Saving Thano Forest from an Airport Expansion Proposal

Great Slaty woodpecker pic by Sanjay Sondhi

Ep#21 Read the Show notes or Listen now.

Woodpecker photo:Sanjay Sondhi

Download a Preliminary Checklist of birds of Thano here created by Titli Trust and Cedar.

Thano forest overview photo courtesy Mr Lokesh Ohri

Let’s Talk about Thano. Ep 21 Lokesh Ohri. Abhijay Negi. Sanjay Sondhi. Show notes (edited).

Lalitha Krishnan: Hi, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season three, Episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us connected with the natural world. This episode is about the Thano forest in the Doon valley (Uttarakhand- the state where I live.) This forest in Dehradun has been in the news lately because the Uttarakhand government has sought the National Wildlife Board’s approval to transfer 243 acres of forest land to the Airports Authority of India. The what, where and why are questions everyone wants answered. You can hear the facts from three prominent Doon citizens who are my guests on this episode. Lokesh Ohri is an anthropologist, historian, writer, and a cultural activist & also the founder of BTDT which is the ‘Been There Doon That’ group. Abhijay Negi is a young activist-lawyer, also the founder of MAD which stands for Making a Difference. Both are active drivers of the #savethano movement. I am also speaking with Sanjay Sondhi, who is a well-known naturalist, founder of the Titli Trust, and community development and livelihood expert.

Lalitha Krishnan: Lokesh Ohri, Thank you for speaking with me. With reference to your article in the (Daily) Pioneer, you heard about these plans way back in 2003. This expansion will flatten a large chunk of the Thano forest. Could you start by telling us what transpired in that conversation? I think it’s important to know the history.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, so it was a meeting for tourism stakeholders which was happening in the Tourism Dept. and because I do several projects with the Tourism Dept. I was part of that meeting. The chief minister was also part of that meeting. He was addressing all of us. At that point in time, the Union civil aviation minister walked in. It was unscheduled. He was probably visiting Dehradun and he decided to call on the chief minister right there at that meeting. And, that’s where I first heard about this plan of expanding the airport and having the night landing facilities, because until now, Dehradun airport does not have night landing facilities.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s right.

Lokesh Ohri:  We don’t have a lit-up runaway, we only have flights in the day time. So that was the time when the state’s civil aviation secretary first introduced this idea that perhaps we could have night-landing facilities and we could expand the airport. So, the minister questioned him about why they wanted to do it. The reasoning he gave at that point in time was that at times there’s a lot of congestion at the Delhi airport, So Dehradun being just 45 flying-mins away from Delhi, probably, the aircraft could here and give some additional business to the state. So that argument was rebutted by the (civil aviation) minister saying that these services would not be required because very close to Delhi we have a place called Greater Noida…in Jewar…we’re already building India’s biggest international airport. Even bigger than the Indira Gandhi Terminal which is the Delhi airport. So, all the night landing…if there is congestion or if there is fog in Delhi–which there is during winter-time, there is a lot of fog in Delhi—so, visibility being poor, the flights cannot land. So, he suggested that perhaps they could perhaps take a call later on. At that point in time, one of us realized that the expansion would happen at the expense of the forest. Right now, the airport abuts, you know, two areas. One is the Thano forest area and the other area on the other side, toward the western side is already an agricultural area. As long as the airport expands in the agricultural area and people get compensated for the land the govt. acquires, we don’t have any issue…we don’t mind expansion of the airport. But we are concerned about the 10,000 trees that will fall for this planned expansion. This has only come to light now because once we have seen the environmental impact assessment report of the National Airports Authority and then we’ve come to realise that this is what the government is planning. And that raises the hackles.

Lalitha Krishnan: I know. Doon citizens have been working for years to save the rivers. The Rispana has been given a special ‘perirenal stream’ status

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes.

Lalitha Krishnan: And this proposed airport also, if constructed will be close to the Song river. The implications of this for the river, for wildlife for all life around it, would be quite huge.

Lokesh Ohri:  Yes, definitely. It’s a huge cost involved.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. There’s also talk of the airport not only being used for commercial flights, parking of the aircrafts in the night and stuff but also for use by the air-force- both of which according to you is really not necessary because there’s another (air-force) airport/base close by.

Lokesh Ohri: That’s a veracious argument. I think all the projects being undertaken in Uttarakhand now…so the moment people start opposing them, they use this, you know, a smokescreen to say that it’s because of national security. And all these people who are crying about the environment and ecology, these people are posing a security risk to the nation. So, I just wanted to counter that argument. What is the security issue? What about India’s water security? Because if the Song gets polluted, and the Song contaminates the Ganga, then one-tenth of humanity is at risk because the Ganga supports one-tenth of humanity in terms of its water requirements.

Lalitha Krishnan: True.

