Efforts to save ecologically senstive Rohtang Pass

Efforts to save ecologically senstive Rohtang Pass
Faraway from New Delhi's new-found anxiety over rising pollution levels, and the quick-fix solution it found in the odd-even vehicular order, is another, perhaps, more serious concern, being attended to at an altitude of 13,051 feet above sea level.

Those who have traveled to the high mountain Rohtang Pass, 51-km from tourist hub Manali and the gateway to the tribal Lahaul and Spiti, will vouch for its picturesque breathtaking landscape. Of course, its narrow serpentine roads meandering through slippery slopes send shivers down the spine even for many with nerves of steel.

A lot is at stake at this high altitude Rohtang Pass that has long attracted tourists. The ecologically fragile mountainous Pass is under threat of degrading fast, which is why the National Green Tribunal (NGT) bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar has acted with an “iron hand” before much of what is left is irreparable or even irreversible. The name Rohtang, which means a pile of corpses, creeps in scare. Here, a different scare is being addressed. 
 
Tourism-related activities have been completely banned in the area. From a high of over 3,000 vehicles reaching the pass every day, many crossing over to touch higher altitude areas of  Leh and beyond, the NGT has restricted the flow to 1,000 vehicles a day.

Diesel vehicles will be 40 per cent of the permissible number of daily vehicles each day. Any visit to this high-hill spot invites a permit and a fee of Rs 500 for each visit. This to discourage the flow of tourists to this fragile destination before it degrades further and eventually collapses.

A test run for CNG-operated buses has already been carried out. Plans are afoot to have a CNG filling station at Rohtang Pass, which if turns into a reality will be the highest altitude gas filling station in the country.

But all said and done, the measures being put in place have triggered a man verses wild conflict of sorts in the hill territory. In one stroke, thousands of people, in at least nine villages in close proximity to the Pass, have lost their livelihood that was tourism-driven and essentially dependent upon tourism-related activities. Snow scooters, paragliding, mules-horse rides, skis, and even snack shacks selling noodles and a hot cup of tea at an exorbitant Rs 40 for a miniature cup, have shut down.     

Women from several villages, including Panchang, Kothi, Solang Kulang and Ruar, located near the Rohtang Pass area have prayed saying they have been rendered completely jobless and were leading distressful life.

The plea said: “It has become extremely difficult in such a state to sustain the family and kids. The applicants have neither been rehabilitated, nor have they been provided any interim compensation by the state government”.

Their plea is that much of the tourismrelated activities which help them meet both ends are non-polluting like renting folk and traditional dress to tourists, snow dresses, walking sticks, offering yaks to tourists on rent for a photo option and by selling homemade tea and snacks. Women say the authorities need to reconsider the ban at least on such non-polluting activities.

But any such reconciliation, experts say, could jeopardize the very spirit behind the tribunal's initiative to square the circle. That's because the extent of damage is far greater. An uninhibited flow of traffic and tourists was leading to increased air congestion. It left behind a trail of plastic bottles, paper and non-degradable plastic bags littered all over the picturesque, often snow-clad, surroundings.

Damage to ecology
Experts opine that the business for locals may not as it is be anymore viable in the area, perhaps would have plunged significantly, with the restrictions on vehicles now in place. A report on environmental degradation has said glaciers in the area were receding at the rate of 10-12 metres a year. A Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute studied the situation and confirmed damage to the ecology due to unregulated unchecked tourism.   

The problem though is the delay in putting to effect a relief and rehabilitation plan for the many who have been displaced or have lost their livelihood. It’s tough time for them. As it is, for nearly 4-5 chilling winter months beginning November-end or December onwards, the Rohtang Pass closes down for any traffic flow owing to heavy snowfall and there is no way any commercial activity can exist in these winter months. Residents stay indoors all this while.  

The state government is treading cautiously. It wants the tribunal to double the number of vehicles to Rohtang pass, albeit in a restricted organised manner. The government’s environment department has suggested to the NGT to allow 2,000 vehicles, in separate shifts, during the tourist season to facilitate people visiting the Pass.

To check pollution levels, it says it has permanent air monitoring station to assess air quality on a continuous basis. New tourist destinations will also be planned to scatter and broad-base the flow of tourists to other equally attractive destinations, the government said.  
The Himachal Pradesh government proposes to increase congestion fee on vehicles, which it says may be higher for diesel vehicles. The government wants to regulate movement of snow scooters. It is not impressed with the displacement of persons running commercial activities since it takes away a hard-earned livelihood. But saving ecology comes at a price no less.  

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