In the last few months and more intensely in the last few weeks or so, a very different debate has started within the conservation groups. The issue is so appealing that even the senior government officials could not keep but share their views through social media. The issue is about conservation of Chure: the southernmost frontier in the Himalayan range, referred to in literature as the Shiwaliks.
The culprit is the mining of sand, gravel and stone (SGS) in the Chure Piedmont, which began drawing attention of many when the story was covered, some weeks ago, by a leading newspaper showing picture of tens of heavy machines including bulldozers, excavators and crushers mining and loading SGS in hundreds of trucks in the plains of Chure. The material is exported to construction sites cross the border to India. The mining is so rampant that many places in Chure area already looks devastated.
Chure has always been in the publicity in conservation because of its vulnerability to erosion due to its fragile formation and increased human interfaces. Anyone driving along the East-West Highway could see the eroded hill slopes and ever expanding flood plains in Chure, which made Chure case visible. It came into focused limelight when President RB Yadav, who hails from one of the districts south of Chure, took keen interest in its protection and ordered the government to initiate a conservation programme, which was later named as President Chure Conservation Programme. (PCCP).
After almost 4 years of its implementation, the PCCP was found to be a failure. Millions of rupees spent on conservation activities did not produce desired results. In the aftermath of this failure and with increased SGS mining, the government declared it as conservation area and formed a high level committee to oversee the conservation programme there.
This move has opened up a strong debate about the pros and cons of the government’s move in declaring it as conservation area and the actual need to protect Chure. In fact, as in any other environmental case, a real politics of environment is in display. There are basically three logics presented. Logic 1: Chure is the recharge area of Tarai groundwater and hence its degradation means depleting groundwater and desertification of Tarai. Logic 2: Chure biodiversity is important heritage. Logic 3: Chure is inhabited by poor people and they must participate in its protection.
Though these logics seem quite relevant to Chure protection, a bit deeper analysis would reveal how surficial has been the politics of environment. As far as water is concerned, it is the hundreds of feet of boulder deposit of Bhabar that acts as recharge zone for entire Indo Gangetic plain. What happens in Chure will have little impact on ground water resources in Tarai. Removing debris from Bhabar would obviously not seal the Bhabar Surface. In the biodiversity front, they do get damaged wherever there is human interference. The question is which endemic and vanishing species is being affected or is likely to be affected by the interference. With respect to the local inhabitants, a lot has been said and written about how they depend on not-very-productive-resources of Chure for survival.
It is the economics of things that hold the reign. It is clear that SGS mining has become important for local governments. The local government act provides full mandate to the local governments to trade SGS. Many studies have reported how beneficial SGS mining could be, if done properly. Some say it could be a sustainable source of revenue for local governments, and at the same time excellent way of adapting to climate change threats by making room for annual debris deposit, which is likely to increase with increase in extreme events (http://publication.hils.org.np/hilspub/index.php/IJLE/article/). And there are others who believe that SGS mining can finance Nepal’s poverty alleviation programme, if utilized properly. Speaking of the revenue generation, it is fascinating to see how lucrative SGS trade is. It earns a revenue of about 1072 million a year, while the estimated environmental cost is only about 206 million rupees. The revenue could further increase if resource pricing is enforced (http://ekrajsigdel.blogspot.com/), which is free at the moment.
The issue reminds one of Godawari Marble Factory in the late 80s, which drew severe criticism from environmentalists saying that the marble factory was damaging the mountains and its environment. But no one has complained about a similar damage being inflicted twenty years later to Shiwapuri Mountains by land developers. It may very well be because it is the private land in Shiwapuri.
These differences are often hidden from view in the debate, but they need to be considered carefully if one is to properly interpret the evidence. It is a question of who gets the benefit and how it is shared among different actors: all in the name of environment. The number of interested parties in the revenue from the SGS mining far outweighs those who actually get hurt by downgrading of Chure resources.