Lokesh Ohri:  Now, we already have two air-force bases. We have an air-force base at Sarsawa, near Saharanpur which is like, you know… an air-force aircraft takes about eight minutes to reach Dehradun from Sarsawa. We have another big air-force base near Delhi. I think…so most of these fighter aircrafts are super-sonic, stiff like that. They take a very, very short time to reach the Himalayan frontiers. So, if we already have air-force bases which already have air-force materials, how is a commercial airport going to help the security of the nation? That is something I don’t understand.

Lalitha Krishnan: Point. If it’s already there, why (build) another one?

Lokesh Ohri: So, I’m saying, because we already have these two air-force bases and we have air-fields much closer to the border…so we have two airfields, one, right in Pithoragarh and one in Gauchar which cover Garhwal and Kumaon—which are the regions on the India-China frontier. So, expanding the runaway in Dehradun means you are expanding it only for airbus flights to land. Now airbus flights are essentially commercial flights. They have no security angle to them. Now we have been talking to various agencies, like agencies under the Ministry of Environments and Forests. The sense I am getting from Delhi is that Uttarakhand as a state has been the most reckless in terms of forwarding proposals for infrastructure. They have not looked at the wildlife angle. They have not looked at the forest angle. And, they are very callous about the ecological angles. I am getting information that even states like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim which are much more precariously placed in India, in terms of security issues…they still look at the environmental costs in great detail. In the case of the airport in Dehradun, the forest land has been transferred to the National Airports Authority by making just one reference to the environmental angle saying that: “in conversations with forest officials it was found that no Schedule I species were found in the forest.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes. That’s amazing because it’s called an Elephant Reserve. What were they thinking?

Lokesh Ohri: Why did they name it Shivalik Elephant Reserve if no elephants are found there? It is common knowledge. Even when we went to the protests, we saw deer marks on the sand. There are so many research papers that say that this is the last surviving habitat of the Great Slaty Woodpecker.  So, the Great Slaty Woodpecker is the largest woodpecker species found in the world—it’s the largest bird among all the woodpeckers in the world. The Thano forest is the last surviving habitat for the Great Slaty Woodpecker. And, you know, this is a highly endangered species. And even when we look at Schedule I, it has the elephant, it has peafowl; and all these species are very commonly seen in the Thano forest. Any person who has walked through the forest can tell you that these species are found there. So, what were they thinking, who was consulted? They said, “we have consulted forest officials”. They did not even name forest officials. That’s why I wrote in the article that if they had named forest officials, these forest officials should be sacked. If a forest official does not even know what Schedule I is, then how is he expected to know the other schedules. And it’s their job to protect the forests. That’s what they are paid for. That’s what they are trained for.

Lalitha Krishnan: What is said is so true in many ways. We are creating tourism infrastructure by destroying the very experience a visitor seeks.

Lokesh Ohri: Yes, it’s very ironical.

Lalitha Krishnan: Also, very sad. What next? When are they going to make this decision?

 Lokesh Ohri: Actually, they still need approvals from two key bodies, from the government. So we are working on a strategy that we should raise that much noise that these permissions do not come through. But, given Uttarakhand’s track record…they don’t even wait for the final approvals to come and they start work on the project. We have seen that in the case of the Char Dham Mahamarg project: 4 lane highways going all the way up to Badrinath, Kedarnath, (Gangotri and Yamunotri). They did not even conduct an environmental impact assessment report and just went ahead with construction. So, given that track record, we are also keeping all legal options open. We are collecting the data; we are consulting the lawyers. A lot of groups in Dehradun have come together. For the first time, I am seeing that all the environmentally conscious, socially conscious groups have come together and we are all working in a coordinated way so that a legal option is also ready.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to hear. That’s hope. And I hope the Jolly grant stays the way it is. It’s so quaint and lovely. There’s a sense of homecoming when you reach there unlike these big commercial airports. Thank you so much for your time and for enlightening us about what’s happening on the ground. 

Lokesh Ohri: You’re welcome.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thanks Abhijay for speaking to me on the Heart of Conservation podcast.

Abhijay Negi: Most welcome and thank you for having me.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. As the activist founder of MAD which stands for Making A Difference by being the difference, you have spearheaded several environmental causes including river rejuvenation, wall transformations, plantation activities, earthquake relief operations, etc. You are an original Doon resident. Now with the proposed expansion of the Doon airport, up to 10,000 trees, they’re saying could be chopped down. This must be very close to your heart…as a resident of Doon. What does Thano mean for you? I thought let me ask you that first.

