- Uttarakhand is home to the fragile mountainous region of the Himalayas and has witnessed a series of natural disasters over the last 20 to 30 years.
- In June 2013, Uttarakhand suffered one of its worst natural disasters which claimed the lives of thousands of people and animals. Five years down the line the reasons that caused the disaster and amplified the damage remain as is.
- What is alarming is that instead of addressing the causes that led to the disaster or increased its magnitude, the Uttarakhand government is seeking more dilutions to the stringent green laws.
Take a disaster-prone area, add some lax administration and generous helpings of construction projects and voila! What do you get? Uttarakhand, the north Indian hill state which is a perfect recipe for inviting natural disasters.
The disaster-prone hill state has suffered from several natural calamities in succession over the last 20 to 30 years. Between June 14 and 18 2013, Uttarakhand suffered one of the worst natural disasters when widespread heavy rains resulted in floods across the state, claiming thousands of lives and damage worth billions of rupees.
On the fifth anniversary of the disaster,the situation is bleak. Environmentalists of the region stress that no lesson has been learnt from the disaster so far. State authorities are continuing with their massive construction projects in ecologically sensitive areas and are even looking at diluting the stringent rules that are in place to protect these areas.
The main reason behind the disaster was the widespread heavy rains that led to flash floods in all the major river valleys in Uttarakhand. The heavy rains also caused landslides at several locations. According to a report of the National Institute of Disaster Management, the Kedarnath area was the worst affected region, where the heavy rains led to the collapse of Chorabari lake resulting in the release of a large volume of water that caused another flash flood in the Kedarnath town leading to further devastation in downstream areas.
More than nine million people were affected due to the flash floods. The most affected districts were Bageshwar, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi. The region has one of the most important pilgrimage circuits in India.The disaster took place during the peak tourist and the pilgrimage season.
According to government records, about 6,000 people were killed, found missing or presumed dead, 4,200 villages were affected, 9,200 cattle/livestock were lost and 3,320 houses were fully damaged. The floods left over 170,000 tourists and local inhabitants stranded in the mountain, who were later rescued in the rescue operations.
“It has been five years since the devastating floods occurred but the conditions in Uttarakhand are as they were. The floodplains are being encroached; massive infrastructure projects, mainly large dams, are being carried out in the fragile Himalayan region in the name of development without learning any lessons from the past,” said Vimal Bhai of Matu Jan Sangathan, a Uttarakhand based non-governmental organisation.
Despite concerns, dams keep coming up
After the 2013 floods, experts as well as activists, had pointed out that the back-to-back dams on upper reaches of Ganga River and its tributaries like Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Alaknanda in Uttarakhand had intensified the magnitude of the disaster.
Dams in disaster-prone areas are sometimes considered to amplify floods and earthquakes because of impact on the river’s course, water levels and ecosystem and poor management which can further worsen the situation.
Following the floods, the Supreme Court of India formed a committee which in April 2014 recommended scrapping of at least 23 hydropower projects to save the ecologically sensitive and fragile mountainous region. Even as the final decision on the case remains pending with the SC, more applications have reached the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), seeking environment clearance for dams and their construction has continued.
“Unabated construction of dams was one of the main reasons that amplified the destruction by 2013 floods but the governments are still following same policies which invited the 2013 disaster. The government of India as well as of Uttarakhand is not interested in improving the situation. The only aim visible is to benefit the contractors. There is no one to take stock of the situation of dam-affected villages. No action has been taken against any company which is constructing dams rather the government is giving them an escape route. The preparedness to deal with any similar extreme event is as bad as it was a few years ago,” warned Vimal Bhai.
In June 2016, the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation filed an affidavit in the SC suggesting that certain valleys (in Uttarakhand) must be let untouched and pristine in consideration of the impacts of climate change, loss of biodiversity and for the purpose of the conservation of the origin of the river Ganga.
The affidavit had stated that “existing dams and river water diversions have caused significant damage to the river length and have depleted and deprived the river with its original content thereby compromising the quality of the water downstream”.
