The Uttarakhand State Forest Department is in the final stages of handing over 243 acres of forest land to the Airport Authority of India for the extension of the Jollygrant Airport. After the National Wildlife Board (NWB) grants its approval, the project will cross the final hurdle. The approval of NWB is mandatory as the Thano region lies in a 10 km radius of the Rajaji National Park that is marked as an eco-sensitive region. This is the main airport of the state and the only one in its capital, Dehradun. Over 10,000 trees will be felled in the Thano forest region of Dehradun if the project is executed.
Uttarakhand is the land of the Chipko Movement, where thousands of women, led by Sunderlal Bahuguna came together to hug the trees in a blunt message to the state authorities that their lives will have to be taken before the trees could so much as be touched by the lumberjacks. This movement had saved the fragile ecology of the Himalayas and prompted several state policies to prevent the senseless deforestation in a region of rich biodiversity.
The 2013 Kedarnath floods were a loud enough message that when infrastructure is built at the cost of sensitive ecology, neither is that development sustainable nor is the environment that is supposed to host that structure. Widely dubbed as Chipko2.0, the #SaveThano campaign has been launched by the locals, in a largely digital medium. This article aims to analyse both the pros and cons of the Airport expansion project and encourage the reader to create his own opinion on the issue. Whatever opinion is formed by the reader, I encourage the reader to voice it and join the conversation.
In addition to the Jollygrant airport, Uttarakhand has three other airports. The Bharkot Airport is not operational yet. The Gauchar Airport is fully operational but is not for common commercial flights and is solely for the use of the Indian Army. The airport had played a huge role in the air rescue operations conducted by the army during the Kedarnath floods.
Naini Saini Airport offers a small range of flights with limited connection. Jollygrant airport handles the majority of air traffic in the state. At present, Uttarakhand does not have international air connectivity. Plans to develop a new international airport in Pantnagar were recently approved which will make the airport in Pantnagar, the first international airport in the state.
The state presently has more than half of its land covered with forests with a 71.05% forest cover. A report published by Uttarakhand State Forest Department marked it as the only state in Northern India to have more than 33% of its area under the forest cover. Besides, Director of Jolly Grant Airport, DK Gautam stated that the Uttarakhand government will denotify forest reserve according to the norms put in place by the Environment Ministry. “As far as trees are concerned, there would be plantation at some other place,” DK Gautam said although no announcement in this direction can be heard from the state government.
Uttarakhand has a strategic advantage which prompts the development of the main airport of the state. Considering that Uttarakhand shares its borders with China, a developed airport suited for the flight of all kinds of aircraft would enable India to better utilise Uttarakhand’s strategic importance with China, in regards to its geographical location. The state authorities have defended the extension stating the proximity of the region to the Line of Control (LOC) with China.
Besides as Chief secretary, Mr Om Prakash says, “Uttarakhand is turning out to be a major centre for yoga, wellness, adventure sports, and tourism. The number of passengers at Dehradun airport has gone up to 10 lakh, and the state authorities think that the number will double in the next three to four years.”
The airport will be developed into an international facility and this will boost tourism in the capital. Regions in Uttarakhand like Rishikesh have international popularity for the thriving yoga culture, Haridwar is the holy city for millions of Hindus across the globe. Adventure sports and natural beauty are easily the USP of the state.
The airport which at present has a small number of flights connecting very few cities would expand to enable much greater connectivity. Uttarakhand ranked 20th out of the 33 states and Union Territories ranked in terms of GDP. The expansion of the airport will boost development in the state and also invite capital investment which will in turn boost employment. Besides, the airport is already being upgraded by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) with a budget of around Rs 353 crore. The phase of development that demands an extension of the airport is the one that has come under public scrutiny.
The Thano forest region is an elephant corridor. Elephants walk from the western part of the state to the Tanakpur border with Nepal through this corridor. Elephants walking is a common sight in the region besides the occasional occurrence of deers, antelopes, and even rare species like monitor lizards. The state forest department has not stated anything about the provision of replacement of these habitats.
A loss of 10,000 trees will not only have direct consequences like the lowering of the air quality index but also the loss of the natural habitats of wild animals will further endanger many species which earlier found a safe haven in Uttarakhand. These animals could be forced to encroach on civilised land for a search of habitat and this will lead to a conflict between the wildlife and the population of the state which is known for its harmony with nature. No plan of the plantation of 10,000 saplings to replace the forest which alone would take decades have been started by the Uttarakhand government.
