Alpine meadows (also known as Bugyals) play a very vital role in the Himalayan ecosystem. Over a period, the bugyals have deteriorated due to rampant cattle grazing, unchecked tourism, rising waste disposal and other reasons. Bugyals in Uttarakhand has witnessed an erosion of up to 2.5 kms in last few years. These bugyals are of great ecological, social and cultural significance to the hill state. They are of great help to local communities (like shepherds) in sustaining their livelihood.
The state government set up a Dayara Bugyal Conservation Committee in 2019 to oversee and implement projects concerning the conservation of the bugyals in the state. The committee initiated a pilot in the Uttarkashi district of the state. The DFO Uttarkashi and his team has played an integral role in executing the pilot and bringing out positive results in protecting the meadows. This is being touted as first of its kind initiative in India to protect the bugyals situated in high altitudes.
To understand the strategy and efforts to conserve bugyals in the state, Himalayan Watch interviewed Dr. Gopal Singh Rawat who is Former Dean of Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun and also Technical Advisor to the Committee. Dr. Rawat has been actively engaged in teaching, research and academic activities for last 40 years. He is a member of several reputed national and international bodies. Dr. Rawat is the Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, India.
(Dr. Gopal Singh Rawat is Former Dean of WII, Dehradun and Technical Advisor to Committee on Conservation of Bugyals)
What is the importance of meadows?
Alpine meadows, locally called Bugyals in Uttarakhand, represent natural herbaceous formations between upper treeline and snowline. They are of immense ecological, economic, aesthetic and cultural significance. They also form the upper catchment of Himalayan rivers. Most of the life saving medicinal herbs grow in these meadows.
What are the challenges being faced by meadows in Uttarakhand?
Most of the alpine meadows in Uttarakhand (except those which are located within protected areas and remote locations) are degrading rapidly due to heavy grazing by livestock throughout the summer-monsoon, uncontrolled tourism, accumulation of non-biodegradable garbage etc. A large number of unproductive cattle, mules and horses are driven to alpine meadows by the villagers in adjacent valleys for free grazing for 4-5 months. Extraction of high-value medicinal plants (by digging the fragile alpine slopes) are other causes of degradation. Cumulative impacts of humans and livestock have resulted in the erosion of alpine soil and loss of native vegetation are the major challenges faced by Bugyals in Uttarakhand.
Is there a need for any special law to protect or conserve the meadows as we have for wetlands & coastal areas?
I strongly feel that environmentally responsible tourism, empowerment of local Van Panchayats or Biodiversity Management Committees for the participatory management of meadows, sensitization of the masses regarding the importance of Bugyals would be more important than making separate laws.
The local communities in Uttarakhand have the highest stake in Bugyals in terms of religious purposes, seasonal grazing, etc. However, traditionally the grazing used to be by sheep and goats. It used to be rotational (by the frequent shifting of camps, etc), not by excessive grazing and camping with heavy livestock such as buffaloes, cattle, mules etc. Their number has to be reduced considerably.
Hon’ble High Court of Uttarakhand has recently banned camping in Bugyals. But limited camping, eco-tourism in an organized manner and orientation of students to the alpine ecosystem should be allowed so that they are connected to nature and the respect our natural and cultural heritage. A complete ban on camping is not a good idea.
What are your views on Uttarakhand Forest Department’s recent initiative of restoring the damaged meadows with coir mats?
As per the directives of Hon’ble High Court of Uttarakhand, the State Forest Department has to initiate the restoration of degraded Bugyals. Currently, it is being piloted at one or two locations. Wherever deep gullies have been formed due to soil erosion, some kind of environmental engineering will have to be done. The use of coir / geo-jute for checking soil erosion is an environmentally friendly technique. The state govt has set up a Committee for Restoration of Bugyals of which I am a member also.
The idea of using coir mat on an experimental basis was approved by the Bugyal Restoration Committee and we are extremely satisfied with the initial results. The concerned Divisional Forest Officer and his team deserve appreciation for having successfully implemented this experiment.
How can we ensure long term conservation of meadows in Uttarakhand?
We need an integrated and participatory approach to manage the alpine meadows in the state. The local community-based organizations (Van Panchayats, Biodiversity Management Committees, or other) need to be given full responsibilities. Bugyal restoration has to be linked with innovative livelihood generation, eco-tourism, sustainable livestock grazing etc.
We have an excellent model from the Valley of Flowers National Park where the villages in the Buffer Zone take part in the upkeep of the trail/trekking route to the valley, local eco-club has been managing the trekking path and nature interpretation center and collect nominal eco-fee and in turn, clean the garbage along the trail.
Such bodies can also check illegal activities such as poaching of animals and theft of high-value medicinal plants. It would not be practical to lock the alpine meadows and do policing.