When roads are developed, only the cutting down of trees is visible and considered. The herbs and shrubs are never considered and thought about. Clearing up of vegetation disturbs the complete ecosystem that includes microorganisms to mammals. So, cutting down of trees and then planting the saplings, is as different as giving birth to a baby and making a plastic mannequin. So much of damage for an annual event is not a wise verdict. It is better to face the hardships for few days rather than creating problems for life long. It is high time that we actually practice sustainability rather than just preaching it. Won’t it be better to use the trees as median by making the road on their side? It will become a landmark and can even be provided as a solution to rampant tree felling during road widening projects to other states. The kanwar road, if unavoidable, can actually become an attraction…
We grew up listening to stories based on the proverb “Slow and steady wins the race” with a deep and important lesson for life that it is better off being methodical than rushing into something unprepared. Forgetting this lesson, humans are rushing to win the race of development that will end with the destruction of nature and the very existence of man himself. Cutting down of trees for road construction is now a common practice. This time it is just about 1.12 lakh trees and plants that would be felled for constructing 110-km-long kanwar road on the right bank of the Upper Ganga Canal! While the state government has given approval to the project, the final nod from the Union government is awaited to begin the felling of trees before construction of the road.
What is it all about?
To start with, let us understand the kanwar yatra and its significance. Kanwar yatra is a holy pilgrimage observed by the devotees of Lord Shiva. It is an annual festival celebrated in the Shravan month (July-August) across India. The people, who participate in this auspicious yatra, tare called kanwariyas. The 100-km kanwar yatra in Shravan is done barefoot by the devotees with utmost devotion and thrill.
During the yatra, the devotees store the holy water of the Ganga in pitchers and carry it on their shoulders by a small pole made from bamboo known as “kanwar”. The yatra has social and religious significance. As per the social impact, people living far away from rivers must store water. Although the monsoon fulfills their requirement to a great extent, even the monsoon is not reliable at times. In such a situation, only perennial rivers have shelter. And for this, for centuries, man has been trying to make full use of the rivers with his engineering skills- sometimes dams, sometimes canals, sometimes by other means- to take the water of the rivers to the waterless areas. But due to population pressure and human adultery with nature, the water crisis has emerged as a major problem. In religious terms, man has enraged Lord Shiva with his selfish motives. Symbolically, the message of the kanwar yatra is understandable that Lord Shiva, whom one is anointing with the sacred water of the life-giving rivers, is actually another form of creation. The kanwar yatra, composed of social concerns along with religious beliefs, really highlights the importance of water harvesting. The core meaning of kanwar yatra is that when you irrigate your farms and barns by saving water and using the water of rivers and provide water to animals, birds and environment at your place of residence, then Shiva, who is generous like nature, will be naturally pleased. So, to please Shiva, those participating in this divine event have to understand its importance as well. Therefore, organizing and participating in kanwar yatra is actually a very beautiful thing.
However the menace of traffic during the kanwar yatra has led to several tribulations. Most of the kanwariyas from Delhi-NCR region follow the NH-58 route from Ghaziabad to Rishikesh. They walk hundreds of kilometers to reach the Neelkanth Temple, located at a distance of 32 km from Rishikesh. Most of the kanwariyas cover the distance on foot; others also use bikes, auto, bicycle, scooters, and jeep or mini trucks to cover this journey. During this period, the traffic on NH-58, NH-24, and other routes gets badly affected due to heavy rush of kanwariyas. For that reason, demand for construction of the new kanwar road was raised as lakhs of pilgrims who walk with kanwar between Haridwar and their native places in Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh during the yatra. Everyone is hopeful that the construction of the new kanwar road would ease traffic on main highways. The road would be constructed on the right side of the canal, starting from Muradnagar of Ghaziabad. The road will pass through Meerut and Muzaffarnagar before entering Haridwar. Notably, a kanwar road has already been constructed on the left bank of the canal.
