Tribune News Service, November 16, 2008
For most mountaineers, mountains are only meant to be conquered but for Dr. Harshvanti Bisht, a mountaineer and a recipient of the Arjuna award, mountains are also meant to be revered, loved, cared and protected.
To her goes the credit of undertaking the first successful Bhojpatra plantation in the Indian Himalayas for eco-restoration of the Gangotri-Gaumukh region.
Her transformation from a mountaineer to a conservationist began in the year 1989 when she conducted a study to assess the impacts of tourism and pilgrimage on the ecology of the region.
Speaking to The Tribune, Harshvanti said that she was appalled by the extent of environmental degradation in the area at that time.
“The accumulation of huge amounts of garbage, mushrooming of dhabas for pilgrims and large-scale deforestation were threatening this highly fragile ecosystem,” said the ace mountaineer who is also a reader of Economics at a college in Uttarkashi.
And while fellow mountaineers were busy conquering newer heights, Harshvanti, a member of the 1984 Everest expedition, was chalking out strategies to address the ecological problems in the Gangotri-Gaumukh area.
Subsequently, with the help of Rattan Singh, a fellow mountaineer, she organised several environmental awareness campaigns and garbage collection expeditions in the area and at the same time decided to take up afforestation activities.
However, while the thought of planting trees at a height of 12,500 feet seemed preposterous to most people, Harshvanti had the gritty determination of a true mountaineer. She soon found out that Bhojpatra (Betula utilis) is the ideal species for plantation at this altitude.
In 1993, after getting permission from the forest department, Harshvanti established a nursery at Chirbasa, at a height of 11,700 feet.
Later, she got permission from the department for afforestation on a 12 hectare area at Bhojbasa, inside the Gangotri National Park.
“Although funding was a problem initially but some local NGOs came forward to support our initiative,” Harshvanti said.
In 1996, 2.5 hectare land was taken up and 2,500 saplings were planted at Bhojbasa while in the second phase (1997-2000) over 10,000 saplings were planted on an area of 5.5 hectares.
Most notably, at each plantation site post plantation activities like manuring, gap plantations have been taken.
“We take care of each site for a ten year period so that the plants are properly established,” Harshvanti said. Barbed wire fencing has also been constructed to protect the plantations.
According to Bisht, rugged topography and extremely cold climatic conditions made the work more difficult and the progress slow.
She says that cold dry alpine desert conditions severely hamper the survival and growth of the plants.
Harshvanti laments that, “the growth rate of the plants has been only 6 to 8 inches per annum with a survival rate of 60-65 percent”.
However, this has been an uphill task. Apart from grappling with forces of nature, Harshvanti has also been battling with the oppressive tactics of forest officials.
“In 2004, Rattan Singh and myself were falsely implicated in a criminal case and later in 2006 eviction notices were issued to us,” Harshvanti complained.
“I have found this task much more challenging than climbing any mountain peak,” she said. But in spite of all odds, her hard work has reaped rich dividends.
“Saplings planted in 1996 have grown to a height of around four to five feet,” an elated Harshvanti informed.
Meanwhile, she has not only been cleared of all charges levied by the forest department but also granted permission to continue plantation work till 2011.
“This is the first successful plantation of Bhojpatra in the Indian Himalayas,” beams Harshvanti. Hopefully, the mountaineer will continue on her green mission since she still has a huge mountain to climb.