The recent catastrophe in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, where a large part of the Nanda Devi Glacier fell into the Alaknanda stream near Joshimath, caused severe flooding. The rapid flow of water caused mountain slides that fell into deep ravines destroying all the houses and structures that came in their path.
This disaster destroyed the hydropower projects of Rishi Ganga and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) Limited Tapovan, Vishnugad. The collapse of the three dams near Raini village has completely cut off communication with several border posts. A high alert was raised in several districts - Pauri, Rudraprayag, Tehri, Haridwar, and Dehradun, where the fear of rising water levels in the rivers - Alaknanda, Dhauli Ganga, and Rishi Ganga was rising.
The incident has wreaked havoc in the Upper Himalayas. The death toll has risen to more than two dozens, while more than 200 workers are still missing. Many workers were trapped in the water that filled in the tunnels constructed in the dam projects. The 250-meter long tunnel at Tapovan is blocked by debris, mud, and silt, making rescue operations difficult.
From the 250-meter long tunnel in the environmentally sensitive area, only 80-meter stretch has been cleared. Workers are trapped in the remaining 170 meter stretch of the tunnel and are feared to have died of suffocation while making their livelihood.
Is it development or the destruction of the environment and people?
The fragile ecology in the state
Uttarakhand, a picturesque state is blessed with gorgeous natural and invaluable resources such as dense forests, rivers, and high altitude mountains. However, it has a very fragile ecosystem and is prone to natural disasters. The incident had refreshed the traumatic memories of the June 16, 2013 tragedy when the Mandakini river killed more than 5000 people.
Earlier in 1991, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit the district of Uttarkashi and killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of houses. Another earthquake in 1999 in Chamoli killed hundreds of people. The entire Malpa village of Pithoragarh was devastated by the landslide in 1999, taking the lives of about 250 people. A cloudburst in June 2013 killed thousands of people and left millions stranded in the floodwater for days.
Climate activism in Uttarakhand
Earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides, and massive avalanches, and other natural disasters have been a part of natural processes. Still, the increase in their frequency and depth of intensity is due to human activities. The people of Uttarakhand have a fair knowledge of the environmental priorities and are aware of the fragility and eco-sensitivity of its environment. They have been trying to save it for a long time.
Mira Behn, an environmental activist of Garhwal, published an article in The Hindustan Times on June 5, 1950, titled 'Something is wrong in the Himalaya' stating that the flash floods in Uttarakhand are bound to wreak havoc as the sensitivity of the environment is being overlooked during the economic development processes. Later, she also wrote to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It is also pertinent to note that the incident has taken place in the cradle of the Chipko movement initiated in 1970 to save trees. Alas! Governments have neither listened to the cries of locals and environmental activists nor learnt a lesson from the tragedy of 2013.
Still, more than 50 hydroelectric projects are underway on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, while a committee of experts warned that such projects are a threat to the state. Even Uma Bharti, the former water resources minister, had during her tenure urged not to build power projects on the Ganga and its major tributaries since the Himalayas are an environmentally susceptible area.
Following the catastrophe in Uttarakhand, the government needs to seriously reconsider its stance on building hydroelectric dams in the region. The government should no longer ignore the advice and warnings of experts. Magsaysay award winner Chandi Prasad said that he had written a letter to the then environment minister in 2010 warning about the adverse effects of the hydropower project on Rishiganga. His fear is realised in 2021. He claimed that if his warning had been paid heed to in 2010, then such a catastrophe would have been prevented.
Rising temperatures are melting glaciers rapidly. According to a report by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the glacier's melting has doubled between 1980 and 2005. Even if the Government of India cuts greenhouse gas emissions per the Paris Climate Agreement, one-third of the glaciers of the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges will melt by the end of the 21st century. It will be too late by then. Urgent action needs to be taken sooner. The report indicates that natural disasters are likely to increase with temperature rise.
An increase in the incidents of natural disasters in India results from climate change, but an increase in their impact is due to overexploitation of natural resources. Central and state governments have been pursuing pro-corporate development by ignoring environmental norms.
Uttarakhand is inviting climatic tragedies and destroying its beauty by cleverly flouting the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) norms to build the 900 kilometres long stretch of Char-Dham road, which passes through an environmentally sensitive area. The construction of this stretch of 900 kilometres has been taking place by dividing it into 53 small sections. The Supreme Court has upheld the recommendation of the minority members of a High-Powered Committee that was formed to assess environmental damages of Char-Dham project and has directed the implementing agencies to reduce the width of the road to 5.5m for the whole project. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has been resisting this reduction in width on the grounds of road users’ safety.
In the aftermath of the recent catastrophe, our Prime Minister has held that the country stands by Uttarakhand and has also announced financial assistance to the families of the victims. But such promises and financial aid are futile for the people of Uttarakhand due to continuous negligence of environmental regulations. A few lakhs in assistance won't help rebuild people’s houses and bring back their loved ones. To prevent such emotional and financial losses to people, the government should mend its pro-corporate economic development methods.
The massive loss of life and property resulting from natural disasters gives the central government a warning signal to strictly abide by the environmental norms. The central government is planning to relax the environmental standards for Mopa airport (Goa), iron ore mining (Goa), sand mining (Uttar Pradesh), Sterlite Copper in Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu), and construction activities in and around Delhi, which has been blocked by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal.
Meanwhile, the NITI Aayog, the government's apex think-tank has commissioned a study that seeks to examine the "unintended economic consequences" of judicial decisions that have hindered and stalled big projects' on an environmental pretext.
If mountainous areas of the country, including Uttarakhand and their people, are to be saved, then it is incumbent on the central government not to carry out development work in these areas without seeking geologists' and locals' opinions. The government should immediately ban unsustainable development projects in the hilly regions, be it Char-Dham road or hydropower projects.
If this does not happen, the people of these areas will be forced to endure disasters like sliding mountains and glaciers in the future. The people, living in the hilly regions and country large demand that the central government should adopt a pro-people and pro-nature development model instead of a pro-corporate economic development model.
Gurinder Kaur is Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Visiting Professor at IMPRI; Arjun Kumar is Director at IMPRI.