Lakhs of trees will be felled
As always, environmental enthusiasts are opposing the felling of such a large number of trees for the purpose. They say that it would adversely impact the ecology and wildlife of the affected land, spread over Ghaziabad, Meerut, and Muzaffarnagar districts. On the proposed development, Professor Sudhir Panwar, an environment activist and former member of state planning commission, said that Britishers built canals but never interfered or exploited the canal-side ecology. They were aware of its significance in terms of ecology and wildlife. He added that felling of such a large number of trees would have adverse impact on people’s lives and demanded that government should think of some alternatives to carry forward the construction of the road without felling such a big number of trees. “This step is extremely short-sighted as it will deplete the green cover of western UP, which is already very low. Some of the trees may be quite old and large. Soon, the road will have no trees at all. The diminishing green cover in the city will have many implications including decreased air quality and effects of direct heat as well as water scarcity for the residents,” he said. To compensate for the felling of trees, land has been provided in Lalitpur for plantation. Authorities claim they will plant double the number of trees and plants that are felled. Professor Panwar also questioned the planting of saplings in Lalitpur for compensating the harm that will be caused by felling over 1 lakh trees. He said: “Saplings should be planted here instead of planting it thousands of kilometers away.” The concern is obvious. Trees are one of the first and biggest casualties of any infrastructure project like roads, railways, buildings, or any other. We are cutting down lakhs of trees every year for “development”.
Punit Upadhyay, President IRE-Jungle in Narsinghgarh district of Madhya Pradesh is growing forest on the barren hills of his area. He knows what it takes to plant and grow a tree. Punit says: “Like an insect gets attracted by the light of a lamp and ends its life by getting burnt. Similarly man is heading towards an end of life on earth due to the attraction of big developmental projects and facilities. He cannot see the destruction of nature- the basis of all life. This never-ending construction in the name of progress will conclude with the devastation of our beautiful planet. When roads are developed, only the cutting down of trees is visible and considered. The herbs and shrubs are never considered and thought about. Clearing up of the vegetation disturbs the complete ecosystem that includes microorganisms to mammals. So, cutting down of trees and then planting the saplings, is as different as giving birth to a baby and making a plastic mannequin.”
Can it be done without sacrificing greenery?
Humans are said to be the wisest living beings. Can the authorities, official and decision makers ask a simple question to themselves- can we make a kanwar road without cutting the trees? Of course it is possible, with the only effect that the road won’t be straight and would be incapable of high-speed traffic. Such an effect may not be necessarily deleterious and the yatra can be more pleasant for devotes to walk under the shade to trees. No devote would like to walk through a way that is made by brutal killing of the trees and the biodiversity associated with them be it the mammals, birds, insects or reptiles. The leaders say “people’s lives are our priority. We can’t play with that, we won’t take any chances.” When are they going to say this for our environment? We can cancel the kanwar yatra during the pandemic so that we do not risk human lives. By cutting down lakhs of trees we are putting a number of species at threat including the homo sapiens. Why can’t the government take the environmental issues seriously?
Bindu, President Institute of Social Development, Khiccha in Uttarakhand is a dedicated environmentalist. While undertaking the plantation projects, she ensures to select the right species that would survive in the natural climatic conditions. She shares her views regarding the kanwar road construction. “I am in support of road construction for kanwariyas but for this the cost of causing such huge damage to the ecosystem is not worth it. Brainstorming should be done with government officials, social workers and local representatives regarding the direction and location of the road, the local environmentalists can surely suggest some better option. I am giving the example of my small garden. There is a big pot with a big plant on which a little bird has made its nest. if I remove or even trim the plant then surely the eggs or chicks will be killed. Just think the countless animals and birds that must be depending on those 1.12 lakh trees. Won't all of them be killed due to cutting down of these trees? Does the government have any solid policy to build roads without harming the ecosystem? We will plant trees and grow plants, but can we bring back the fauna associated with them? In this way, we may become more advanced in terms of modernization but in terms of nature, will go hundreds of years back again. So, I believe that the government should look for alternatives to a road that will be beneficial for both the environment and the society,” she points out.
Who will actually benefit from this road?
