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Himalayan blunder

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Himalayan blunder

With rampant construction in the region, population increasing 50-fold and 640 km of river flow being diverted for more than 70 dams, the June 15 Uttarakhand disaster was waiting to happen. Experts tell shalini saksena that the destruction and loss of life could have been minimalised had the State Government machinery followed the recommendations of various environmental bodies and activists

·         Toll in the Uttarakhand disaster over 1,000. Tally expected to rise with several villages having been wiped out

·         14,000 micro industries in Uttarkashi, Chamoli and Rudraprayag shut down

·         Total flood insurance claims in Uttarakhand expected to exceed Rs35 billion

·         207 mobile towers swept away

·         Besides 4,000 men, the Border Roads Organisation deployed over 120 excavators and bulldozers to clear roads.

·         The National Disaster Response Force deployed 13 teams, comprising 1,000 men, for rescue ops, alongside ITBP and Army

·         1,100 roads damaged. About 30 km of road to be made afresh on the main highway alone. Will take three years to normalise. 94 bridges washed away             in Rudraprayag alone


Way back in 1803, the Garhwali king of yore decided to abandon his rajdhani to escape the constant fury of floods after a cloudburst washed away the palace itself. Soon, from a bustling business and political centre, the kingdom’s capital Shrinagar turned into a ghost town of ruin and remained so for many decades to follow.

Back in 1901, the total population of the kingdom of Garhwal was barely 2.68 lakh, the region was high on forests and absolutely clear of encroachments of riverbeds. Still, floods were the region’s most frequent and destructive force.

So what’s new, pro-development activists ask, pointing out that the current disaster in Uttarakhand is part of a continuous natural fury the fragile region has borne the brunt of. In other words, not a manmade disaster. Not really. Consider this:

A 110 years after Shrinagar was abandoned, the area’s population has increased 50 folds. Add to that the annual tourist figure of a whopping 3 crore. Consequently, the so-called infrastructural development has raped the ecologically fragile area sprawled over the youngest and loosest mountain range in the world and riverbeds have been taken over by tourism sharks if, that is, if their courses were not already mutilated by hydel power projects and dams which have blasted the insides of these vulnerable mountains.

As the head of Centre For Science and Environment Sunita Narain tells you, “Dams and hydel projects per se can’t be there. What is mind-boggling is the number of such projects in Uttarakhand. They are there every 5 to 7 km and most of these so-called power projects are unable to even produce 20 MW of electricity to feed a single nearby village.” Not to forget, the destruction of these mountains per project entails.

Then there is road-building. Of course, that’s one of the foremost activities directly proportionate to the development of any region and only the mindless would suggest not to take it up. India started building roads in the remotest areas of this difficult terrain only after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Today, around 30,000 km of roads crisscross Uttarakhand and experts tell you that to construct just one km of a hill road, a mountain has to be blasted, tons of debris has to be removed and many more tonnes needed to maintain it.

Former engineering officer of the Border Roads Organisation, KK Sahani, says rebuilding is a huge task and needs to wait “for the flow from the top to stop and the hill to become stable. The BRO has a brilliant taskforce and the acumen to build 10 to 20 metres a day, if the dozers can be moved,” he says. The work needs to start from scratch which means first making a retaining wall for stability and then to start structuring all the way upwards from the riverbed to a stablised hill. A BRO Press release says: “The damage to the roads is so extensive that about 30 km of road has to be made afresh on main highways alone.” Sahani says this is a huge task.

Roads are the first step to development but the resultant traffic that comes into the mountains is what is worrying. The Kedarnath trek 15 years back used to be for 13 km, today it is just 3 km that one has to walk. The illegal constructions are all pervasive and really so worrisome that many environmentalists are convinced that irreparable damage has already been done to the region. Consider this: A Wildlife Institute of India study last year estimated that of the 1,121 km stretch of rivers that flow in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, 526.8 km, or 47 per cent, had fallen victim to illegal constructions along the bank. At least, 700 small and large hydro-electric power projects dot the soft-soiled mountains. Then there are dams, illegal motels and residential complexes galore standing on river beds to boost tourism.

In the last two centuries itself, the region has borne the brunt of two major earthquakes (Uttarkashi in 1991 and Chamoli in 1999) and innumerable cloudburst/landslide tragedies — 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)  and Ramolsari (2005) to name a few.

According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report released in April this year, the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, formed way back in October 2007, has not met even once. Nor has it drafted the mandatory rules, regulations, policies or guidelines which is the first step for it to have a functional existence. “The disaster management system was virtually non-functional,” the report says of the total lack of preparedness to deal with a calamity. The report also mentions the fact that the State disaster management plan had not even prepared the programmes for various disasters.

