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Tag: environment

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The streams of Shillong

Four years ago, when I was researching my dissertation, I spent a week in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and formerly capital of Assam. Shillong is located at an elevation of 4,900 feet in the Khasi Hills, a part of the Meghalaya Plateau that rises between the flatlands of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the south and Assam to the north.

I spent time in Shillong because it is close to a dam I was studying, Umiam Dam. I was primarily studying the dam from a technological perspective, but since I was writing my dissertation, I wanted to consider it from every possible angle. This led me to think about the dam from an environmental perspective, which in turn got me thinking about the streams of Shillong.

Umiam Dam impounds a reservoir with a surface area of about four square miles, named alternately Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake. (Umiam is a Khasi word meaning “Weeping River”; Barapani is Hindi for “Big Water.”) The reservoir receives drainage from a catchment area of 85.5 square miles in the Khasi highlands. The city of Shillong is located within this catchment area.

I spent some of my week in Shillong walking around the city, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. Two rivers flow through Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, both joined on their way by innumerable smaller tributaries and drains. I made it a point to see both rivers.

The Umkhrah River is on the northern edge of the city. I had vague memories of walking by it on my first visit to Shillong, five years earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I didn’t even know its name. On this visit, I spent plenty of time walking along the river.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

The Umshyrpi River to the south is separated from the Umkhrah by a ridge atop which the main bazaars and government buildings are located.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi on the south side of Shillong.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi River on the south side of Shillong.

The Umshyrpi proper.

The Umshyrpi proper.

West of Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshirpi join to form the Roro River, which subsequently flows into the Umiam River.

Both the Umkhrah and the Umshyrpi are quite polluted, and this pollution washes down into Umiam Lake. You might have noticed trash in some of my pictures of the rivers. What you can’t see in the pictures, but is there, is untreated sewage. The town’s hilly geography and patchwork of tribal lands have mitigated against the construction of a municipal sanitary sewer. Septic tanks collect sewage from homes and businesses, and municipal workers or contractors carry the waste away in trucks for treatment. But when tanks leak or overflow, the sewage finds its way into the Umshyrpi or Umkhrah Rivers, and thence into Umiam Lake.

Apart from Shillong, another significant source of pollution for Umiam Lake is the practice of jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation, which removes vegetation cover on hillsides and thus leads to erosion.

A central government study of the lake in the early 1980s concluded that the water was of class C quality, which meant that it would need to be both conventionally treated and disinfected before being used as a potable water source.

Umiam Lake is a beautiful place, as it is ringed by misty, pine-forested hills. But knowing what I knew about the seemingly intractable problems of water pollution in the lake, I didn’t go into the lake much past my ankles.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Scootermobility

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Motorcycles in the Ghat ki Gooni, Jaipur.

Media in the car-saturated West—especially in the USA—have watched with some hand-wringing as the middle classes of large Asian countries such as China and India have increasingly been buying cars. At least in India, though, cars have so far failed to catch on to the extent that they did a century ago in the USA. What have caught on are two-wheelers: motorcycles and motor scooters. The profusion of two-wheelers in India hasn’t attracted much attention in the West, but I believe it has had a bigger influence in making India the country it is today.

Seven years ago, I spent my first sojourn in India at a school in the rural East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya. All of the teachers lived in the campus compound. Out of twenty-off families, only two had any sort of personal mechanized transportation: the principal had a car (a Maruti 800), and one of the teachers had a Bajaj motor scooter. Everybody else got around by walking, catching buses on the other side of the river, piling into the school sumo when it went to market, or bumming rides from the one teacher with a scooter.

Five years later, when I went back to Meghalaya to visit, there was only one family that didn’t have a scooter or motorcycle, and the others were asking when they would get one too. One of the teachers who now rode everywhere on his motorcycle spoke wistfully of the old days when everybody used to walk all the time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Americans first started buying cars in large numbers, optimistic car advocates claimed that automobility would usher in a new democratic age, when citizens could drive wherever they pleased, free from the tyranny of the railroads. Although cars did lead to new dependencies—on oil companies, tire companies, and of course the auto manufacturers themselves—cars did allow Americans to be more mobile than ever before.

Something similar is happening in India, except more with scooters and motorcycles than with cars. Thanks to scootermobility, residents of both city and country can go more places with more ease than ever before. Whole families pile onto single bikes to go on picnics. Teenagers and twenty-somethings escape the parental gaze to hang out in waste areas or old ruins on the edge of town.

Alongside the perks, scooters and motorcycles also come with many of the same pitfalls as cars, such as polluted skies and people who never walk anywhere anymore. There are also three shortcomings that aren’t shared by cars, which should give the builders of 21st-century India pause. The first is minimal safety protections. Motorcycles can go as fast as cars, but they have no room for crumple zones or roll bars. A seatbelt on a motorcycle would not do anyone any good. Second, two-wheelers have the loudest, shrillest horns of any vehicles. On any given day, they do more to create urban India’s noise pollution problem than anything else. And third, two-wheelers can insinuate themselves into places that cars could never go, thus endangering pedestrians and generally trampling cities in new ways. The pleasant pedestrian promenade at Connaught Place in New Delhi becomes not so pleasant when you constantly have to worry about getting run over by a scooter.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

Motorcycles waiting at a light on Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Jaipur.

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