Himalayan Tsunami part -2: A disaster waiting to happen

This is the second of the five part series on the hill state of Uttarakhand that suffered massive flash floods on June 16, 2013. The tragedy left score of dead. The body count varies from 780 to 10,000. Officially thousands are missing till now and presumed dead. There is no count of the death of cattle and mules, the source of livelihood for many in the region. These posts will deal with the issue of tragedy, disaster management and the age old debate of development and conservation in the Himalayas. The title has been borrowed by the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna’s statement.
During the 1990s people in the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh in the northern region of India were demanding a separate state. They were arguing that their geography and culture were different than that of the majority population living in the plains so they wanted a different economic model too to stop exploitation of the hills and hill people.
The state came into being on November 1, 2000 and since then it has been trying to find its bearing. The lofty ideal of implementing a unique economic model was conveniently forgotten and the state kept moving in the same direction as it did when it was part of the bigger state.
From building flawed infrastructure, to recklessly pursuing large hydro power and supporting unsustainable tourism practices, the government allowed everything that in time turned into a recipe for disaster.
MK Pandit, head, Department of Environment Studies, Delhi University often uses a quote to put malpractice of unsustainable development in India. He says, every malpractice is nurtured between “conspiracy of silence” and “conspiracy of denial”.
During the British rule in India, the government had made strict rules of building houses in the hills. They were mostly single storied with slanting roof. Houses were not built on the upper slopes and there were strict rules of road alignment which were followed to the last decimal point. Dams and barrages were built on the foothills and re-plantation was followed strictly.
However, things have changed since then. The state government has followed an unsustainable path of development which created conditions that are ripe for disasters to exact severe human as well as material price.
Since the beginning of the new state, the political leaders, bureaucrats as well as locals all knew they were playing with fire but kept quiet. Whenever people raised a voice of concern they were branded as anti-poor and shooed away.
Since its inception the work profile of the state has changed. While in the year 2000, 51 percent people were involved in tertiary activities, 30 percent in primary sector and 9 percent in secondary sector. Today this composition has shifted to 52 percent in tertiary, 33 percent in secondary and 15 percent in primary.
If we consider steady migration from the hills than we’ll realise that manufacturing or industry actually provided biggest job creation. People moved away from agriculture to manufacturing or tertiary sector like tourism. This is the 250 year old industrial revolution driven movement of population on road to modernisation. There was no uniqueness in the model as was envisaged by those who were fighting for a separate state.
The state government’s model was based on three pillars – hydro power, religious tourism and remittance from migrants.
The government turned the religious spots as tourist destinations. The tourist flow to these areas far exceeded the entire population of the state.
Hotel owners were allowed to build indiscriminately even in the river bed. Rambara, a makeshift halt on way to Kedarnath, was built in the middle of the river flow. Even at Kedarnath hotels were allowed to build with impunity. The individuals as well as builders stopped building light weight houses with slanting roofs. They started building flat roofed concrete houses that were four, five and even six storied. These concrete heavy structures built on soft unstable rocks were ripe candidates for disaster.
While the tourism industry was raking in unimaginable profit and wealth, the state of Uttarakhand chose one of its districts in the foothills, Udhamsingh Nagar, to promote manufacturing industry. Industry owners were offered electricity at competitive rate. Soon there were more claimants for electricity than there was the capacity to meet their demands. The number of large scale industry grew from 41 in 2000 to 215 in 2012. Similarly the investments in large scale industry also grew from Rs 5753 crore to Rs 26955 crore. This was more than five-fold increase in the investments.
To meet the growing demand the state government embarked on augmenting hydro power capacity. Power Generation capacity increased from 1115 MW in 2000-01 to 3618 MW in 2011-12. Work on projects worth 3493 MW is in progress. The government has gone on record in its state plan submitted to the Planning Commission of India that it has a potential of 26000 MW looks at hydro power as a huge source of income.
For this it planned 199 more dams with an additional capacity of more than 17000 MW. Most of the dams were planned in the upper reaches of Himalayas that is made up of fragile rocks.
One of the chief ministers of the state was accused of allowing indiscriminate number of power plants in the eco sensitive zones of upper Himalayas. Under the influence of activists, mercifully the Supreme Court stopped three major hydro power initiatives in the region – Loharinagpala (600 MW), Pala Maneri (480 MW) and Bhaironghati (381 MW).
Forest advisory Committee has also recommended that till a comprehensive survey is doe of the area no new dams should be made. However, many dams had started construction and tunnel digging activity in anticipation of clearance. The dam building and its attendant tunnels generated millions of tons of debris that was thrown into the river in gross violation of all the standard building procedures. Dynamites were used indiscriminately instead of drilling machines as they saved time and the cost. The work that has been stopped has left a lot of debris in the river and silt in the tunnels. Also blasting of dynamites loosened the rocks. During heavy rains when the mud that acted as a glue washed away they became sitting ducks and started falling like nine pins.
Along with dams road construction was another priority area. The state has also constructed 10000 km of roads in last 14 years. During the 2010 and 2011 monsoon floods 14000 kilometres of roads were destroyed due to heavy landslides (state plan document). This was in part due to loss of tree cover and roads built with faulty alignments.
However, the plan document submitted to the Planning Commission in 2012 was quick in blaming environmental clearance as the sole hurdle in the development of the state. It insisted that as the state has 65 percent of area under forest cover, projects like road building and dam building should be exempted from compensatory afforestation.
Not only this it also proposes to do away with additional cost t ot road developers which amount to 27 percent of the road building costs in the mountains. These costs involve paying net present value of trees which is Rs 5.4 lakhs, one lakh for compensatory afforestation, Rs 5 lakh for muck disposal and Rs one lakh for road side plantation.
The government which once wanted to pursue a different path today thinks all the above costs are useless and a drain on development. This is when it has on its own accepted that 14000 km of roads have been destroyed in the 2010 and 2011 floods during the monsoons.
This predictable but unsustainable growth path has had its impact on the state. The loosening of hill rocks in the upper region due to dam building and tree felling for new construction and road building led to increased incidence of landslides. In many places landslides stopped river flow and built artificial but makeshift lakes. Rampant expansion of built up areas encroached upon the river bed and increased the human density.
It was a dangerous combination of high density settlements on unstable land with mounting odds staked against the residents. Not that the nature didn’t try to warn them.
Before the cataclysmic floods in 2013 the state has witnessed 23 major floods and 12 large scale landslides which have caused 201 deaths and affected more than 7500 people in 85 villages. The loss of infrastructure was colossal.
Yet no lessons were learnt. On the 16th June 2013 the roads leading the Kedarnath were jammed with traffic and towns in the Alaknanda valley were packed to the brim. The rains came and insisted on downloading their cargo all at once. Unimaginable quantum of water pouring on years of neglect meant the time was up for the valley.
Humanity finally paid for the sins committed by their greed and short sightedness of their chosen representatives.

About indiadynamic

mediaperson worked for TWI, TVI, Dainik Bhaskar, UTV and Hindustan Times in all the divisions print, TV, radio and internet
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