From The Kathmandu Post (20 June 2014)
Thirty-four million years of geological heritage is being destroyed in a bout of rapaciousness
Some of the mass of boulders and pebbles from the time of the formation of the Himalayan range tens of million years ago were uplifted later on to create what we call the Chure (Siwalik) foothills. This first-line of the Himalaya, unstable in geology and rich in flora/fauna, remained an ecological haven in modern times, even as the forests of the Mid Hills and the Tarai were decimated. There was satisfaction in knowing that at least this east-west stretch of ‘unproductive’ terrain remained intact, helping to preserve some ecological integrity in a rapidly changing Nepal/South Asia.
But the last decade has seen Chure dohan, a ‘milking’ of the low hills and valleys to extract rocks, coarse sand and aggregate to feed construction. The Chure range is a gift of the Oligocene and Pleistocene periods, starting 34 million years ago, and we have been hell-bent for over a decade now in trying to destroy this geological heritage.
The demand for Chure ‘detritus’ comes from rapid infrastructural growth in the adjacent Ganga plain, from West Bengal to Purvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh). But the blame for the ongoing anti-environment, anti-people excavation and export lies with the political chaos in Nepal, where public institutions have been made decrepit, activism is at low ebb, and the politician-criminal nexus has everyone running for cover. The absence of elected local (district and village) government, the corrupted local-to-national political class, the de-motivated government bureaucracy, and the ‘ngo-isation’ of activism—means that the boulders leave without let of hindrance.
Fortunately, there is President Ram Baran Yadav, who remembers the Chure of his Tarai childhood, and felt the urgency for action. As the republic’s first head of state, four years ago, he had the government start the President’s Chure Conservation Programme. Sadly, it was implemented lackadaisically by the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, and there is little to show for the Rs 1,000 million that has been spent.
For more than a decade now, every day hundreds of ten-wheeled trucks act like a conveyor belt that travels between the talus slope of the Chure through the breadth of the Tarai to the international border. These trucks are fitted with additional scaffolding so that they can hold extra boulders and aggregate. Laden to the brim, they chew up the highways and line up at the border crossings to fan out to crusher and constructions sites in India.
Much of the demand for Chure boulders is to feed the infrastructure expansion in Bihar, which has seen unprecedented building since Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister in 2005. The GDP growth of the state has averaged 11 percent for nearly a decade and touched 15 percent in 2012-13, though it has dipped since. This rise in GDP is ascribed by many to investment in infrastructure, supported by New Delhi and international agencies, particularly for highways, embankments and buildings.
The work to convert Bihar roads into ‘all weather’ highways requires raising the tarmac to above the flood high-water mark, which is one reason for the high demand for rocks and coarse sand. In decades past, these used to be sourced from the Deccan plateau, hundreds of kilometres to the south and across the Ganga. But Nepal suddenly became ‘available’, as governance was weakened by the conflict and longish ‘transition’. Cross-border militancy further debilitated the local sphere, already without elected office-bearers at the village and district levels.
Thus, there was no one to listen to those who warned of desertification from ‘Chure demolition’, and dangers such as monsoon runoff, siltation, aquifer decline and future ‘disaster events’ in the event of cloudbursts. There was money to be made, the people and ecology be damned.
First line of defence
For the rock-and-sand contractors, the rolling hills of the Chure represent a bonanza, because here geology has provided a boulder-rich ‘seam’ that does not need blasting. All you need to do is shovel, which is what the excavators have been doing for more than a decade now, gouging the hills for the millions of years of accumulation and uplift.
Conscientious bureaucrats did try to fight the aggregate scourge but such are the profit margins that local politicians, the first line of defence of the Chure, succumbed with hardly a fight. Meanwhile, there has been little ground-based environmental activism. The difficulties faced by the indigenous inhabitants of the Chure belt, as well as the plains population endangered by the upstream exploitation, have not been addressed. There is also fear for life and limb when one fights the Chure exploiters.
During the time of the first Constituent Assembly (CA), the Parliament did debate the need to regulate Chure excavation and the government raised royalty for a cubic metre of aggregate from Rs 60 to Rs 200. The Ministry of Finance sought to value-add by demanding that rocks be processed before export. The existence of the cross-border politician-contractor nexus became brazenly evident when CA members arrived at Singha Durbar with crusher proprietors from Bihar in tow, demanding reversal of the decision.
There is some leakage at customs but the greatest malfeasance occurs at the site of excavation, which is under the control of the respective District Development Committees. There is, it is suspected, great discrepancy between what is dug up and what is reported.
As far as one can tell, there has been no representation about the Chure destruction by the Government of Nepal to the Indian Government—if only to alert New Delhi that the excavations in Nepal meant to feed cross-border growth will eventually impact India as well, through siltation, over-topping of riverbanks, depletion of groundwater and the impact of cloudbursts.
Mahesh Acharya, the new Minister for Forests and Soil Conservation, took charge in February. For the first time, here was a politician willing to take up the Chure challenge. Among other things, he has announced in Parliament that export of Chure boulders, pebbles and sand will be barred after July 17, 2014. On Monday, the Cabinet appointed retired government secretary Rameshwor Khanal to head a five-member committee for Chure conservation.
Minister Acharya told this writer: “The scale of devastation in the Chure is huge, and we may already have crossed the critical point. Though late, we must save the ecologically fragile region and the local communities who live off the land. As important, the Chure is important for the Tarai people all the way to the dasgajaa (border).”
The government has thus gone beyond trying to save the Chure for itself, recognising the region’s inextricable links to the rest of the plains. ‘Tarai-Madhes’ has been added to the title of the presidential programme, and Khanal’s body is called the Chure-Tarai-Madhes Conservation Committee. It is mandated to coordinate between various ministries and departments that have often worked at cross-purposes on the Chure, including those dealing with irrigation, river training, soil conservation, local development/governance, income generation, geology, flora and fauna.
The first public objection to the committee’s formation came not from the politico-contractor complex but from one flank of the community forestry movement. Members of the community forest user group organisation known as Fecofun have expressed fears that the government is endangering the right of the Chure inhabitants over the forest resources.
Surely, the newly-titled presidential programme and the committee must ensure that the Chure inhabitants are protected. Given its unstable ecology and poor agricultural yield, the region is home to some of the most marginalised communities of Nepal, historically and even during the recent era of basain-sarai (migration). One expects that the programme will be sensitive to this human dimension.
The formation of the Chure committee led by a stalwart ex-bureaucrat is good news in a long time. The committee members face a mountainous challenge in the campaign to stop the plunder of the low hills, which is endangering the plains of both Nepal and neighbouring India.
Rather than a stand against development and wealth-creation, the demand is for ‘sustainable’ use of the Chure resources. The logical first step is indeed to restrict the use of Chure aggregate to feed domestic market demand. Thereafter, a rigorous study must determine to what extent, at what price and with what value-addition the rocks and sand of the Chure are to be exported, if at all.