Himalayan Neighbour Bhutan
The people of Bhutan rate high in their happiness index in spite of their poverty as measured by the western yardstick. So happiness is something that is more than the comfort that comes from economic wealth.
While in the Paro region of Thimpu, the capital city, most modern facilities are available, the basic structure of all the buildings follow the traditional norms because of which, even under heavy rains or seismological activities, the damages are mitigated. The traditional façade also adds to the beauty.
No wonder the people here are high in the happiness index as they adhere to the basic principles of sustainable living based on time tested methods.
While Bhutan has maintained the core principals of traditional architecture, and still attracts tourists in large numbers and gives them all modern amenities, in adjacent India, the facilities in the Himalayan circuits leave a lot to be desired. It is a stark contrast to see, for after all, Bhutan is a neighbour of India.
This perhaps stems from the fact that for Bhutan, Himalaya is their entire country and they have lived there all along. Whereas for India, Himalaya is at one end of the country. While majority people of India enjoy the benefits that the Himalaya provides such as perennial water supply, rich silt, protection from cold northern winds, to name a few obvious, they are far removed from the realities of what such a ecosystem really means.
The ones who know and value it, are the locals who have been living there all along. But they cannot do anything, for, even though they may live in the heights, they have been forced to bow down to the political and economic power in the plains.
Barren Without the Banj
The lower to middle Himalaya, has been home to varied species of flora and fauna. One among them has been the White Oak tree, called Banj by the locals. This Banj tree had been pivotal to the ecosystem of Himalaya so much so that the ecosystem of the Himalaya had grown around this tree. Lets look at some important functions of Banj
Water retention – the broad leaves of Banj tree retain water and proliferation of this tree meant more water evaporation during summers and so more rain and snow in the upper reaches of the Himalaya and hence more river water flow during summer again.
Water percolation – the falling leaves of the Banj on mulching, created a thick carpet of Humus on the floor of the forests making it conducive for bushes, plants and other undergrowth under these trees, which again contributed to increasing the humus on the floor of the forest. This Humus absorbed the rain water falling and allowed it to percolate slowly into the ground rather than just get washed away down the slopes. This percolation led to increase in ground water and water springs at various places along the slopes.
Preventing Soil Erosion – The carpet of Humus held the soil firmly and prevented it from getting washed away down the slopes along with the waters. This prevented landslides and consequently breaches and flash floods.
Banj Tree with Undergrowth, Humus
Unfortunately from the times of the British, these massive oaks were felled and instead replaced with Chir Pine trees for their quick commercial value. Chir Pine was suitable for resins and timber and had a quick turn around.
Needle Pine, The Sharp Contrast
Water retention – Being fine and needle shaped, the leaves of the Chir Pine, did not absorb and retain water. Consequently they had nothing to offer by way of evaporation and hence did not help rains or snow.
Water Percolation – Being fine and needle shaped, the fallen leaves rolled away and did not mulch below the tree to form humus. Hence there was no undergrowth of bushes and other plants beneath the pine tree. The ground beneath the pine tree was barren without any undergrowth. Hence any rain water that fell on the ground just quickly rolled off down the slopes of the mountains as there was no carpet of humus to absorb the water and allow it to soak into the ground. Consequently there was no percolation of water underground and water springs and aquifers went dry soon.
Soil Erosion – As there was no undergrowth, the soil under the trees were exposed to the falling rains which would wash away the soil as it ran down the slopes. During torrential rains, which these regions are bound to experience, when these rain waters flowed unchecked down the slopes they started creating flashfloods and landslides.
This difference came to light when the local Pahadi, women of these hills started noticing reduction in fuel wood and ground water. Nobody had concerned themselves with the Banj trees and hence the women could use their lower branches as fuel wood. Pruning the lower branches regularly also allowed more sunlight to reach the ground and aid more undergrowth and humus.
Whereas, the pine trees were part of plantations for commercial exploitation and access to their wood was barred to these women.
The search for the root of the problem subsequently led to the understanding of the pivotal role the Banj tree had played in maintaining the ecosystem of these hills.
Sadly, it was too late. Most of the Banj had gone. The local women who wanted to safeguard the few left behind rallied round under a movement called the Chipko movement during the 1970s. The Pahadi women formed human chains and hugged the Banj trees to prevent them from being felled. The word Chipko means to hug, to stick to.
Chipko Movement 1970s – Women Hugging Banj Tree
The barren landscape of the hills today tells us the remaining part of this story as to what happened to these women and their trees.