Another shocker: The Centre didn’t release any funds for the State’s disaster management in 2011-12 because there was no accounting of previous funds released.

In December 2012, the Centre declared the 100 km stretch along the Bhagirathi river from Gangotri to Uttarkashi an eco sensitive zone which means that no development is permitted in this stretch. But a month back, Chief Minister Vijay Bahugana met the Prime Minister and handed him over a letter asking for the withdrawal of this order. Bahuguna passionately argued that the State needed development and infrastructure to attract tourism and boost the State’s economy. He, as also his predecessors, preferred to ignore the rather heavy price this development would incur. Numerous agencies like the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) opine that the Himalayan States, particularly Uttarakhand, by nature and situation, are prone to disasters.

“Climate change and the way the country is dealing with natural resources and ecology are increasing disasters. Also, due to its geology, topography, climate, hydrology and seismicity, this highly vulnerable and volatile region has become a sitting duck for huge causalities, human and infrastructural. Indiscriminate ill-treatment in the name of development has only added to the problem and is the biggest challenge that the State faces today,” Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator with SANDRP, explains.

He also tells you that the reason why Uttarakhand is so prone to natural disasters is because too many dams have been constructed in the region. “The impact of dams on the local ecology, land, rivers and forests, during construction and also during operation, is huge. Lack of compliance mechanism means all projects are flouting all kinds of laws and there is no one to address this issue. Each hydro projects in the State requires a dam, a tunnel through which the river is diverted, townships, roads, mining, blasting and deforestation. Each of them creates massive quantities of muck and increased traffic. They also take up riverside lands. Even during operation, they increase disaster potential,” Thakkar insists.

Even the 2009 CAG, which audited the hydel projects in Uttarakhand, said: “Audit scrutiny revealed that no specific measures had been planned in any project to cope with the risk of flash floods. The adverse consequences of such floods are acute as they not only damage the project structures but cause loss of lives in low-lying areas. Civil construction in projects is required to be factored in this natural threat. Also the bigger the project, the greater should be the efficacy of preventive measures.” The audit also said that given the present State policy of constructing hydro-power projects indiscriminately, the cumulative effect of multiple run-of-river power projects can turn to be environmentally damaging.

Administrators argue, the region has a history of cloudbursts, but the question is if that is true, why such heavy destruction this time round, why no preventive measures for such a disaster were ever taken?

“Climatologists say that the frequency of such incidents is increasing. Therefore, there is need to work around the present-day water management system in the region. We need to understand that rivers are report cards of what we do in their catchment areas. We also need to understand the character of each river. We need to protect the forests and local water bodies. We need to do everything to reduce landslide risks. We need to have proper early warning systems in place. We need to allow rivers their paths and also their floodplain. Remove all encroachments on riverbeds and flood plains. Even after all this, floods will come and we need preparedness to face them. But the damage will then be minimal,” Thakkar tells you, adding that all the talk of interlinking rivers has no scientific basis and, hence, is no solution.

“Floods are not equal to water surplus like drought doesn’t equal water deficit. It is the management of water resources that decide if Cherrapunji will have water scarcity (which it has) or if Jaisalmer will not have water problems through its water management policy,” Thakkar argues.

Sadly, India doesn’t have any river policy. We have only a water policy. Ignoring rivers is proving to be a serious problem of water management. “To walk the path of progress without compromising the fragile eco-system of the Himalayas, there is need to redefine progress, growth and development in specific context. Otherwise, we are opening ourselves to even greater disasters,” Thakkar opines.

Dr Dinesh Mishra, an activist with Barh Mukti Abhiyan and author of several books on the Kosi river in Bihar, agrees. “The problem is that even though there is a Flood Plain Law which determines how and where the construction should take place, nobody follows the guidelines. Only Manipur and Rajasthan have the law in place. Its implementation is another matter altogether. The disaster in Uttarakhand was waiting to happen. However, this is not the first time that such heavy rains have lashed the State or a cloudburst has happened. What added to the quantum of disaster was rampant construction. The destruction in the State, lives lost and damage to property worth billions of rupees is Mother Nature’s way of slapping us for our folly,” Mishra says without hesitation.

