Inadequate attention to mountain issues

Policy  and action-oriented research have been inadequate   to combat mountain related crises.

The worst disaster that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013 is already history! While the radical viewpoint has been that ‘the disaster was waiting to happen', tentative response is that 'such disasters happen once in a century'. Between these two extreme viewpoints is the business-as-usual approach involving expert consultations, new initiatives and fresh collaborations engaging diverse stakeholders with an aim at developing better emergency response and early forecasting of extreme events.

It must raise some degree of hope though! But accumulated evidence indicate that far from 'moving the mountains', it is the mountains that have often moved men out of their slumber. No surprise, therefore, the majority of mountain communities surviving on less than $2 a day remain vulnerable to growing environmental and climatic uncertainties. While the policy prescriptions have remained broadly inadequate, action research has rarely rose to the occasion to combat the mountain crises any bit.

If it sounds cynical so be it! Since 1982, some  dozen task forces, working groups and high level expert panels constituted by the Government of India have drafted blueprints for addressing the mountain peculiarities. The last Task Force report, convened by the Planning Commission, was released in the year 2010. Suggestive in nature, the report had primarily stressed the need for the Himalayan states to regularly interact and share experiences for developing a common essential plan for the region.

Graveyard of failures

As things stand, the mountain regions have become graveyard of failed policies and institutions. No claims to the contrary ever made either! From forest research to crop improvement and from geological studies to remote sensing, the Himalayan region has been home to some 36 research institutions and over 24 universities spread across some 12 mountain states in the country. In addition, each of the states has its own institutional architecture to provide the necessary link for developments at the local level.

With an average of five public-funded research institutions and universities in each state, the region could not have asked for more. Ironically, however, the Rio+20 assessment of Sustainable Mountain Development has concluded that there has not been 'any significant change in environmental protection, economic growth and social improvement in the region'. Clearly, the policy prescriptions and consequent institutional responses to the mountain issues have been found less-than-adequate.

It has been argued that despite huge financial investments across sectors the results have been deficient in making a difference to the life of people and the quality of their environments due to lack of foresight, innovation, and capacity in implementing development that strikes a balance between growing economy and changing ecology. Those dozen reports (and the mountain institutions) claim to have recipe of 'solutions' to diverse developmental challenges, however, to little effect.

In the Himalayan context, the 'solutionism' perspective ought to be laid to rest because the problems have neither been holistically understood nor been properly diagnosed. It has also been observed that there is missing or disconnected leadership among multiple stakeholders on various socio-environment development fronts. While the policy planners and subject specialists need to do some soul searching, the civil society has to get together in rising above its narrow confines.

As the long arm of commerce stretches itself into the mountain valleys and the threatening clouds of climate change hover above the glaciers, the 3,000 km long Himalayan corridor warrants an out-of-the-box thinking if the country has to come good on its global commitments towards sustainable mountain development. Nothing short of a new institutional architecture that superimposes the political boundaries of the twelve states in the region is needed to bring about renewed mountain consciousness.

Given the transboundary nature of the Himalayas, such an institution alone can engage with outside governments and trans-national institutions in forging collaborative research and development in shared watersheds across the region. Be it transboundary rivers or biodiversity pockets, the contentious nature of resource-sharing across the region needs a distinct framework that is within international treaties and agreements. Need it be said that peace in the mountains is critical to sustainable development.

Unless the bar gets raised and a challenge is thrown before the government, working within the comfort zone of 'solutionism' will see no end to the Himalayan blunder.

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