More parking may not be the solution to traffic problems

The Uttarakhand government has given the go-ahead to explore a solution to traffic problems in hill stations in the state by creating more space for cars. The state cabinet authorized the Public Works Department (PWD) to build underground tunnels for parking where possible after conducting geographic surveys.

Uttarakhand, located in the lower Himalayas, is an environmentally sensitive state with areas prone to landslides and other disasters like heavy rains and floods. Throughout the year, and especially every summer, tourists from the plains flock to the easily accessible hill stations here, many of them in their private vehicles.

Car emissions are already a problem, but even the increasing number of vehicles on the hills has intensified the pressures on these fragile ecosystems.

It may then seem counterintuitive that the administration is looking to make it easier for more vehicles to pass to the hill state, even considering tunnels in the landslide-prone region so cars can be parked easily.

While this may relieve bottlenecks in the 180 selected sites that are close to popular tourist destinations or shrines, it may also encourage more movement of people and cover larger stretches of asphalt hills, and perhaps give rise to greater problems than the proposed solutions in the region prone to landslides and floods.

SS Chief Secretary Sandhu told the media that the tunnels would be dug without affecting the fragile landscape of the hills. “It would be a one-of-a-kind project. The tunnels, with small entry and exit points, would have the capacity to accommodate around 200 cars,” he said.

Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, Tehri Hydro Power Development Corporation and Uttarakhand Vidyut Jal Nigam Limited will carry out the tunnel construction works after undertaking feasibility studies.

While facilitating connectivity and tourism is important, infrastructure projects in the hills should focus on long-term sustainability, otherwise projects aimed at making people’s lives easier might do the opposite. Climate change can impact tourism and tourism itself adds environmental pressures.
Climate change is thought to bring more moisture-laden winds to northern India, particularly the Himalayas, and extreme weather events such as downpours could become more frequent in the hills if global temperatures increased by 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Heavy downpours in a few minutes in a small geographical area can trigger landslides which are even common in the hills. Glaciers in upper Uttarakhand, where the waters of the Yamuna and Ganges ultimately originate, have retreated and are expected to do so at a faster rate as the world warms. The effects of climate change are visible even now when the snow is melting faster days in advance at the popular pilgrimage destinations of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – the Char Dham or the four Himalayan shrines which are visited by million people every year.

Increased accessibility allows many pilgrims to visit these destinations and increased tourism boosts the local economy, but this often comes at the expense of the environment which ultimately does not benefit the local people, but rather to temporary visitors.

Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an environmentalist, told the BBC: “The last mile approach [to the shrine] should be made a bit harder for pilgrims. Currently, not only the destination, but even the intermediate points along the way are under too much pressure.”

Regulating the number of pilgrims is essential but the same is not easy given the devotees from different socio-economic strata visiting the shrines. The state government needs political will and a determined, well-conceived plan to save the fragile ecosystem while allowing pilgrims to visit. It’s easier said than done.

Bonny J. Streater