Protest Photo Courtesy MAD

Abhijay Negi: So, Thano means to me and to every nature-loving Doonite…one of the last remaining green spaces where you could hear birds talking in their own language, where you can spot the occasional deer. Where you can just be lost in the awe of nature and be at one with your inner self. People called Dehradun the city of grey hair and green hedges. It was meant to be this kind of a conservation bastion for the country, for the state. It was not a burden imposed on Dehradun. It came naturally to the Doon valley because it was a valley. If you look at Dehradun district or the Doon valley, it is uniquely placed between two major river systems of India. Ganga is on its east and Yamuna is on its west. When we talk of Ganga, four tributaries go into this river, and one of these main tributaries, which is the Song river comes and cuts across right through Thano.  Maldevta is also very close by. Thano is very close to the Rajaji National park and acts likes a natural bump (lost in translation) to it. That entire route to Rishikesh via Thano is also one of the most beautiful drives the city residents can find. So Thano means a lot to any nature-loving Doonite and therefore this crazy, crazy plan deserves to be opposed tooth and nail.

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. It is the prettiest stretch. Even going to the airport …it’s so lovely to drive through that forest. I’m always looking out to see if I will spot any wildlife and invariably, I see some beautiful birds, you know, and it makes my day. So, this approval hasn’t come as yet from the…

Abhijay Negi: National Board of Wildlife

Lalitha Krishnan: …and MAD and other concerned citizens have held protests to oppose this expansion. It’s been compared to the Chipko movement, right? So, tell me something about it. How did it start? How did you organise and get so many people to participate?

Abhijay Negi: Yes,one thing about MAD, if I can give you a small context, the organisation started functioning in 2011. And more than an organisation it is like a movement. Much before this entire talk about Swachh Bharat, we as teenagers who had just passed out from school had got together, pooled in our resources, and started organising activities every Sunday—because that was the time when we free. And, we used our own pocket money resources to conduct these activities.

Gradually, with time, we started realising that just us cleaning waste or us planting trees is not going to solve systemic or chronic issues which is why we needed to work on policy. Even before this Thano movement, MAD has been successful in protecting the teas estates in Doon valley near Premnagar where an equally foolish and hellish plan was being discussed which was to concretise the tea gardens of Doon valley. And, to replace the lush green tea estates with repulsive structures in the name of a ‘smart city’. So, we at that time, in 2016, had campaigned that we should first be making the existing city smart instead of trying to be the most unsmart people and concretise green areas.

In addition to that we have also been successful in pressuring the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand—and directly so– because we went and met him -Mr. Harish Rawat in reversing the cycle ban in Mussoorie. Imagine, they were banning cycling. We had some success with that. So, this is probably the third or fourth major policy initiative of the government which we are opposing. I wouldn’t count the river rejuvenation here because that is something we are proposing. So, it is not just a group of opposition. Many people who are our detractors look at us as permanent pessimists. No. we do oppose anything and everything that has no green footprint. Which has no green thought. But that doesn’t mean we are people who are opposing things. Now coming back to Thano specifically, we have a very large volunteer base of around 50-60 youngsters who themselves get activated on such issues. And I would really, Lalithaji, attract your attention to some of the visuals of the Thano protest where you will see that all the banners that MAD volunteers carried…they were all carrying cloth banners.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, I noticed that.

Abhijay Negi: We didn’t use any plastic banners. We were wearing our masks, we were very conscious, and then too, we were on the streets because this required to be challenged. It was not just MAD as you rightly noticed. Several organisations, individuals turned (up) on their own for something like this. And, we will do it many times. All of us are loosely in touch. We are coordinating amongst ourselves (to) what should be the next step. MAD for one, has been organising daily nukad-nataks outside Gandhi park—I just got back from one this evening. We will be having one tomorrow, the day after. We are also planning a series of other protests. We are having meetings. We had one with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests—a pretty disappointing one—none the less, we had one and we had one with the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board.  And we have urged the biodiversity board to into this situation. So, we are doing all that we can to stop this both on the street and off it.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. I was reading somewhere that you attended an internship in an ashram in Thano run by senior lawyer Mr. Mehta, is that right? I wasn’t sure what internship that was. Would you like to speak about it?

Abhijay Negi: Yes. In fact, I’m glad that you brought it up. It was in June 2015 that Mr. M C Mehta who is India’s most renowned environmental lawyer; he organised this camp at an ashram that he owns in Thano. There, we went for birdwatching…it was an experience of a kind where we were one with nature. We went into the forest, into the jungle, we heard the birds, spotted the deer, weren’t very lucky with the panther (aka leopard), but never the less we could always sense it around. That is how I can tell you that I know that place first hand. It is a beautiful place. That is why it is very sad for us to hear the Chief minister… The day before yesterday, he said, it’s a political conspiracy. He labelled all our efforts as a political conspiracy. And, it’s very sad that in the 21st century, for a hill state created on environmental issues—as one of the important issues why this state was created. And here we have a chief minister who would probably have even labelled the Chipko movement a political conspiracy. So anything that is celebrated worldwide would be a political conspiracy to him. He doesn’t even make the effort to understand these issues and that’s why we are trying to sensitize the forest dept., the Biodiversity Board… It’s just looking at it from the context of cutting and felling trees. It’s not just the trees. It’s an entire ecosystem you are jeopardising.  It’s the air of the valley. Nobody’s stopping them from going into Doiwala and buying private land. Please buy private land and expand your airport as you please. But, why do you have to so easily and readily come into the Thano forest like this?    

