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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Focus on glaciers: Proposed national centre on glaciology was shelved

A National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology was proposed to be created as part of the Sustainable Himalayan Ecosystem mission, one of the eight missions that had been launched in 2008 to lead India's response to climate change.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Pune |
Updated: February 11, 2021 2:10:08 pm
General view of the place where members of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) conduct a rescue operation, after a part of a glacier broke away, in Tapovan in Uttarakhand. (Reuters)

With Sunday’s flash flood event in Uttarakhand once again highlighting the need for enhanced monitoring and study of the Himalayan glaciers, several experts pointed to the absence of a nodal agency to direct all research and activities in the glacial regions. Incidentally, a plan to set up a national institute precisely for this purpose almost became a reality in 2014, before being abandoned altogether.

A National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology was proposed to be created as part of the Sustainable Himalayan Ecosystem mission, one of the eight missions that had been launched in 2008 to lead India’s response to climate change.

The Department of Science and Technology, which was pressing for its creation, had argued that there was an urgent need to understand the behaviour of Himalayan glaciers in relation to the overall changes in the present climate and its future trends, and that the existing data on glaciers in India was “too short, meagre and discreet to deduce evidence-based policy interventions”. It had further said that very few parameters of glaciers were being studied, and that too at random time intervals which was unable to capture the long term trends of very complex processes.

A Rs 550 crore plan for setting up the Centre was drawn up. A 50-acre plot of land at the Castle Hill Estate in Mussoorie, owned by the Survey of India, was earmarked for this centre.

In the final stages, however, the Finance Ministry argued that it would be “prudent” to upgrade and strengthen the facilities at the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology rather than set up a new institute.

“Someone in the government decided it (this institute) was not required, and that was the end of it. I don’t understand why this institute was not required. Everyone working on the glaciers realises this,” D P Dobhal, a glaciologist working in Uttarakhand, told The Indian Express.

Uttarakhand Flash flood, Uttarakhand tragedy Site of the Tapovan hydel project as rescue works are underway on Wednesday after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing massive flooding in Dhauli Ganga River, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

The Wadia Institute had already started a separate Centre of Glaciology in 2009, also as part of the Himalayan Ecosystem Mission, and it was this centre that was supposed to be strengthened and upgraded. Last year, in 2020, even this centre was wound up, and merged with the Wadia Institute.

“There is already a lot of work happening on the glaciers. Much more is required, but there also has to be better focus, and a result-oriented approach,” Syed Iqbal Hasnain, another glaciologist, said.

A government official said when the Himalayan Ecosystem mission had been launched in 2008, there were barely 20 glaciologists working full time on Indian glaciers. “Over the years, we have been able to build our capacity and gain expertise. Now, there would probably be hundreds of glaciologists and others who are studying the Indian glacier system. There are people in Indian Institute of Science, at IISERs, at IITs and several other institutions. The grants for glacial research has gone up. Relevant departments have been set up at several universities and institutions,” he said.

Dobhal, however, insisted that the results from the Himalayan Ecosystem mission were far from satisfactory. “Yes, many more people are studying the glaciers now. A lot of data is being generated. Lots of reports published. But that is not the point. Are we able to use this data and new information to manage our glaciers more effectively? Have we been able to minimise the risks of incidents like the one we saw on Sunday?” he asked.

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