Mountains are terrestrial too
Rain-ravaged Uttarakhand is an example of the consequences of tampering with nature and forests
Deepak Rikhye

An ancient Chinese saying has prophetic undertones. "If you cheat the earth, the earth will cheat you". Recent reports have described rain-ravaged Uttarakhand, as "rain fury". The devastation has been tragic. Almost all hill stations have become an ideal destination for anyone wanting to escape the heat during a summer season. Each hill station is now confronted with a situation never envisaged before. The after-effects of an increase in tourists has created a desideratum within that hill station. Accommodation in the form of hotels and homes have to be increased. If there is no space available within the hill station, buildings and allied development move to the suburbs.

A view of the flood-ravaged Kedarnath temple
A view of the flood-ravaged Kedarnath temple

To construct those buildings, forests become a serious impediment, so are cleared. The allied effects are garbage disposal and the inevitable plastic. Any area exposed without cover on the mountains could become a veritable death trap. The soil begins to move like a glacier and crashes down forming a landslide. The damage created is now irrevocable. Any disturbance, rain or seismic movements, will erode the mountain to the extent when not much of the mountain will remain.

New Shimla is devoid of forest. White sentinels representing buildings have dotted the area. Residents have observed a 'warming' in the climate. In sharp contradistinction, the Annandale helipad and its environs continue to be blessed with forests of deodar. Anywhere in the hills where farming occurs the land could be terraced. A large part of Sikkim has adhered to this system for years. The movement of water is gradual and terraced slopes obviate 'gushing'. Population increase has accentuated the need to plan the location of "every house / every building / every project." This will help catastrophic situations to become history, never to be repeated. Development projects of any nature in the hills need to be assessed.

A car buried in a heavy landslide in Shimla
A car buried in a heavy landslide in Shimla

Our early mountains and their plants

David Attenborough, eminent zoologist, explains the origins of our mountains. In the beginning they were volcanoes. In the aftermath of an eruption there were barren places surrounding the plains, with black tides of slag. The first volcanoes erupted on a far greater scale than we know today; building entire Mountain ranges of lava and ash. Over the millennia, the wind and rain destroyed rocks which turned into clay and mud. Continents were not stationary. They drifted slowly over the earth's surface. Convection currents drove them to move deep in the earth's mantle. When they collided, sedimentary deposits were squeezed, thus forming new mountain ranges. Then came plants to support mountains. Plants had to turn the flying skills of insects to their advantage. The earliest and simplest of plants were magnolias. They appeared about a hundred million years ago. In order to attract insects this plant is surrounded by brightly coloured leaves which are petals.

The magnolia's flowers and stamens open at different times. That protects it but gives away its pollen at the right time. Magnolias are content at higher elevations. They can proliferate with ease. They protect the mountains they love to grow on. Magnolias are seen in the Eastern Himalayas, Nepal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Perhaps the most bizarre imitations are those of some orchids that attract insects by sexual impersonation. One variety of an orchid produces a flower that resembles the form of a female wasp.

The bucket orchid drugs its visitors. Bees after sipping the nectar stagger about. Orchids of many varieties thrive on our mountains. If the vegetation on the mountains is declining we may be faced with a grim future. These beautiful creations bloomed long before man appeared on earth. They evolved in order not to appeal to him but to insects. It was a natural world that was formed to protect our land.

What happens on a mountain?

Mountainsides exposed without cover of vegetation are vulnerable to vagaries of the weather.

In summer, higher temperatures will cause a network of cracks on the ground. If warm temperatures continue, the cracks increase. When it begins to rain, water percolates through these cracks and reaches into the ground. The ground is unable to bear so much water. Saturation point will result in mountains crumbling, creating landslides.

Trees and vegetation provide roots which with passage of time form a 'net' underground, thereby 'holding' onto the soil. Movement of soil is restricted. Trees will keep the ground cooler. Shade of trees would offer protection from rays of the sun. Rain will come into direct contact with trees. That will prevent soil erosion.

The role of trees on mountains are an integral part of a cycle. There is no substitute. This is the law of terrestrial formations and mountains. A law that has prevailed for millions of years. No one, not even mankind, can change that law.