Lalitha Krishnan: What is the timeline here. What next? There’s a petition for it already.

Abhijay Negi: We are alert and prepared for any eventuality. If we get to know that they are actually getting on the ground with any tree felling our 100s of volunteers will be rushing there and stopping it be so physically. The second thing is we are preparing legally for all the steps we have to take. So far, we are still waiting to hear from the National Wildlife Board. We are trusting our institutions and we hope that the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board specifically will play a role here. (It) will step up to save the biodiversity of the area that the government is so eagerly willing to put on the axe. We are also working with other like-minded organisations since this is genuinely a city effort. Several organisations are up in arms against it and we are coordinating with each one of them. At the same time, we are also working to get into a dialogue with this government. We plan to call upon the relevant bureaucrats, relevant ministers, if possible, even the chief minister to put forward our point of view and to request them to roll it back.  So, we will do everything in our power.

Lalitha Krishnan: Good to know. One more question. Does your activism come in the way of your career as a lawyer?

Abhijay Negi: Yes, that is why…I wanted to have this conversation myself in the afternoon. It does come in the way of my lawyering sometimes. If we do file a public interest ligation where I am representing the cause, then all the interviews and everything will stop. I restrict myself to the courtroom as our legal ethics require. I have been involved in several public interest litigations, even for environmental causes. One of them…we’ve got a stay on any construction activity between the Rajpur area of Doon valley which is on…………. (lost in translation), a stay on any blasting activity in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. We also have worked on the health care system in Uttarakhand wherein an ongoing public interest litigation we’ve asked all primary health centres, community health centres, and district hospitals to submit to a questioner that we have prepared. We asked them if they have the basics of health care. So, these are issues I am actively grappling (lost in translation) within the courtroom…in the Nainital High Court. So of course, I can’t generate public opinion on them as much as I might want to but since the organisation is involved here, and we are very, very ably led by Mr. Karan Kapoor who is the current president, who has been working very hard in facilitating all these meetings. And with several volunteers, who are also up and doing the job, the movement goes on.

Lalitha Krishnan: I wish you all the best for your career and your activism and thank you for your efforts.

Abhijay Negi: Thank you for having me Lalithaji.

Lalitha Krishnan: My pleasure. This is close to my heart too because the thought of it (Thano ) disappearing forever is not acceptable.

Great slaty woodpecker photo courtesy Sanjay Sondhi

Lalitha Krishnan: Sanjay, thank you so much for speaking with me on the Heart of Conservation podcast. As a naturalist, I’m sure you’ve gone to the Thano forest a zillion times. Could you tell us a little about its biodiversity, the species, or what it is you love about it?

Sanjay Sondhi: So, you know, we’ve been going to Thano on multiple occasions in the last decade and I think close to  Dehradun, it’s one of the best bird-watching sites you can have. In fact, in recognition of this, its bird diversity, the 5th Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival was held from 9th-11th March by the Uttarakhand Forest Dept. and during the festival, we released the Preliminary Checklist of Birds of Thano. At that point in time, the checklist was 175 birds. Of course, this is just a preliminary list because even during the festival, we added another 6 or 7 species. My estimate is that it would have more than 250 species if properly surveyed. It’s incredible.

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s incredible. And there’s so much there than just birds. The forest itself…the trees over there…what species of trees are more common.

Sanjay Sondhi: The forest itself, it’s a lot a broad-leaved forest. There’s a lot of sal over there. It’s a great spot for woodpeckers. I’m sure other people have also mentioned that it’s one of the few locations close to Dehradun where the Great Slaty woodpecker can be sighted.

Lalitha Krishnan: Which is (IUCN) vulnerable, right?

Sanjay Sondhi: Which is IUCN Vulnerable listed. Absolutely. You will not believe it that if you go to Thano, and you stand just in front of the forest resthouse, just standing beside the road, you will spot between 30 – 35 species in the forest around. Just standing in one single location. That’s the kind of avian richness the forest has.

You’re right, it’s not just birds. There are butterflies, there’s a lot of other stuff which actually hasn’t been properly documented. The butterflies… has just been opportunistic. We’re out there for a bird walk and whatever butterflies we see we document. But the quality of forest in that area is such that it’s clearly a biodiversity hotspot. And, to be cutting that to build an airport which is not required is just a travesty of justice I think.  Somebody said we need fresh air.  We don’t need more planes and another airport.

Lalitha Krishnan: Yes, and nobody is talking about the noise pollution that airports create or an international airport would.

Sanjay Sondhi: Correct.

Lalitha Krishnan: But Thano is not a designated hotspot is it?

