Think Uttarakhand's air is clean? It isn't. And govt's axing more trees

 Think Uttarakhand's air is clean? It isn't. And govt's axing more trees

Think Uttarakhand's air is clean? It isn't. And govt's axing more trees

Dehradun, Uttarakhand: Though known for tall mountains and lush forests, Uttarakhand is now seeing a rise in air pollution. Despite the significant rise in air pollution, trees around the state are being cut on a regular basis by the administration citing developmental projects. 

According to the Uttarakhand State of Environment report, released in 2020, with the increasing population, industrialisation, urbanisation, construction work and increasing pressure of vehicles on the roads, the level of pollution in the air is increasing. 

According to data from the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board (UPCB), the air quality index (AQI) (used to determine the pollution in air) of Dehradun, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kashipur, and Haldwani on November 21 was 172, 148, 171, 154 and 127 respectively. The AQI upto 50 is considered good, 51-100 is moderate, 101–200 is poor, 201–300 is critical to the health and anything above 300 is considered extremely dangerous. 

The UPCB data also point that the PM-10 concentration in October was 171.33 µg/cubic metre (1 g=10 lakh µg) in Dehradun, 112.3 in Rishikesh, 126.68 in Haridwar, 108.7 in Haldwani, 123.78 in Kashipur and 121.09 in Rudrapur, while the World Health Organization sets the upper limit of PM-10 concentration at 20µg/cubic metre.

SS Chauhan, assistant scientific officer, UPCB, told 101Reporters that in view of the increasing pollution, instructions were given to prepare an air action plan. 

The UPCB sent the data from the monitoring to the Central Pollution Control Board, after which they prepared action plans for Rishikesh and Kashipur, he added. 

In Rishikesh, the UPCB will install monitoring stations at three to four places which are under the heavy pressure of vehicles and will work with the transport department, local administration and industries to manage air pollution, he said. 

The air action plans include banning 15-year-old commercial diesel vehicles, encouraging the use of CNG-LPG fuels, boosting e-rickshaws, pollution testing of vehicles, web-based software for monitoring and planting trees on roadways. 

However, diesel vehicles, which are more than 15-years-old, can still be seen on the streets of Rishikesh, stated Vinod Juglan, a member of Namami Gange District Committee of Rishikesh. 

"The old vehicles banned in Delhi-NCR region are being used in Himalayan districts like Rishikesh,” he commented. 

Over 9,000 trees being cut

While the air action plan talked about developing a green belt, more than 9,000 trees in the 87-hectare forest area of Thano forest is being cut under the garb of airport expansion, environmentalists say. According to a 2015 study on Thano forest, the net carbon stock (ability to contain carbon) in Thano forest ranges from 684 mg (scrub forest type) to 1668 mg (moist deciduous) per hectare. These capture 37.29% of the carbon dioxide emissions of Dehradun city, it added.

Himanshu Arora, secretary, Citizens for Green Doon, an environmental advocacy group, stated that they oppose the cutting of over 9,000 trees for the expansion of Jolly Grant Airport and added that they would approach the court if the National Wildlife Board passes the proposal. 

He filed a right-to-information (RTI) request asking the number of trees that were cut in the Thano reserve forest for the construction of Jolly Grant Airport in 2003. The RTI revealed that 70 hectares from the reserve forest were transferred to the Airport Authority of India and 9,358 trees were cut down. However, the Dehradun forest division was given 140 hectares of land in which 2.80 lakh saplings were supposed to be planted.

Thano forest of Dehradun, Credit: Varsha Singh

However, another RTI by Arora revealed that there is a backlog of 9,000 hectares for compensatory afforestation. 

The Additional Chief Conservator of Forests JS Suhag confirmed the data and explained that according to the rule, one has to plant trees in the double the area of the site of deforestation. 

“How much more forest do we need! Owing to the forests, our developmental work isn’t taking place as it takes years to get permission to cut trees," he commented.

However, Arora questioned the administration’s plantation drive. He pointed out that only small saplings are being planted and they are left without any care.

‘Economy or ecology’

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, 91% of the world's population breathes polluted air. It added that air pollution can further increase the risk of diseases like COVID-19. 

For the Chardham project, more than 40,000 trees have been cut in the state since 2016. There are about 32 such projects, including the expansion of Jolly Grant Airport, in process in Uttarakhand costing more Rs 150 crore. For all these projects, forest land is being taken and large-scale cutting of trees is going on, sources say. 

Additionally, there are four hydropower projects, three railway projects, including the Rishikesh-Karnprayag railway line, and 21 roads projects. For these projects to succeed, heavy deforestation would be carried out around the state, experts warn.

According to the data from the state forest department, between March 2000 and November 2020, trees spread over an area of 50,000 hectares have been cut, with Dehradun seeing most of the deforestation. 

A Dehradun resident Aanchal Sharma, who filed an online petition against the deforestation in Thano forest, stated that though they feel they are in a hill station, away from the air pollution of New Delhi, the AQI in Dehradun regularly touches 200.

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