Again, the question we need to ask is who are we building the kanwar road for? Unfortunately, the entire focus of administrative bodies is to make wider road that will move vehicles faster from place to place. The vision behind the kanwar road is to ease traffic on main highways. Car ownership in India is less than 50 per 1000 people. We need to have a vision for the kanwar road that is beyond just the movement of vehicles. As we plan to solve the problem of traffic for the kanwariyas, we need to have a vision that is sustainable and holistic. While it is essential to build and develop roads, but if along with the kanwar yatra, ecosystem is given centrality then we will not end up cutting so many trees and removing the green cover of the region. Dr Akhilesh Kumar, a government teacher and wildlife biologist, said: “The kanwar yatra is a long and difficult task that is taken by the devotes themselves, nobody forces anyone for this. Once you are out of your comfort zone, you are ready to take up the problems and tackle them. So, for an annual event that is just for a few days, we should not start this trend of cutting trees and making roads. I am sure that the devotees will not be happy to know that the road is being made for them by cutting down so many trees. We should learn to slow down our speed now. What is the hurry? For a traffic that will take few more minutes to reach your destination you cannot cut down the trees that takes years to grow. To solve a problem that is just for a few days in a year, it is not a sensible step to be taken; instead of this we can make some temporary arrangements that will be good for the devotees as well as environment.” India is a country of diverse religions, cultures, and rituals. “We celebrate and enjoy. We organize and celebrate Kumbh and Maha Kumbh that can be considered as one of the biggest festivals with 30-40 crores of people attending it. We make arrangements for such large number of the devotees without destroying nature. Making temporary arrangements for kanwar yatra is not some rocket science. We have made so much progress in science and technology, and are ready to explore other planets and what not. Can’t we have an eco-friendly way out for a simple road, be it transitory or a permanent construction? Is it really that complex? We wish if this seriousness was shown for constructing roads for students who are unable to attend schools during monsoons because the seasonal rivers overflow and become a barrier between the children and the school! There are so many other important problems that can be solved with the project fund ₹249 crores, that the state government has already released out of its total budget of ₹628 crores,” he added. The new plantations are mostly not done and even if some are done, there is no follow-up in their success. Moreover, the area from where the kanwar road will pass is already ecologically sensitive land in the state so that plantation in other district of Southern Uttar Pradesh makes no sense.
Meerut is an industrial area, likewise Muzaffarnagar is the principal commercial, industrial and educational hub of Western Uttar Pradesh. Both the districts being near to Delhi are already facing the pollution issues. Considering the seriousness, all the available space such as abandoned brick kiln sites should be considered for plantation along with the other areas proposed for plantation as these cities have high demands for other industrial activities; these pockets of place should be considered for creating oxygen pockets. Everyone knows that plants are universal sink for air pollutants and act as a scavenger to these pollutants. Hence, plantation needs to be done on busy routes to curb air pollution in respect to dust emission. And what are we planning? We are ready to do just the opposite by supporting a project that requires cutting down of trees to curb the heavy traffic. The WHO Health Statistics 2016 says air pollution is "caused by inefficient energy production, distribution and use, especially in the industrial, transportation and building sectors, and by poor waste management”. It adds that transport systems based primarily on individual motorized transport can lead to further deterioration in air quality. It further adds, people living near the source or busy roads are more exposed and more affected. The most common trees along the road side are neem, sheesham, kadam and ficus species. All these species are known for controlling air pollution and absorbing the dust. Moreover, trees reach their most productive stage of carbon storage at about 10 years at which point they are estimated to absorb 21.8kg of CO2 per year. The new plantations cannot make-up for such a big loss and that too when proposed to be planted in other district.
Activists are up in arms as word has spread about the imminent cutting of the enormous number of trees. To save ourselves from the effects of destruction that we have caused to the environment, plantation is our duty but to save the big, old trees is now a necessity. Trees do not grow in few hours or few days-it is a time taking process. Trees are not just for timber. They give us oxygen. How will the authorities compensate for the amount and cost of oxygen that the trees would give to nature in their lifetime? The removal of trees in lakhs of number will have adverse effect in the localities from where the road will pass and the compensatory plantation done approximately 600 kilometres away is merely in arithmetical terms. We can find solutions. So much of damage for an annual event is not a wise verdict. It is better to face the hardships for few days rather than creating problems for life long. It is high time that we actually practice sustainability rather than preaching it. Rampant and haphazard developments are already having devastating impact. How many more wake-up calls do we need to understand the impact of human interference on the ecosystem? Won’t it be better to use the trees as median by making the road on their side? It will become a landmark and can even be provided as a solution to rampant tree felling during road widening projects to other states. The kanwar road, if unavoidable, can actually become an attraction.
(The writer is secretary, Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society