Skip to content

PIL seeking directions for carrying capacity: An opportunity to save the ecology of Himalayan states

Himalayan States

Determining capacity and resources is critical for sustainable development.

A public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, Ashok Kumar Raghav Vs. Union of India and Ors, seeks direction to the Union for determining: 

carrying capacity of all ecologically fragile areas, hill stations, high-altitude areas, highly visited areas and tourist destinations in all the 13 states/UTs in the Himalayan region in terms of tourist inflow and its impact, vehicular traffic, scarcity of ground and surface water, impact on air, water, trees, forests and biodiversity as well as climate, along with availability of waste management infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

The central government has requested the SC to order the 13 Himalayan states — Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, the Union territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern states — for assessing their carrying capacity.

It also proposed setting up an expert committee to evaluate action plan submitted by each one of them.

This case raises many pertinent questions, such as:

  • What is meant by carrying capacity? 
  • Why do we need to know the carrying capacity of Himalayan states?
  • Who or what institutions have the expertise and the wherewithal to undertake this exercise in our country?
  • What could be the mandate and the scope of this exercise? 
  • What kind of time would be required if justice is to be done to this exercise?
  • Have we not been keeping in mind the carrying capacity already and what if we have already exceeded the carrying capacity in the Himalayan states?

We need to know the carrying capacity of an ecosystem to be able to pursue sustainable development. Sustainable development means meeting the needs of contemporary people without jeopardising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and development. 

Since the world commission on environment and development defined sustainable development in 1987, it has become an avowed goal of development in every country, including India.

According to American Institute of Physics, there are four key elements of sustainable development: Population, resources, environment and economy. 

It means that economic society must be developed durably, orderly, stably and harmoniously under the three constraints of population, resources and environment.

We need to know the carrying capacity of a system to achieve the goal of sustainable development by understanding the availability of both the quantum and quality of the resource base to support human development of the present generation.

This must be done without harming the resource base in any way or jeopardising the needs of future generations.

Famed American professor of Human Ecology Garrett Hardin, who introduced the concept of tragedy of the commons to the world in 1968, was also among the first to discuss carrying capacity. We can never do merely one thing, stated Hardin’s fundamental ecological theorem.

He called ecolacy as the basic insight, meaning the world is a complex of systems so intricately interconnected that we can seldom be very confident that a proposed intervention in this system of systems will produce the consequences we want.

Survival of any system depends on a subtle and incompletely understood balance of many variables, Hardin further said. Maximising one is almost sure to alter the balance in an unfavourable way.

Every natural system is so complex that the cascade of consequences started by an ill-advised maximisation of a single variable may take years, or even generations, to work itself out. 

This assertion is also inspired by political scientist William Ophuls’ Axiom, “Nature abhors a maximum”.

In IHR, we try to maximise economic development without any restraint on population and without paying much attention to the resource base or the environmental integrity of the area. 

In view of the above discussion, unrestrained development would result in the alteration of the incompletely understood and subtle balance amongst various variables of the complex ecosystem from where we derive our resource base. 

This would inevitably result in consequences as we witnessed in the recent rains and floods in Himachal Pradesh

Growing unfettered, either oblivious of or by neglecting carrying capacity, we face a growing disaster. This is not a passing state of affairs, as Hardin said — we are perpetually increasing in size and rhetoric makes no allowance for a ballooning pronoun.

Carrying capacity is a concept that originated in animal husbandry and game management. For a territory, it is defined as the maximum number of animals that can be supported year after year without damage to the environment. It is the same principle when applied in the context of human beings. 

Similarly, ecosystem carrying capacity can be defined as the maximum number of species that can be supported indefinitely by a particular habitat, allowing for seasonal and random changes, without degradation in the environment and without diminishing it in the future. 

Carrying capacity, thus, refers to the maximum number of activities —  biological, developmental, agricultural and industrial population — that can be supported over a period of time in the habitat without damaging the existing quality of life, balance of resources, ecology and productivity of the ecosystem. 

Ecological carrying capacity provides physical limits as to the maximum rate of resource usage and discharge of waste that can be sustained for economic development in the region.

Carrying capacity is assessed as the ability to produce desired outputs (goods and services) from a limited resource base (like inputs or resources), while at the same time, maintaining desired quality levels in the resource base. 

The four dimensions that are relevant to the estimation of carrying capacity are:

  • The stock of available resources to sustain rates of resource use in production.
  • The capacity of the environmental media to assimilate waste and residuals from production and consumption.
  • The capacity of infrastructure resources ( e.g. distributive and delivery system) to handle the flow of goods and services and resources used in production.
  • The effect of both resource use and production outputs on quality of life.

Carrying capacity therefore is a scientific concept to measure the relationship between human, economic and social activities and natural environment and it is an important basis for  measurement and management of human sustainable development.

Now the question is would only aspirations, technology, political realities and greed will determine the carrying capacity or are we really interested in a system where carrying capacity is determined by reason dictated by pure science erring on the side of precautionary principle?

Determining carrying capacity is a complex, scientific, multidisciplinary study that needs to be carried out not in a hurry at all, if we are serious about sustainable development. This is a great opportunity to do course correction and to ensure that any further development in IHR is dictated by the carrying capacity of the region. 

It is incumbent upon us to try and engage institutions of highest calibre like Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore amongst others, in this exercise and carry this study to the best of our understanding and ability of the complexity of the Himalayan ecosystems.

The article originally appeared on Down to Earth and was authored/co-authored by one of FELPRs team member.