The environmental devastation caused in the Himalayan States of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim has reinvigorated the debate on the “carrying capacity’ of the regions. The Supreme Court of India, in response to a petition filed by a retired Indian Police Service officer, has asked the Union government to suggest a way forward regarding the carrying capacity of the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), which includes its towns and cities.
The Union government’s affidavit (filed by the Ministry of Environment) states that the Director of the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment should be the lead in assessing carrying capacity and that the carrying capacity of all 13 Himalayan States and Union Territories (UT) should be determined. The affidavit adds that there can be a technical support group comprising nominees of the National Institute of Disaster Management, Bhopal; National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee; Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun; National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur; Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun; Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, Dehradun; Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun; and School of Planning and Architecture.
The affidavit further suggests that representatives of State disaster management authorities, the Geological Survey of India, Survey of India and member secretaries or nominees of the Central Pollution Control Board and Central Ground Water Board should also be its members.
The government has requested the Court to direct the Himalayan States/UTs to set up a committee headed by the Chief Secretary of the respective State, with its members being inducted as the Chief Secretary feels appropriate.
What carrying capacity of a region is
In technical terms, carrying capacity of a region is based on the maximum population size that an ecosystem or environment can sustainably support over a specific period without causing significant degradation or harm to its natural resources and overall health. It is crucial in understanding and managing the balance between human activities and the preservation of natural ecosystems to ensure long-term sustainability.
There have been initiatives by the Union government regarding overall development in the IHR. Some of them are the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (2010), the Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme, Secure Himalaya Project, and the recent guidelines on ‘Carrying Capacity in the IHR’ circulated on January 30, 2020. There was a reminder by the Ministry of Environment and Forests on May 19, 2023, asking all the States that if such a study had not been undertaken, then States should submit an action plan (carrying capacity) at the earliest.
What the Court must ensure
Despite past initiatives especially since the January 2020 guidelines, hardly any progress has been made. The reasons are obvious. There is no report on the total number of States that have been able to prepare action plans on carrying capacity of their regions.
Failures in the past have been on account of two major reasons. The recommendations made by the Ministry in forming such groups are flawed. The same set of people responsible for the havoc and devastation in the mountains are now being made responsible in finding solutions.
The focus has to be on sustainable development that encompasses the larger canvas of carrying capacity, and the process should be people-centric.
The suggestion made by the Environment Ministry focuses on one institution, i.e., the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, while others are just a part of the technical group. Almost all the other institutes are important players in their respective domains and should be equal partners in policy making.
Though the suggestion of including the entire IHR is relevant, and also desired, just measuring the carrying capacity of towns and cities is pointless. Take for example the road network in the Himalayan States that has spontaneously created settlements. Hence, the entire region should be the focus of the top court. The emphasis should be on the “Sustainable Population” of the Himalayan States, and the focus of the current inquiry (which is in the offing) should be the “carrying capacity for the sustainable populations for the different Himalayan States.”
There is a wider and longer term need for assessing the overall sustainable capacity of the environment of the whole State (which includes all biological species, food, habitat, water including ecology and agriculture). The expert committee should be asked to focus on the social aspects or population sustainability of the respective States.
Given the importance of the resident population in the IHR living in towns and villages, the expert committee should not become a bureaucratic or technical group. Such a committee (at least a third) should include adequate citizen representation — from panchayats and other urban local bodies.
In order to evaluate the social dimension of sustainability, it is necessary for the expert committee to direct each panchayat samiti and municipality to present its recommendations by responding to the population sustainability criteria which is well established and should be circulated immediately to each local government centre.
One must not forget that it is the forewarning of concerned people on the issue of the construction of hydropower projects and even four-lane highway projects in the IHR that has been brushed aside — particularly in the case of Sikkim. The results are before us. Engage with the people and build sustainable solutions.
Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, author, and initiator for Alternatives in the Himalayan Region