Another massive infrastructure project that started in the last couple of years is the 900 kilometre long all-weather Chardham highway widening project being built at a cost of Rs. 120 billion (12,000 crores). A case against the project is going on at the National Green Tribunal.
“It is a very unfortunate fact that five years have passed by but the governments have not learnt the invaluable lessons that Kedarnath disaster brought to us which is, not to mess with the already overburdened ecology of the fragile vulnerable hills of Garhwal. Yet we see construction of hydroelectric power projects being done and Chardham road widening projects being carried out,” said Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan.
“Now even a rail route is being proposed and planned. To add to that, the government is promoting preposterous tourism policies. Instead of healing the wounds of the past, we are bent on giving more in the name of development. This is rapaciousness defined,” Bhanot added.
Claims of large-scale development activities inviting more danger are not ill-founded as Uttarakhand has a history of natural disasters where landslides, forest fires, cloudbursts and flash-floods area common phenomenon. But earthquakes have been the most devastating and are unpredictable.
According to the Uttarakhand government’s disaster mitigation and management centre, these disasters are seasonal in nature and strike at a certain period of the year with high frequency.
Since 1990, Uttarakhand has experienced two major earthquakes of magnitude greater than six (categorised as Strong) on the Richter Scale – Uttarkashi (1991) and Chamoli (1999). There have been series of landslides/cloud burst/ flood events too. Malpa (1998), Okhimath (1998), Fata (2001), Gona (2001), Khet Gaon (2002) ,Budhakedar (2002), Bhatwari(2002), Uttarkashi (2003), Amparav (2004), Lambagar (2004), Govindghat (2005), Agastyamuni (2005) Ramolsari (2005) are just to name a few.
Is there still hope?
Earlier this week, the Uttarakhand High Court ordered a halt on all construction activities along river banks, construction of hydropower projects and road construction projects in Uttarakhand, until authorities develop proper muck disposal sites.
The order asked the MoEFCC and Uttarakhand authorities to identify suitable sites, 500 metres away from the river banks, for disposal of muck and excavated material. It cleared that till the muck disposal sites are identified and become operational, all construction activities or widening of roads on the river banks in the state shall remain stayed.
It is a significant order as illegal muck disposal in rivers has been often called out as one of the main culprits in escalating the level of disasters like floods in Uttarakhand, as it raises the level of the riverbed.
The government’s disregard for the environment is visible in other aspects as well.
The government now wants to revise the 2012 Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) notification that declared the 100-kilometre stretch of Bhagirathi River, which is a tributary of Ganga River, from its origin in Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, as an eco-sensitive zone
The notification banned setting up of any new hydroelectric power plants or expansion of existing plants except mini-hydel power projects of up to two-megawatt capacity which would meet the energy needs of the local communities and subject to permission from local village councils (gram sabha).
The Uttarakhand government wants to revise this notification and construct 10 hydropower projects on Bhagirathi river with a total capacity of 82 MW.
But there seems to be a ray of hope as the government has taken action to tackle disasters by trying to strengthen is disaster management authority.
Recently, it invited interests from companies to engage them for implementation of the integrated geospatial platform, database and applications for disaster risk management in Uttarakhand. The goal of the programme is to rapidly implement a collaborative geospatial platform, integrate real-time and baseline data into the platform and deploy applications on the platform to support the emergency operation centers (EOC) and decision makers involved in disaster management in the state of Uttarakhand.
Environmentalists who have seen the state’s downward trajectory in dealing with disasters, are not hopeful and feel that the continued disregard for nature’s ways is only going to invite further disasters.
“It was a tragedy that had so many lessons for us to learn. But it seems that we have learnt nothing and we keep on repeating our old mistakes not respecting the fragile nature of the Himalayan ecosystem and not respecting the floodplains requirement of the rivers. We don’t even realise that ill-appropriate developmental activities in the Himalayas are going to make us suffer history one again,” said Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.