(Article) CSM - September 2013: Natural Calamity or Manmade Disaster?

Natural Calamity or Manmade Disaster?

Nature has unleashed its wrath on Uttarakhand. Hundreds of people have died and thousands are still stranded. It seems, the land of God has turned into the town of ghost. Although official figure of death toll in the catastrophe, caused by flash floods followed by landslides, is placed around 1,000 but in actual, it likely to cross over 5,000. More than 1000 roads, 90 bridges have been washed away in the monsoon mayhem in
Dev Bhoomi. Even, the holy shrine of Kedarnath has barely survived, it is buried deep in mud. But question is who is responsible for this catastrophe?

Uttarakhand tragedy, which seems to be a natural calamity, in fact is the man made disaster. Colossal greed of politicians and bureaucrats has eaten up the lives of thousands. The experts say that unplanned development and rampant destruction of forests is the some of the main reasons behind the nature’s fury. Then, unabated construction of hydro-electric (hydel) power projects, roads, hotels have also compounded the problem and made the State prone to such disaster.

It is one week since Uttarakhand’s worst disaster in living memory. Flash floods resulting from extremely intense rainfall swept away mountainsides, villages and towns, thousands of people, animals, agricultural fields, irrigation canals, domestic water sources, dams, roads, bridges, and buildings — anything that stood in the way. A week later, media attention remains riveted on the efforts to rescue tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists visiting the shrines in the uppermost reaches of Uttarakhand’s sacred rivers. But the deluge spread far beyond the Char Dhams — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — to cover the entire State. The catchments of many smaller rivers also witnessed flash floods but the media has yet to report on the destruction there. Eyewitness accounts being gathered by official agencies and voluntary organisations have reported devastation from more than 200 villages so far and more affected villages are being reported every day. Villagers whose homes, lands and animals have been swept away by the floods are in a state of shock trying to imagine day-to-day survival without their basic livelihood assets.

“When you change the course of a river by mining, cutting of trees indiscriminately and building roads in a haphazard manner, such a calamity is bound to take place,” said PP Dayani, director of the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. According to experts, nature has its own capacity to recover and rejuvenate, and humans should not challenge it. “A lesson to be learnt is Garhwal’s 1805 earthquake which is a classic example of that one should not meddle with nature, said Ravi Chopra, director of the Dehradun-based People Science Institute. CAG had said that State Disaster Management System has never met since it was formed in October, 2007. It is quite obvious, when they have not met even once in six years, then there must have no polices, guidelines, rules, regulations in place to deal with such a catastrophe.

Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, two hill states in the Himalayan range, are so far the worst hit by the extreme rains that struck northern India in the wake of monsoons that set in early this year. Media reports say nearly 60 persons have died in Uttarakhand, and an estimated 60,000 pilgrims are stranded. Heavy rainfall has wreaked havoc on the region because of the fragile nature of the Himalayan range and poor soil stability in its steep slopes. But it is man-made factors that have compounded the scale of the disaster. Unabated expansion of hydro-power projects and construction of roads to accommodate ever-increasing tourism, especially religious tourism, are also major causes for the unprecedented scale of devastation, say experts.

“The valleys of the Yamuna, the Ganga and the Alaknanda witness heavy traffic of tourists. For this, the government has to construct new roads and widen the existing ones,” says Maharaj Pandit, professor with the Department of Environmental Sciences in Delhi University. He says that a study should be conducted to assess the carrying capacity of the Himalaya and development should be planned accordingly.

Last week’s disaster not only spelt doom for thousands of household economies but also dealt a grievous blow to Uttarakhand’s lucrative religious tourism industry. With the media focus almost exclusively on the fate of pilgrims, the scenes of the deluge and its aftermath will linger on in public memory, making the revival of tourism doubtful in the foreseeable future. The abject failure of the State government, political leaders and the administration is therefore likely to impoverish the State coffers too. It is really surprising that a State like Uttarakhand, which had witnessed two earthquakes in 1996 in Uttarkashi and 1998 in Chamoli respectively, has no such system in place to prevent such a calamity. The news reports also stated there are around 70 hydel projects working in three basins, namely, Alkananda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi. So many dams and roads have been built in an unscientific manner, which really have worsened the situation.

Reports also say that no prior sanction is being taken by concerned authorities for these hydel projects. Here the question is why so many illegal constructions are thriving in the State right under the nose of authorities? This in a way tells that there is a big nexus between politicians and bureaucrats, who do not bother about the common people. Moreover, under the name of development, they are playing with the lives of common people. They only care for their own kin, whose safety is utmost important to them, that is why they are making numerous calls to the concerned authorities to rescue their own people on priority basis. The impact of the floods on Uttarakhand’s tourism leads to larger questions of what kind of development Himalayan States should pursue. Before delving into that, it is important to understand the nature of the rainfall that deluged the State. Already several voices are arguing that the deluge is a random, ‘freak’ event. Odisha’s super cyclone in 1999, torrential rains in Mumbai in 2005, and now the Uttarakhand downpour constitute three clear weather related events in less than 15 years, each causing massive destruction or dislocation in India. These can hardly be called ‘freak’ events.