Sanjay Sondhi: No, I don’t think there’s a formal designation as a hot spot but…There are designated important bird areas…I don’t think it is even designated as an important bird area but solely by the number of species that we see…and not just birds but other things…it’s a very, very rich biodiversity hotspot which is so close to Dehradun and so easily accessible.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Sanjay we’ve covered the wildlife, but you also wanted to speak about the people in and around Thano.

Sanjay Sondhi: I said, Thano is such a biodiverse area and if we develop it properly, it has such a great potential for birdwatching, homestays with benefits going to the local community. In fact,  Titli Trust-that’s our NGO and Cedar, jointly we are running a nature guide training programme for rural youth which extends from Thano to…………jheel  and it’s a 2-year programme where we’re training local youth in that area to become bird guides and nature guides in the hope that it becomes a livelihood opportunity plus they are strongly focused on conservation because if the biodiversity is not there, they won’t earn anything from nature guiding. And the response has been great. There have been lots of people who have joined and the youth is very enthused because they see this as a win-win where they earn from the area’s biodiversity and they also help conserving.   

Lalitha Krishnan: And they can stay at home rather than leave the state

Sanjay Sondhi: Absolutely. And the benefit goes to the local community who belong to that area. What could be better than that?

Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Absolute win-win.

Sanjay Sondhi: There’s no better incentive for conservation than livelihoods that they can earn living in or near their home.

Lalitha Krishnan: It’s a great initiative. Thank you for this Sanjay.

( I hope enjoyed episode 21 of the Heart of Conservation podcast. I’m Lalitha Krishnan. You can read the show notes on my blog: Earthy matters. If you want to know more about the Thano movement, or about the work my guests do there’s lots of information on the net. You can also hear my podcast on Spotify, Soundcloud, Google podcast, or apple podcast, or other platforms of your choice. Till next time, stay safe and keep listening.)

Imagine Living Without Running Water. Aditi Mukherji Tells us What the Drying of Himalayan Springs Means for India.

Heart of Conservation Podcast Episode 15 Show Notes (Edited)


Lalitha Krishnan: Hi guys. Thanks for listening in to Heart of Conservation Podcast (Ep#15).  I’m your host Lalitha Krishnan. I hope you’re staying healthy, washing your hands regularly, and keeping sane. Talking of water, there are a lot of people in our country (India) who don’t have access to running water. I’m not going to say more. Let me introduce my guest Aditi Mukherji. She’s a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute. She is a human geographer by training with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, the United Kingdom where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.  She has over 20 years of experience working on policies and institutions of water resources management with a special focus on water-energy-food nexus. She is the first-ever recipient of the Borlaug Field Award (2012) endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation and given by the World Food Prize Foundation, USA.  

Listen on soundcloud, spotify, apple podcast, Podtail, mytuner radio, iheartradio, himalaya app, playerfm, podcast app, google podcast…

Aditi is the coordinating lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is to be published in 2021. In her previous job as the Theme Leader of the Water and Air theme at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal, she co-edited a report on the effects of climate change on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. This report that has woken the world to the possible reality that the Hindu Kush Himalayas could lose as much as 90% of its snow and ice by 2100 due to retreating glaciers, glacier-fed rivers, and carbon emissions.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you, Aditi for speaking to Heart of Conservation Podcast.  Today you’re going to talk to us about spring water sources in the Hindu-Kush Region and the Indian Himalaya running dry. To start, could you tell us about springs?

Aditi Mukherji: Springs are, as you know, the main source of water in the mountains and even though they come out on the surface, essentially, they’re groundwater. So, what happens when rain falls, it seeps through the cracks and fissures in the mountains and the hills and then they kind of get stored inside the aquifers. There’s a bit of storage that happens and when it comes out…this coming out could be completely on another side of the hill. Basically, when the water comes out, we call it springs. But we have to remember essentially that water is rainwater and it infiltrates through the rocks and fissures in the hills and mountains, and then it comes out at one point. That is the discharge point. So, the discharge point is called the spring. While where the rainwater actually falls, it is called the recharge point and in between is the pathway…the pathway the water follows inside the hill-inside the rocks, coming from the discharge area. Springs are often the point where discharge happens.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you for clarifying that for our listeners. If we didn’t exactly know what springs are, there’s no doubt now. Aditi, when we talk about springs in the Hindu Kush, how many are we talking about and what areas are we talking about?  More importantly, how bad is the situation?

