India Insight

More pilgrims mean more trouble for shrines in north India

Nestled in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With major Hindu shrines located in the state, about 70 percent of the tourists who visit the state visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath – a small temple town located 3,583 metres (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed out in recent flash floods.

The rush to the Himalayas has been accompanied by a haphazard pattern of growth that might not be sustainable. A study by infrastructure group IL&FS IDC Ltd showed that the carrying capacities – maximum number of persons an environment can support — of various tourist centres in Uttarakhand reached saturation levels in 2010.

It is in this context that some environmentalists have been calling the devastating floods a man-made catastrophe. “Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated … and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism,” said activist Vandana Shiva in an email conversation with me. (To see pictures from the flood crisis, click here)

A booming economy, young population and better infrastructure led to about 900 million visits to various domestic destinations, including to another Himalayan shrine, the Amarnath cave, in 2012. Located in a narrow gauge in Kashmir, this snow-covered shrine attracted more than 600,000 Hindu pilgrims last year, up more than 30 percent from 2010.

This year, the tour operators in the state expect even more pilgrims, though the board overseeing the pilgrimage arrangements refuses to put a number to the expected rush. “Number (of pilgrims) is fixed – 7500 per day, per route (there are two routes to the cave),” NK Choudhary, CEO of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board told me in a telephone interview.

Electronic waste rules: In letter, but without spirit

Ever wondered what happens to your old mobile phones, computers, television sets and refrigerators the moment you discard them? They are most likely to land in an unauthorised scrap yard waiting to be recycled in a hazardous and unscientific manner — causing great damage to the environment. The rapid growth of the information technology sector in India has only contributed to this problem of accumulating e-waste or electronic waste.

The government finally woke up to this growing problem a couple of years ago when studies by its information technology department estimated the e-waste burden on the country to touch 800,000 metric tonnes by December. It responded by framing the e-waste (management and handling) rules – 2011 which came into effect this month. While the rules seem impressive on paper, environmental groups have expressed concerns about its ability to bring about change due to the sheer oversight of the ground situation.

To begin with, the rules put India along with a select club of nations like the United States and many in Europe to have legislation to regulate and manage electronic waste. Not just that, the rules also propose several ambitious measures to regulate waste.

Report indicates India’s shores danger zone for turtles

A recent study by an environmental group, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, has identified the 11 most threatened sea turtle populations from around the world. And five of these so-called danger zones for sea turtles are in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

The Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles, which nest on Indian shores, are an endangered species and there was a drive by environmentalists against the poaching and killing of these sea reptiles. The study also reveals that the turtles face other dangers.

“The most significant threats across all of the threatened populations are fisheries bycatch, the accidental catch of sea turtles by fishermen targeting other species and direct harvest of turtles or their eggs for food or turtle shell material for commercial use,” the report said.

Will necessity help coal trump environment concerns?

Coal accounts for 60 percent of India’s energy use, runs most power stations and factories and enabled state-run company Coal India to have a blockbuster IPO last year raising a record $3.5 billion.

But despite having the world’s fourth largest coal reserves, India remains a major importer and the coal industry is pointing fingers at the environment ministry for part of the failure to properly develop coal fields.

“The main reason for slow progress (in developing coal fields) is the time taken for getting clearance (from the environment ministry),” Coal Secretary Alok Perti said during a coal conference on Tuesday.

from Photographers' Blog:

Barefoot in a recycled school

The environment hasn't been spared in India's headlong rush towards development and consumerism. With it came mounds of garbage, piles of waste that had nowhere to go, industrial pollutants that were fed straight back into the rivers and lakes that supply drinking water to millions.‬ Walking around the streets of any town in India, you don't get the feeling that care for the environment is on the top of anyone's list of priorities.‬