Several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have repeatedly warned that extreme weather incidents will become more frequent with global warming. We are already riding the global warming curve. We will have to take into account the likelihood of more frequent extreme weather events when planning for development, especially in the fragile Himalayan region where crumbling mountains become murderous. In the 13 years after statehood, the leadership of the State has succumbed to the conventional model of development with its familiar and single-minded goal of creating monetary wealth. With utter disregard for the State’s mountain character and its delicate ecosystems, successive governments have blindly pushed roads, dams, tunnels, bridges and unsafe buildings even in the most fragile regions. In the process, denuded mountains have remained deforested, roads designed to minimise expenditure rather than enhance safety have endangered human lives, tunnels blasted into mountainsides have further weakened the fragile slopes and dried up springs, ill-conceived hydropower projects have destroyed rivers and their ecosystems, and hotels and land developers have encroached on river banks.

Yes, wealth has been generated but the beneficiaries are very few — mainly in the towns and cities of the southern terai plains and valleys where production investments have concentrated. In the mountain villages, agricultural production has shrivelled, women still trudge the mountain slopes in search of fodder, fuel wood and water, and entire families wait longingly for an opportunity to escape to the plains. Last week’s floods have sounded an alarm bell. To pursue development without concern for the fragile Himalayan environment is to invite disaster. Eco-sensitive development may mean a slower monetary growth rate but a more sustainable and equitable one.

India’s go-to person for tourism, the man who branded Kerala as “God’s own country”, and turned the southern state into one of the busiest tourist destinations in the country, simply cannot come to terms with the devastation in Uttarakhand. Amitabh Kant, who is credited with pioneering tourism marketing in India, believes the tragedy is because of a significant error of judgement of the state authorities. “Uttarakhand should not have taken the path of industrialisation for development and should have been developed as the best destination for sustainable tourism in the world. States must focus on their core competence; not every state should industrialise.”

“This is a very childish argument that cloudbursts, earthquakes and tsunamis are because of human factors. In the history of hundreds of years of Kedarnath, no such incident has taken place. In a Himalayan state, this catastrophe has come about in 37,000 square miles of area. This cloudburst, 330 millimetres of rain, cannot be anticipated,” Bahuguna said in an interview to Times of India. Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, is one of the many environmentalists who believe the total opposite - that the disaster in Uttarakhand is “as much man-made as it is natural. Any development strategy that is not environmentally
sound will become more disastrous and more tragic. All this means that we cannot afford to get development wrong.”

Kant is the first one to admit that these ideas do sound utopian and there may be people who would still be dismissive about discouraging industrialisation. “But unless such measures are taken, I am afraid all our hill destinations are under threat; we need to start taking corrective action.” Industry is quick to rubbish Kant’s growth formula.

ML Gupta, who runs a prefabricated engineering solutions company in Uttarakhand, says environmentalists have gone overboard in blaming industries located in the region. “I don’t think industry has contributed to this disaster,” says Gupta, who also advises the PHD Chamber, a body that promotes industry and entrepreneurship in the 12 northern states, including Uttarakhand.

He points out that the business climate in the state started improving after tax concessions were given in the late ’90s. According to Gupta, most of the industrial units in the state were set up in the plains and therefore do not pose any ecological threat to the region. “The environmentalists and the media are unfairly targeting industry, which has contributed a lot to the development of the state.”

Data with the Uttarakhand State Transport Department confirms this. In 2005-06, 83,000- odd vehicles were registered in the state. The figure rose to nearly 180,000 in 2012-13. Out of this, proportion of cars, jeeps and taxis, which are the most preferred means of transport for tourists landing in the state, increased the most. In 2005-06, 4,000 such vehicles were registered, which jumped to 40,000 in 2012-13. It is an established fact that there is a straight co-relation between tourism increase and higher incidence of landslides.

The Ganga in the upper reaches has been an engineer’s playground. The Central Electricity Authority and the Uttarakhand power department have estimated the river’s hydroelectric potential at some 9,000 MW and have planned 70-odd projects on its tributaries. In building these projects the key tributaries would be modified— through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs—to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per
cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”.

As much as 90 per cent of the other smaller tributaries could be “affected” the same way. “Our mountains were never so fragile. But these heavy machines plying everyday on the kutcha roads have weakened it, and now we suffer landslides more often,” says Harish Rawat, a BSc student in Uttarakhand’s Bhatwari region that suffered a major landslide in 2010. Experts say promotion of the state as a tourist destination is coming in way of sustainable development. Entire world now is in crazy race of economical progress, everyone wants development which brings more money (and in turn supposed to bring more happiness) no matter what we want development, the race is too competitive and furious, it seems there is no time to plan any strategy they just want to run, run at any cost and win the race or at a tie but loosing is not a option. Nothing wrong in all these ambitions and aspirations (about progress and development), they are required to motivate people to do the good work, discover new inventions and in turn bring long term sustainable progress.

But that’s where is the problem, very few are looking for ‘long term sustainable progress’, most of us are in race for short term gains, quicker the better, no one has time to think about impact of our actions on environment. I hope people demand better infrastructure and fight for it (both in cities and villages), and once they get it try really hard to maintain it, I hope they follow the rules and don’t play with their own life, I know it’s easy to say this than to follow but all these disasters should force all of us to think. It is not logical or even practical to follow single model of growth for entire country, India is such a diverse (geographically, socially and economically) country so we need to have some model which takes into account everything (not only middle class, skilled workers or educated class), there are many intelligent and experienced people who can come up with such model and I hope they come up with something which suits our diverse country and its people. I am sure with proper planning and implementation of good and practical ideas we can avoid man made disasters and also deal with natural calamities in much better way, so that next time when something like this happens at least we are better prepared. I know we can not control nature’s behavior but we can definitely control our actions and make sure that we don’t make situation more complicated and worse.

S K Singh