Aditi Mukherji: We don’t have the numbers. The best that we have are anecdotal numbers and we have been talking of anything between 2-4 million springs which I personally think is a bit of an underestimate too. Hindu Kush Himalaya is a wide region starting all the way from Afghanistan to Myanmar and in all these eight countries you would find the occurrence of springs. The numbers are kind of huge, we don’t really know. I will give you an example. So, in my previous job when we did some fieldwork in Nepal, in a spring-shed not so far from Kathmandu, it was a very small area, less than 10 km sq.…and we mapped more than 200 springs. So, we are talking of very large numbers. We don’t know what those actual numbers are.  And the best guesstimate we have is anywhere from 2-4 million springs. The areas we’re talking about generally the hills and the mountains of this Hindu Kush Himalayas. Having said that there are also springs in the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats in India. So basically, any place with an elevation and the geology, you would find springs.

So your question about how bad it is in terms of drying up…again, our numbers are anecdotal but I would think anything around 30-50% if not more of those springs are drying up and even more, at least 2/3rds of springs have shown a reduction in discharge of the springs. So the numbers are huge, the problem is huge and this is something you would get to know the moment you talk to any hill person, any pahadi. And they would tell you how their springs used to be much more productive when they were children and now, they have to walk further, the spring’s discharge is not enough. It’s a very severe problem in the hills and mountains of our region.  

Lalitha Krishnan: You’re so right. It’s one of the major issues in the hills and mountains. What are the factors that make springs and groundwater dry out?

Aditi Mukherji: I would divide the factors for springs either drying up or reducing. There are a number of things that could happen. Either spring could either dry up completely or the discharge could reduce substantially. Or the springs that used to be annual perianal—they would flow all throughout the year—they become more seasonal and flow during the rainfall. The fourth thing that can happen and often happens is the water quality in the spring deteriorates. We use all these four instances to show that the springs have been affected negatively. To sum up: springs drying up, becoming seasonal, the discharge of the spring reducing from what used to be previously and water quality becoming poorer.

The causes are primarily two broad causes. One could be changes in the rainfall regime. If your rainfall has changed, if your rainfall amount has gone down or it has become more periodic, which means you have shorter spells but more intense rainfall, or even if your total quantity of rain has not gone down, it means it can affect recharge.

As I said, springs are simply rainwater that gets captured on the hills, kind of emerges through the cracks and emerges on another side at discharge points. So, if your rainfall itself has changed that could be one cause. But primarily what we are are finding, and again, we need more evidence on this rainfall changing…changes in rainfall and how it is affecting springs. We don’t have a lot of it (evidence) but what we are finding more of is that often springs are drying for a second reason which are changes in infrastructure. Road construction, hydropower construction. All these kinds of human interventions, we find, more often…we can find immediately that if there’s a hydropower construction happening, there’s a tunnel that was done, and immediately after tunneling, there was some kind of compaction. The spring pathway—I told you the recharge area from the waterfalls and the discharge from where the water comes out—the entire pathway may have been disturbed. We found springs have also dried after earthquakes. Similar thing; there was like a ‘shaking of the inside of the hill’ so to say, in very layman’s language and that disturbs the very underlying geology of the mountains. To sum up two main things: Change in rainfall; the quantity of rainfall, as well as the periodicity of the rainfall and the second, are more human causes; building, construction of a road. You construct a road and you cut off the recharge area form the discharge area. You construct hydropower, do blasting and the underlying geology of the mountains are disturbed. And the third reason is earthquakes which kind of, has a similar effect to what hydropower would be doing in terms of blasting. It’s you know, the same shaking of the mountains and changing of the underlying geology.  

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi, I know we can’t prevent natural disasters like earthquakes but when you’re talking of human intervention—I don’t know if this is a silly question—aren’t feasibility studies done before building and blasting…making roads or dams, etc?

Aditi Mukherji: No and unfortunately no. And that is not at all a silly question. To me, that is one of the most important questions. Why are infrastructures designed in the hills and mountains without taking into account whether springs would be disturbed? Springs are often the only source of water for these mountain people. There are rivers but the rivers are too deep down. They may be glaciers but they may be too far away from where the people are. Springs are the absolutely the only source of water that people of our hills and mountains in the Himalayas depend so it is quite surprising that most of the infrastructure projects are not designed with an understanding of what that infrastructure would do in terms of disturbing the recharge area. Very often we build roads, where previously, there used to be recharge. When recharge no longer happens springs dry up or we are cutting through the road in such a way that it will disconnect the recharge area from the discharge area. This means because the water can no longer get recharged and flow out to the designated points, the springs will dry. So, I think it’s of paramount interest that these hydro-geological considerations, a proper geological mapping with a focus on springs are undertaken before we design any of these infrastructures.

Interestingly also, you are aware for hydropower, so many communities in our region protect against hydropower. One of the reasons also why they protest is also that their drinking water sources dry up. While there is compensation for things like you know, if your house gets a crack or your assets are destroyed, then there is a system of compensation. But if your spring dries because the hydropower came up then it’s often very difficult for communities to ask for proper compensation. That’s when they really come out on the streets to protest. So I would say, this should become very very important.

