My recent bike trip to the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, just north of my own state Uttar Pradesh was supposed to provide relief from a blistering heat wave afflicting my state. The Himalayas were always a getaway locale for people looking for religious enlightenment, meditation, and seclusion in my state.
However, this time it was like all hell breaking loose in Uttarakhand, starting from Haridwar, the gateway to the Himalayas, all the way up to Chamba and Tehri. The reason? About 100,000 people zooming into the mountains in their four-wheel drives, and in air-conditioned buses every single day. I could scarcely spot a single cyclist or walker, except for the roadside hawkers and vendors. The vehicular pollution and heat blast from these vehicles was something to experience besides the 5-7 km. long traffic jams.
At the recieving end were the hundreds of policemen trying to manage the traffic. Kudos to them and the the fact that they kept their cool despite all the odds stacked against them. The local people were also well behaved and took it all in with a hint of polite resignation. To top it all there were frequent power cuts. I am not blaming the power companies for this. The surge in power demand from the combined might of air conditioners, cooling cabinets and other devices in the hotels and inns would be impossible to meet.
The result? It was as hot and unbearable as the plains of my own state right up and into the mountains at an altitude of nearly 9000 feet. The concrete structures and paved roads were acting as sort of heat reflectors adding to the misery of the bicycle ride. This is clearly affecting the local environment is a very negative way. I had experienced the same at Leh in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir ) at an altitude of 10,000 feet, a few years back.
The point is that the western lifestyle adopted by our citizens is unsustainable. I could feel the mountains groaning under this attack. There are simply no scenic and pristine mountain getaways available including the high altitude scenic Manali-Leh highway. For cyclists, this is a huge challenge. The lung sapping, muscle straining steep mountain rides are spiked with dangerous driving of high-speed SUV’s, trucks and buses. Negotiating traffic jams in steep mountain roads on a bicycle is no easy task too. I had to wear an anti-pollution mask even at the mountain tops. I shudder to think of the impact of all this pollution on local wildlife and forests.
This year has also been a bad one as regards forest fires in Uttarakhand. A chat with local farmers in the mountains also confirmed my fears that agricultural livelihood is now being shunned by the locals due to multiple reasons like water availablity and wild animals straying into step mountain farmland. Hordes of wild monkeys wreck local agro produce because their own forests are now bare of fruit. But, the madness continues unabated.
At the time of writing this article my own city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is teetering on the brink of an acute water crisis. This is on top of the usual heat wave conditions and severe air pollution. It’s pointless blaming the government for everything, how about trying to look at our own lifestyles first?