The #SaveThano campaigners are not against development. The locals are the primary force behind the initiation and sustenance of the campaign. The last thing a person who lives in the region would want is the lack of development. But it is because these people actually live in the state that they recognise the deeper repercussions of the expansion project that they will have to face the brunt of. Besides, Dehradun already has a completely functional airport that handles the bulk of the air traffic of the state.
Wouldn’t it be a better idea to develop airports in regions that are thousands of kilometres away from the nearest airport instead of disturbing a forest that forms the habitat for hundreds of animals? Locations like Haridwar and Rishikesh which receive the bulk of international tourists lack direct air connectivity. An international airport is already being built in Pantnagar. Then the question arises of the need to disturb a forest range to build another international airport facility just 6 hours away (by road) from the Pantnagar International Airport.
The nation saw how the #SaveAarey movement on social media managed to reverse a government decision to fell down trees in Aarey, “the last green lung” of Mumbai. Uttarakhandis hope for similar support for the #SaveThano movement as well. Mumbai being the film and fashion capital of India enjoys a wider national coverage where a power cut storms into headlines, something that is normal for the rest of India.
While the campaign of Mumbaikars to save Aarey could garner enough eyeballs to force the government to see sense, the Doonites depend mainly on local coverage to further their cause. And that is why it makes it all the more important for all the people of Uttarakhand especially to become aware of the development and join the conversation.
The movement is justified because of a range of reasons. The Thano forest lies in a 10 km radius of the eco-sensitive Rajaji National Park. It is the only connecting forest between the Himalayan and Shivalik range in the state and is home to a rich biodiversity. A clearance under
The Environment Impact Assessment was compulsory for the approval of the expansion project. The EIA Bill 2020, if passed, would permit the initiation of construction of such projects even if it fails the criteria of the EIA as it has the provision of a de-facto clearance. At a time when record global warming temperatures are being recorded, are we wise in further tampering with the lungs of the world?
Dehradun based, youth-run NGO, Making a Difference by Being the Difference (MAD) claims that the draft Environmental Impact Assessment for the extension project was proposed by the project consultant under the false recording that no Schedule-I fauna has been reported in the area and that there is an absence of dense forest in the said area.
MAD also plans to approach the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board on the observation made by the project consultant of the airport expansion project. The organization pointed out that it was always open to the Government to purchase land in Doiwala for any such project, instead of felling green trees.
This claim by the project consultant has also been refuted by the Youth for Climate India which recorded 104 species of birds in the region. Even the ebird org has recorded sightings of over 100 species in the region. Euttaranchal, the tourism website of Uttarakhand states bird watching to be a popular tourism activity in the region. The Uttarakhand Forest Department had organised a bird watching camp in the region in 2015 and recorded 104 bird species in the Thano region including woodpeckers and oriental pied hornbill. After such evidence, the claim of the EIA study that no scheduled fauna is present in the region raises serious doubt about the correctness of the study, if at all it was conducted.
Khair, Sheesham, Sagon, Gulmohar and 25 other species of trees are now under the threat of deforestation in the Thano region. The Gulmohar trees paint the sky red in a wonderful canopy and the Sheesham trees make for a picturesque travel stop. The Sal forests in the region play a vital role in holding firm the Shivalik hills. Deforestation of such ecologically sensitive land could pose Uttarakhand to a greater risk of landslides and soil erosion. After the 2013 Kedarnath floods, the state does not need another example of careless short-sighted construction projects at the obvious risk of environmental repercussions.
The locals fear Uttarakhand turning into another Delhi with a dismal Air Quality Index. The region further falls under the Seismic Zone 4 making it a high-risk zone. The National Forest Policy implemented in 1998, has as one of its objectives – Maintenance of environmental stability through preservation and, where necessary, restoration of the ecological balance that has been adversely disturbed by serious depletion of the forests of the country. And this deforestation in Thano stands the potential of disturbing the ecology of the Shivalik range.
Doonites have organized several Twitter storms with the hashtag SaveThano. A protest rally was also staged at the Jollygrant Airport Road. An online petition has been initiated to demand the disapproval of the project. Raksha Sutra threads are tied on the trees of Thano as a symbol of their commitment to protecting the trees.
The state government must show greater transparency in its functioning especially for a project that involves the locals so deeply. The correctness and transparency of the EIA study which has come under scrutiny must be made public and the constructive suggestions of the people of Uttarakhand must not fall to deaf ears in a democracy. FridaysforfutureIndia, LetmeBreathe, MAD, and several other organisations have voiced their support for the movement.
A collective sense of responsibility has arisen towards the preservation of the natural beauty that makes Uttarakhand what it is, Devabhumi, the land of austere natural beauty.