrepreneurship for the same. However, linkage to markets and employability needs to be ensured.
It would be good to use the 5th Pillar of “Demand” based on products and services being offered at a premium. Pilgrimage and recreation questof millions could be countered by offering qualitative services at higher prices keeping carrying capacity in view. Limiting the number of people rushing to IHR and causing the key disadvantages of mass tourism (e.g. waste accumulation, water insecurity, air pollution, un-aesthetic constructions) could thus be countered. By decongestingmountain urban areas and creating new smaller sub-urban centres,we could make demand of services and products reaching to one and all and thus bringing economic dividend equitably. Overall this will help to go away from linear economy (make, use, dispose), to acircular economy model keepinglimited resources we have in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life (e.g. bio-waste, waste water recycling etc.)
Two future potential pathways – targeted sustainable development investments (Green) with outcome-oriented Centre-State cooperation, and bottom-up investments with local and State cooperation, are mutually inclusive – and can be integrated for recovery. The need of synergising knowledge of numerous stakeholders (e.g. Academia, Research, Traditional wisdom, Youth, Women), institutions and community best practices is inevitable to build above dynamic Centre-State partnerships and networking between sectors and actors.
To facilitate, the above-contextualised recovery in IHR, it is suggested to designate “Green Economic Zones” at least two each in all mountain States. The parameters for their selection can be outlined by individual States but may orientate to potential sub-urban/rural contexts, eco-tourism corridors, value addition potential to organic farming or other green enterprises and willing number of entrepreneurs, etc. For instance we can promote the case of mass-scale organic farming (Niche crops, nutraceuticals, pharmaceutical herbs), and link the production to responsible tourism (certified norms) while engaging with local human resources, complement these with re-invigorated skills and entrepreneurship modes, and eco-friendly technologies (e.g. recycling of waste and linking it to economy or bioenergy production) supported by branding and linked market demands locally and globally.
Financial services, health and education, climate services and above interventions can be supported from public programmes such as Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, and from private investments wherever relevant (e.g. eco-tourism). Finally, targeted research will need to accompany the above focus areas so that decision-makers would be getting the evidence that in turn will be used to shape policies and programmes of future. It is underlined that implementation of the upcoming “Financial Stimulus Packages” would require desired administrative and governance reforms (e.g. issuing loans/subsidies at timely pace).
The fixing of mutually inclusive 5 Pillars could provide a “quantum rise” for setting a new development paradigm for IHR, which is equally important for securing our borders and be strategically ready for evil designs of few neighboring countries.Not forgetting that IHR is the only landscape of our country having border with 6 countries. Improved networking, local processing and packaging units with strong interface to market outlets can augur well for a rejigged green and inclusive socio-economic development.To provide the ‘escape velocity’for the same,the scope of Himalayan States Regional Council at national level that coordinates with Himalayan Statesfor sustainable development’ might be broadened.
“The reasonable idea on innovation adapts itself to the world but the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to itself”. Therefore, Post-COVID progress depends on the unreasonable, as that takes up the challenge to innovate (adapted after George Bernard Shaw).
The Authors are : Member, NITI Aayog, New Delhi , Lead Strategist, Redefined Sustainable Thinking (REST), Palampur and Principal Consultant, NITI Aayog, New Delhi