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Grave Risks To The Singular Himalayan Ecosystem

The Uttarakhand floods reflected the damage we had dealt to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Five years later, we may are even closer to an irreversible catastrophe.

The Yamuna river in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2013
The Yamuna river in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2013
C.P. Rajendran

UTTARAKHAND The Himalayas represent a dynamic, changing landscape. The roles played by tectonic and climate forces in making it what it is are evident. A product of millions of years of crustal shortening, the Himalayas sustain the brunt of geological stresses leading to great earthquakes on occasion and more frequent moderate earthquakes. A dynamic balance, however, exists between the forces that help raise the mountain and the opposing erosive forces like glaciers and rivers that wear it down.

One can also glimpse the contrasting external extremes of glory and squalor in the mountains – the wretched human existence in those villages amidst the uplifting beauty of the distant snow clad peaks. The writer Bill Aitken, who traveled extensively in the Himalayas, has remarked that "the art of beholding the Himalaya lies in accepting the paradox of aesthetic wealth alongside economic poverty, of reconciling the glory of aliveness with the evenly poised mischance of death."

The earthquakes, avalanches and floods are part of recurrent natural processes, which can turn into natural disasters because of the impact they will have on the unplanned settlements in ecologically sensitive regions. The greater intensity of any calamity – be it an earthquake or a massive flood – is proportional to the population density and the level of expansion of construction activities in the vulnerable areas. The irony is that, in spite of the so-called ‘developmental spree", the majority of the local population continues to live in abject poverty constrained by the depletion of natural resources.

Greed for revenue has forced authorities to throw caution to the wind.

For example, the innumerable dams across the Himalayan rivers provide no relief to the local population, who must trudge many kilometers to collect water. Moreover, there is a huge influx of visitors from the plains, estimated at more than 20 million a year, adding to the burden of sustaining 10 million local inhabitants. The hills of Uttarakhand are also losing their people thanks to migration from the hills to the plains. According to the 2011 Census, among the 16,793 villages in Uttarakhand, 1,053 have no inhabitants and another 405 have a population of less than 10.

These numbers reportedly spiked after the flash floods in 2013. This was a disaster in the making and illustrated gaping deficiencies in our path to sustainable development. High-velocity water flow washed away buildings, roads, people and vehicles, and smothered a river valley that had already become a crowded place dotted with hotels and shops. The rise in tourism led to a construction boom in unsafe zones, such as in river valleys and floodplains and slopes vulnerable to landslips. A major consensus that emerged after the 2013 floods was to adopt appropriate land-use planning and watershed management practices better suited for mountainous regions, and to follow "best practice" norms for constructional practices in order to minimize damage to ecosystems.

darchula_flood_rajendra

Flood in the district of Darchula, Nepal on July 1, 2013 — Photo: Krish Dulal

The tragedy should have taught us some valuable lessons. Most importantly, it should have taught us not to meddle with the fragile balance that exists within the Himalayan environment. It should have taught us what happens when we don't respect a floodplain's relationship with rivers by allowing unhindered construction. It looks like the greed for revenue has forced authorities to throw caution to the wind, forgetting the varied long-term benefits to be gained from sustaining the natural environment. We must pause to think why an unprecedented water crisis is gripping various parts of the Himalaya. Shimla attracted media attention only because of its tourism; water scarcity has been a glaring reality for many years in innumerable villages in the region.

And after five years, it has still been business as usual. Construction activity still continues at a frenzied pace, often violating land-use regulations. Disregard for the environment is visible in other aspects as well. At the state government's request, the environment ministry wanted to amend the 2012 Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone notification, which essentially restricts construction activities, including that of 10 hydroelectric power projects that could affect the natural flow of a river from Gaumukh to Uttarksahi. The ministry, through this amendment, also sought to redefine "steep hill slopes' so as to allow construction on hill slopes as well as ease restrictions on riverbed mining along this stretch to facilitate mining up to a depth of two meters.

We need to rethink how to mitigate disasters that will hit the mountains by using lessons from our past

At another level, a massive road building work has been planned – a 900-km-long all-weather Chardham highway project – at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. If implemented, this project will have serious consequences for the Himalayan ecosystem, including the loss of a vast tract of forested land. A case against the project is currently pending in the National Green Tribunal. The Uttarakhand high court has also ordered a stay on all construction activities along the riverbanks, including the construction of hydropower and road construction projects in Uttarakhand, until disposal sites for the excavated material are identified. Our priorities look lopsided, and the Chardham highway project is part of that lopsidedness.

Now, we need to rethink how to mitigate disasters that will hit the mountains by using lessons from our past, and using a healthy mix of technology, scientific studies, trained and committed manpower, professionalism and the development of appropriate engineering skills sensitive to the Himalayan ecology and, of course, public awareness and education. At the same time, we also need to introspect about the different paths to sustainable development that will put the Himalayan environment at its center. In this regard, a major initiative in 2006 by the Government of Nepal is worth mentioning. It handed over the management of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area to local communities. It has been reported that the pressure on local forests has lessened and that the people have become more proactive about conserving forests and wildlife.

Experts believe that the resilience of the Himalayan ecosystem is likely to overshoot thanks to an unprecedented combination of climate change and its consequences (e.g. flooding, drought, wildfire, etc.), along with other global change drivers (e.g. land use, pollution, fragmentation of natural systems and over-exploitation of resources). The melting of Himalayan glaciers is also likely to impact local rivers, either in the form of massive seasonal flooding or forcing them to dry up. But we must remember that the Himalayan environment is on the brink of collapse. It may not be able to withstand another push.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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