Contemplating the ecological disturbances of the Gangotri-Gaumukh area, I decided to undertake practical eco-conservation work. Being a mountaineer, the experience of working in higher altitudes along with my research goals sustained me in my task over the long-term.
As such, my first project focused on the Gangotri-Gaumukh area, which attracts the maximum number of pilgrims, trekkers, and mountaineers (Indian and foreign) in the Indian Himalayas.
Evaluating a Growing Problem
In the year 1989, I began work on a research project entitled, “Growth of pilgrimage and tourism in Gangotri-Gaumukh area; An impact on physical resources and economy” which was financed by Ministry of Environment & Forests, Govt. of India.
The conclusion of the study was that there are many positive impacts of pilgrimage and tourism on the local economy of the region, i.e., an increase in income and employment. But the negative environmental impacts like deforestation, water pollution, garbage heaps, unplanned building constructions, and poor drainage system are growing very fast in the region. The threat to plant species like Birch, Salix and Juniper are very evident. As a part of the project, I organized Environment Awareness Campaigns and Garbage Collection expeditions in Gaumukh area. Plantations of Birch, Juniper and other indigenous species were strongly recommended in the report.
Raising of the Plant Nursery at Chirbasa
Subsequently, I applied for permission to raise the plant nursery of indigenous species like Birch, Salix and Poplars at Chirbasa. In 1993, permission was granted from the Divisional Forest Officer, Uttarkashi for raising the plant nursery at Chirbasa, which I had been attempting since 1989. With the help of Shri Rattan Singh Chauhan, Senior Instructor, Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (Uttarkashi), I started working on establishing the plant nursery. Very soon, we raised a young plant nursery of Bhojpatra (Betula utilis), Bhangil (Salix babilonica) and Pahari Pipal (Populous ciliate) at Chirbasa.
Bhojapatra (Birch) Plantation & Eco-Conservation Work
Following this success, I was granted permission to initiate afforestation at Bhojbasa over a 12-hectare area. To save the plantation from horses and ponies, permission was also obtained for barbed wire fencing of the plantation. For the very first time, barbed wire fencing was done in 2.5 hectares of area at Bhojbasa just below the Gaumukh trek, but above the GMVN tourist bungalow. 2500 saplings of Bhojpatra, Salix and Populous were planted for the first time in Bhojbasa area in 1996. Plants were taken care of by two men for ten years. Organic manure and water was continuously given to the plants. The growth rate of the plants was on average 6-8 inches per annum with a survival rate of 60-65 percent. The terrain is cold desert and climate dry and cold due to scant rains and thus not very conducive to the fast growth of the plants. After, ten years the trees have reached 4-5 feet in height. This plantation and the plant nursery were financed by Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi Avam Paryavaran Shikshan Sansthan, Almora.
Later during 1997-2000, we also initiated another project entitled, “Afforestation based eco-conservation in Gangotri-Gaumukh area.” In this, we barbwired 5.5 hectares of area, which was one km ahead of Bhojbasa at an altitude of 3820m. We planted another 10,500 saplings of Birch and Salix. Sandy soil, scant rains, cold climate, windy atmosphere, rugged cold desert-like terrain all together made the work more difficult and the progress slow. Tapping the water for the plantation from a natural stream more than a km away was not an easy task. Here the terrain is as difficult as the cold dry alpine desert. The period conducive to the growth of the plants starts from the month of May and lasts till the end of September. Therefore, there is a very small window of opportunity for the plants to grow every year. The survival rate is 50-60 percent. This is new and difficult work which we have managed to perofrm.
In spite of all natural and man-made odds the work was completed very laboriously. But the most noticeable thing about this work is that it is the first successful plantation of Birch in the Indian Himalayas.
Cultivating Medicinal Plants
To look after the plantation, another project titled, “Conservation of Bhojpatra plantation & eco-Awareness Campaign in Gaumukh Area” was sanctioned. G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment & Dev., Kosi, Almora has financed both the above projects completed so far. Simultaneously, we also cultivated medicinal plants like Kutki (Aconitum heterophyllum), Atis (Picrorhiza kurroa), Archa (Rheum emodi) and Salam Panja (Orchis habemioides).
While doing this work both, Mr. Rattan Singh Chauhan and I were falsely implicated in a criminal case by the Forest Department, Uttarkashi. But finally, the court quashed the case and acquitted us from all the false allegations put forth by the Forest Department whose bureaucratic hold on the region felt threatened by our work.
We are still fighting all odds to make this constructive environmental work a success. A small documentary on the critical condition of the Himalayan environment of Gangotri-Gaumukh has also been made.