Environmentalists prefer not to call what happened in Uttarakhand a natural disaster. “A natural disaster is an earthquake or a cyclone. To call the damage caused by a river when you construct in its path or encroach its free path, natural disaster is stupid. It is purely man-made. Mountains are being blasted away to make way for broader roads and hotels to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region. Why do people need to drive in their swank cars at high speed in this region? Why not give a thought to what one is doing to Nature, the damage being done to ecology. Trees are cut, animals lose homes & come in conflict with villagers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there should be no construction but it should be in tandem with the area’s eco-system,” Mishra says. While the quantum of the June 15 disaster surpasses the collective toll of the incidents that have taken place in the State in the last couple of years, the State, it appears has not learnt any lesson from past disasters.

In August 2012, Uttarkashi saw a similar tragedy that left 29 dead, many more missing and houses washed away. The Uttarakhand State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre report of this disaster in October 2012 said: “It is highly important to strictly regulate developmental initiatives in close vicinity of streams and rivers. Appropriate law would be required for formulating a policy in this regard and firm executive action in accordance with letter and spirit of this policy would be required to ensure compliance of the same.”

Similarly, in September 2012, Okhimath in Rudraprayag saw monsoon-related landslides which killed 69 people. That State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC) report of this tragedy recommended reduction of the risk of landslides and one of them read: “Use of explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructure developmental introduces instability in the rocks and, therefore, use of explosives should necessarily be banned. This provision will automatically ban habitation in the close proximity of seasonal streams and rivers. In case people are already residing in such areas, provision has to be made for their timely relocation.”

Rudraprayag has faced monsoon-related major disasters seven times in the last 34 years, including in 1979, 1986, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2012, each involving heavy death and destruction. If the proposals of various agencies had been implemented, it could have saved many lives. Each of the hydropower projects in the State involves massive blasting on a massive scale, but there is no regulation in place even after a clear warning from the State DMMC.

So, why is it that despite warnings by all agencies concerned, nothing has been done? “Not only are people not doing much about the vulnerabilities, the vulnerabilities are actually getting accentuated because of indiscriminate building of roads, townships, hotels, mining and hydropower projects. Without a proper social, environmental impact assessment, without any credible compliance mechanism in place, without any carrying capacity or cumulative impact assessment, without any disaster management mechanism, without assessing the disaster potential of projects, without assessing the impact of various activities on adaptation and in the climate change context, we are inviting disasters,” Thakkar asserts.

Is there a way to integrate development with Nature? “Uttarakhand must pursue a green development path wherein the focus must be on working in harmony with Nature and not on conquering Nature. The first priority must be to enhance the State’s human, social and natural capital — good health, quality education and healthy, diverse productive ecosystems. Regenerating the natural resource base through programmes like watershed development can provide fuelwood, fodder and water to village women at their doorsteps. It can lead to revival of the region’s rapidly drying springs and rained rivers. The neglect of mountain agriculture and its horticulture potential must end. Healthy forests and cultivation of herbs and medicinal plants will provide opportunities to produce special niche products for sale in urban markets. Spread of quality education and telecommunication connectivity can make the mountain districts home to clean industries like software development and call centres. Such a development will reduce or end male migration and promote happy family lives and social capital. Eco-friendly tourism is needed. With a healthy environment, the State can seek fee for providing ecosystemic services to rest of the country,” Dr Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute in Dehra Dun, says.

Also, one must not do away with the alarm bells this disaster rung by calling it s freak incident. “It was an extreme weather event since there was very intense rainfall. But it was not a freak event in the sense of being a rare event. Climate change researchers tell us that extreme weather events will become more and more frequent. In the last 15 years, we have had three national weather-related disasters — Odisha’s super cyclone (1999), Mumbai’s torrential rains (2005) and now Uttarakhand. We are riding the global warming curve. In Uttarakhand, we had a drought in 2009, a cloudburst in Almora in 2010 and another cloudburst in Uttarkashi last year. The frequency of extreme weather events is definitely increasing,” Dr Ravi says.

If the region is prone to disasters why does the administration not have a system in place? “It is a question that National Disaster Management Authorities need to answer. The organisation came into effect though a 2005 Act. It has been eight years. What have they done to prevent or ensure proper evacuation of people in times of distress? All that they have done is visit one foreign country or another, studying their disaster management responses. Why should the Army be called in every time there is a catastrophe? Where is our civil defence mechanism on which we have spent several thousands of crores? It is unfortunate that people have had to pay a price for the callosity of the administration,” Mishra says.

However, independent analyst and an expert on disaster management Monish Gulati has a different take on the entire issue. According to him, it should be clear that in the Indian concept of Disaster Management, the primary responsibility is of the State. The Centre only provides assistance (HR, finance, material etc). This is because two important components of DM are mitigation (precautionary actions) and rehabilitation and reconstruction which require local knowledge and are time consuming. The Tsunami rehabilitation in Tamil Nadu is still going on, he points out.