So it was with a little skepticism that I read about a school which claimed to be completely environmentally friendly. I made a plan to travel to Pune, about 190km (118 miles) from Mumbai, to take a look at the Aman Setu school, which means "bridge to peace". They claimed fantastic things - the buildings were environmentally friendly made entirely out of recycled and natural bits and pieces - they had their own vegetable garden for children - kids were allowed to run around barefoot.‬



What I found really was surprising. The "school" consisted of just a handful of buildings. Madhavi Kapur, who came up with the idea for the school, told me how they'd made the buildings - they'd taken old cement bags, commonly left over at many construction sites after buildings are made in India, and compacted them together with mud to make the rooms. One of the buildings was cone-shaped, others rectangular. Roofs were made out of old advertisement claddings. Ventilation was provided through disused plastic pipes.‬

Instead of using toxic paints and whitewashes, they used a mixture of cow dung, mud and water. I was told it's been traditionally used in India for centuries because strangely enough, a mixture of cow dung and water insect proofs buildings. Who would have thought?!? It smelled reasonably pleasant too, you wouldn't think you were standing somewhere were the floors and walls were plastered in cow dung.‬

from Tales from the Trail:

Green energy aspirations for Obama’s India visit

INDIAWhen Barack Obama heads for India next month, he'll be carrying a heavy policy agenda -- questions over the handling of nuclear material, the outsourcing of U.S. jobs and India's status as a growing economic power, along with regional relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Rajendra Pachauri, the Nobel Peace laureate who heads the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, hopes the U.S. president has time to focus on clean energy too.

Even as Pachauri and the U.N. panel evolve -- and as Pachauri himself weathers pressure from some quarters to resign -- he urged Obama to work on U.S.-India projects that he said would enhance global energy security.

Given India's red-hot economic growth rate -- 8 or 9 percent a year, Pachauri told reporters during a telephone briefing -- he said it makes sense for the United States to work with India to head off an expected soaring demand for fossil fuels.

Environmentalists cheer news of scrapping of power project

INDIA-VEDANTAEnvironmentalists are hailing news that India’s ministry of environment and forests has scrapped a proposed power plant by Larsen & Toubro in eastern India close to a nesting ground for endangered Olive Ridley turtles.

But Greenpeace is quick to point out that there are ports proposed near all of Orissa’s mass nesting areas, and that these should be denied permission, as well.

It is a tough fight, one that is pitting environmentalists, tribals and villagers against large companies and government agencies keen on tapping resources and building infrastructure to keep pace with India’s robust growth.

Why let a debate determine the fate of GM foods?

Students hold a mock funeral procession against genetically modified brinjal crop in Chandigarh January 28, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay VermaThere’s nothing Indians like better than a good debate.

So when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced last month that he would hold public debates to decide the commercial fate of genetically modified brinjal (eggplant), there were hopes these would provide a chance for all stakeholders to be heard.

But the debates, in seven cities including Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, were chaotic, nothing more than acrimonious shouting matches between environmental activists and scientists, who say they were not given a fair chance to voice their opinion.

One scientist said he had his hand raised for more than half an hour, but was not allowed to speak. Another said he was told he could make a presentation, but was again not allowed to. Others were not even permitted to enter the premises.

Himalayan glacier meltdown: gospel truth?

Kashmiri horsemen walk over a glacier near Sheshnag, 130 km southeast of Srinagar, June 12, 2006. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw/FilesTwenty-five years from now, the Himalayan glaciers would have almost disappeared. Almost.

Perhaps that foreboding has been stifled. The U.N. body which issued an alarmist warning that the Himalayan glaciers might vanish by 2035 due to climate change is re-examining its report.

Some experts say the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) led by Rajendra Pachauri based the conclusion on the findings of one report.

No takers for climate change politics in India

Copenhagen summit

Climate politics is not much of a domestic issue in India even though it is perhaps more at risk from climate change than other nations.

In Australia, climate change and the politics around it even caused a political crisis recently.

Climate was mentioned in election manifestoes for the first time in India’s general elections this year.

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