Lalitha Krishnan: Thank you so much for that explanation. Aditi, technically speaking, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? First of all is it humanly possible to do that? If so, have we successfully achieved that in our country?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, absolutely. It’s possible. How long it takes to rejuvenate a spring would depend on the nature of the spring. First, let me come to the second part of your question… Is it humanly possible to rejuvenate a spring? Yes, it is possible. It is not rocket science. It is not completed. It is not super complicated. You need people trained in field geology. You need people trained in basic hydrology, hydro-geology but it is possible to demarcate which is the recharge area of the spring. As I said it’s again, all rainwater falling into a plain that is recharging and then there is a flow path inside the hills and the mountains and then the spring comes out in the discharge point. Once you have actually identified the recharge area more or less—you don’t have to do it with super accuracy—but if you know that this is the part of the hill where when the rain falls and because the rocks are sloping in a certain way, they are dipping in a certain way, the water if it falls at that point, say point ‘A’, then water will take a certain path and it will come out as a spring in a point ‘Y’. As soon as you can map that with a certain level of certainty and for that you need expertise in field geology, that’s something that is not very complicated.

We have in India, the mountain state of Sikkim. They have done tremendous work in spring rejuvenation. So, Sikkim has to date rejuvenated more than a hundred springs if not more. They did exactly this.  They trained their community workers, their panchayats, some technical people were trained in this basic understanding of geology. Basically, to know what kind of rocks there are in the hills or mountains, in which way are the rocks dipping, which is the slope of the rock and they could then identify the recharge area. Once you identify the recharge area, then you do very simple watershed activities. You dig a hole, you dig a trench…you know, it depends on the slope of the land, what activities you can do and what you cannot but then there’s a very clear guideline around this. We have been doing this watershed for ages. Now the important part is don’t do watershed activities blindly everywhere. Just identify the recharge area and do the watershed activities such as trenching which will mean that the rainwater that falls on that recharge area…and if you have done things like trenches… that water will reside a bit longer and that will flow down. That’s important to identify the recharge area. Then you can also say, this is the flow path. Let’s not construct a road here. If we do it, it will obstruct the flow.

Now coming to your question, has it been successfully achieved? Yes. We have done this when I was with ICIMOD. We have successfully done it in Nepal. Two springs were rejuvenated in the sense that they discharged more than double in just one season. We did the intervention, we identified the recharge are and did the trenches, etc., before the monsoon. And, right after the monsoon, we kept monitoring those. We saw that the spring but they also continued to have water for longer than usual.

And, how long does it take to rejuvenate a spring? That would really depend on the nature of the storage. You know, there is a bit of an aquifer that is storing that water. So, depending on how big it is or how permeable, how porous it is…that kind of determines. If it’s a fairly large one, that requires recharge coming from various sources, maybe you’re talking of maybe one full year or more…but if it’s a smaller, very localised spring with a localised small recharge area, you can expect the spring to have to have been rejuvenated—by that I mean—if it has become seasonal, to expand its seasonality, to increase its discharge, you can do it within a season.  Since you are talking from Mussoorie, there’s also a very good NGO in Uttarakhand called Peoples Science Institute (PSI). They have also rejuvenated a lot of springs in and around Dehradun. A lot of NGOs are doing this. Springs have been rejuvenated in north-east India; Sikkim is one example. They’ve done the same in Meghalaya, in Darjeeling in West Bengal…

Lalitha Krishnan: That’s good to know. As the lead author of the water chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could you tell what collaborative measures or sharing of information happens between countries?

Aditi Mukherji: Basically, the IPCC report is a scientific report. So, the science gets communicated to all the countries, all the signatory countries of the UNFCCC. What happens is that the scientific report itself is not subject to government negotiation and governments just accept it the way it is. There is one document called the Summary for Policy Makers. That gets vetted during the final plenary session. For example, our cycle finishes in 2021. Sometime in October, 2021there will be a summary for policymakers which will be written for this entire report and that gets presented at that plenary. And, that’s where all the 98 countries, if I am not mistaken, are the signatories. That’s when the countries, you know, negotiate and say, “OK, this wording is not suitable, you can change that wording, etc. etc”. Having said that, the main science report doesn’t get changed by governments. That’s the science behind it. So that’s not up for negotiation. What’s up for negotiation is a bit of the summary for policymakers.

Lalitha Krishnan: Talking at the grass-root level, say the community level what can people do to maintain springs in their area?

Aditi Mukherji: The important part is to identify where the recharge area is. While our field geology can help it, we have seen through experience that the majority of the villagers, somehow or the other know where the recharge is happening. They just have that local knowledge, that traditional knowledge, that understanding of how those rocks are sloping and dipping. So, communities have to identify the recharge area and make sure the recharge area is kept clean. For example, no open defecation in the recharge area, because if that happens then the water quality that flows becomes dirty. Similarly, if possible, keep that recharge area well planted, don’t construct buildings in that recharge area which will impede the actual amount of recharge. So once communities identify where the recharge area is, they need to protect that recharge area through good land management practices.  That kind of happens in many places, in many other places it doesn’t. There’s again this example of Nepal that I’m aware of. Many of the recharge areas were also wallowing ponds for buffalos. At some point, in the 70s, it was thought that those were also breeding ground for mosquitoes. Malaria eradication was big in those days. So many of these ponds were actually covered up and community health centres built on them.