“To say that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has failed in its work in the region is incorrect. Very simply put, the NDMA is an expert body charged with laying down, policies and guidelines for DM in the country. This is done by promulgating guidelines on floods, landslides, etc. The body has no power to enforce them. At the Centre, it is done by the National Executive Committee and in States, it is the State Disaster Management Authority which is is responsible,” Gulati, who is also a research fellow with Society for Policy Studies, says.

But he is quick to point out that the NDMA should be keeping its guidelines updated in conformance with ground conditions and getting the State Governments to practice them through mock exercises. Another important function of NDMA is creating public awareness, which, Gulati says, it has been doing.

So, the reason why we have not learnt our lesson? “Lack of professionalism, politicisation of response and corruption — a lot of money is made in response to a disaster. Then there is the Centre-State relations. Some States have not enacted the State DM Act. Adhocism is rampant. Imagine, sending a member of the NDMA to Uttarakhand while it should have been the DM division that should have been co-ordinating the Centre’s response and the State DM commissioner co-ordinating the State response. Fact is that the Defence Forces had to be called in. But all policy making, training, coordinating is done by bureaucrats. They go to foreign countries to learn how to manage disasters — even have a UN-funded training programme in Mussourie. They will never learn lessons that the Army has in responding to disasters. Very poor regulation and mitigation action, the fact that environment norms are flouted and DM standards not heard off, compound problems,” Gulati says.

But could one have reduced the casualties and the extent of damage in the region? “Of course, the damage could have been kept minimal. First, early warning systems. Second, credible continuous monitoring system. Third, information dissemination to those in the impact zone and local administration. Fourth, allowing rivers their path and removing structures that have encroached riverbeds and flood plains. Finally, ensuring disaster impact potential of various activities,” Thakkar explains and says that the Government has a big role to play in preventing these disasters.

“Governments in India have declared their monopoly over rivers and water management. The Government sanctions the projects, funds, builds and manages big projects. However, there is a complete lack of democratic governance in the water sector. Until we have a bottom-up democratic governance, we cannot hope to improve our water management,” Thakkar concludes.


Lesson to learn

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has come up with recommendations on how to not only deal with the disasters in Uttarakhand but also minimise them. Some of them are listed below:


o   Ensure credible environmental and social impact assessment of all activities, including all dams and hydropower projects of above 1 MW capacity. The assessments should include how the projects can increase the disaster potential of the area, how they will affect the adaptation capacity of the local people in the context of climate change and how the projects themselves will be affected in changing climate. At present, we do not have credible environmental and social impact assessment for any project.

o   Ensure credible environmental compliance mechanism in place for each project in which local people have a key role. At present, there is no credible environmental compliance in place.

o   No projects should be cleared unless there is cumulative impact assessment for all projects in any river basin and sub basin, which includes carrying capacity study. None of this was done in Uttarakhand.

o   An urgent review of under construction and under planning projects should be taken up. Stop projects awaiting such a review. The review should include various environment and river governance policies. Moratorium on dams and hydropower projects till all conditions are satisfied.

o   Certain rivers and certain high risk zones should be declared as no project areas in each basin.

o   In any case, there should be at least 5 km of free flowing rivers between any two projects. At least 50 per cent of river flows in lean season and at least 30 per cent of river flows in monsoon should be released on daily changing as environmental flows as recommended by IMG recently, pending project and river specific studies. This should be applicable for all projects, including existing and under construction projects.

o   Put in place a system of early warning, forecasting and dissemination for all kinds of disasters, particularly those related to rainfall and landslides. It is technologically feasible to predict even cloud bursts at least 3 hours in advance. A Doppler radar system was sanctioned for the State in 2008 that would have enabled that, but due to lack of coordination between NDMA, IMD and Uttarakhand Government, this was not in place.

o   Put in place a clearly defined monitoring system in place that will give prompt report of actual rainfall events even as the event starts so that the downstream area people and administration can be alerted. This again was absent in Uttarakhand.

o   Protection and conservation of rivers, riverbeds and flood plains, including aquatic biodiversity.

o   Don’t allow encroachment of riverbeds and flood plains.

o   Prepare defined space for rivers. Have river regulation zone in place and remove all illegal encroachments.

o   Do not allow unsustainable mining of riverbeds.

o   Do not allow blasting for any development activity (Uttarakhand Disaster Management & Mitigation Centre made this specific recommendation after the Rudraprayag disaster of September 2012 as such blasting leads to increase in landslides.

o   Protection of catchments including forests, wetlands and local water bodies that can act as a cushion during heavy rainfall.

o   All States must have an active State disaster management authority in place.




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