Lalitha Krishnan: Oh no.

Aditi Mukherji: That’s when people started realising that many of their springs were drying up because those ponds were actually the recharge ponds for those springs. So, the measure the communities can take is just protecting the recharge area. Protect it like your life depends on it.

Lalitha Krishnan: What do you think of the measures our government is taking to rejuvenate springs?

Aditi Mukherji: I think it’s very encouraging. The NITI Aayog commission has set up a task force on the Himalayas and Spring Revival is one of those topics of that task force. And now that the report has been finalised and has been shared with all the eleven mountain states…all the elevens states have been doing tremendous activities. So I would say that India is showing very innovative leadership when it comes to spring rejuvenation. Something perhaps, our neighbouring countries can take inspiration from. Sikkim is a great example. There has been a great co-learning between Sikkim and Bhutan. Bhutan has now taken up spring rejuvenation in quite a significant way. India is doing that as well. So, I think, the measures the government is talking is they are now trying to map springs. I recently read that there is some plan to engage drones in spring mapping. I wasn’t quite sure if that was the best approach. What Sikkim did was they really used their panchayat mechanism and got the panchayat officials trained in identifying theses recharge areas and they used the funds from the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to do those recharge activities like digging of trenches etc. To support that the government has taken this very seriously, perhaps, there has to be a bigger role for the local elected bodies. That might be something that needs a bit more mainstreaming so that it’s the elected panchayats that do more of the work because they are best placed to map springs, identify recharge areas, etc.

Lalitha Krishnan: I have two more questions for you Aditi. We’re living in such unusual times. I wanted to know if the COVID 19 disease or the Coronavirus is impacting people…everyone from having access to running water?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it looks like in spite of all our progress, what seems to be the best precaution that everybody is recommending – WHO and the government and the one that’s proven is washing your hands frequently with soap and in running water. Now imagine living in a house where you don’t have running water. Imagine the only spring in your village has dried up and there isn’t any running water. This COVID19 has brought up the importance of having access to water near where you live. That’s again why we have to do something about all these springs drying up. This needs to be done on an emergency basis.

Lalitha Krishnan: When we open our taps to wash our hands we barely think about where the water is coming from. We’re sitting comfortably in our houses, stocking up…we may be quarantined but we are comfortable. So thanks for reminding us that there are people out there who don’t even have access to running water.

Aditi Mukherji: Absolutely. In a relatively well-managed village where springs are in good condition, they would usually have one stand post shared by 8-10 families. So that’s a good case. In villages where the springs have dried up or where there isn’t any infrastructure – where everybody would have to walk to the source of the spring… then there are springs where the waters being rationed…we have come across many springs where the village committee would literally lock up the spring. They would open it for one hour every morning and every evening simply because there isn’t enough water for everyone for 24 hours. In those circumstances, it would be really hard for people to follow this very basic advice of handwashing.

Lalitha Krishnan: Most of us have a lot to be grateful for. Aditi, I do have to ask you. Do you have hope?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, it would be hard without it right?

Lalitha Krishnan: Of course, you’re right. When our researchers and scientists are optimistic, it gives us hope too. Ok Aditi, this is my last question to you and a request. I ask all my guests to share a new word to help us improve our vocabulary. So, is there a word that you’d like to share with us?

Aditi Mukherji: Yes, I’d like to talk about ‘aquifers’. An aquifer is basically the water-bearing layer. We can’t see it because either if you’re living in the plains then it’s under the ground; in the mountains, it’s basically inside the rocks. It’s super important because the aquifer is where all your groundwater storage is. India completely depends on groundwater. 60% of our irrigated area gets irrigated from groundwater. 80% of our drinking water comes from groundwater. If we don’t take care of our aquifers, don’t ensure that our aquifers are not overexploited, our aquifers don’t get dirty, we would never have water security. That’s the word I would like your audience to know: ‘Aquifer’ which is the water bearing layer from which our life-saving water comes from.

Lalitha Krishnan: Aditi thank you so much for everything you’re doing. It’s been a real honour talking to you.

Aditi Mukherji: Thanks so much.

Lalitha Krishnan: I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. You can listen to it on many platforms -Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple podcast and many, many more. If you know somebody who’s doing interesting work or whose story should be shared, do write to me Stay safe. Stay healthy and keep listening.

Photo courtesy Aditi Mukherji.

Podcast interview and Artwork: Lalitha Krishnan

Birdsong by hillside residents

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