Once synonymous with Hindu pilgrimage and spiritualism, Uttarakhand has picked up a new synonym over the past few years, and that is destruction. There is news of disarmed landslides and avalanches a few times a year, and headlines of disastrous floods and earthquakes every couple of years. The most recent one is a flash flood on February 7, 2021, the last one was a catastrophic cloudburst and consequent flooding in 2013, the one before that was an earthquake in 1999, then the 1998 fatal landslide, and a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in 1991.
The villagers call it the anger of the mountain god, the pious ones in the plains call it the will of God, and the angry dissenters in cities point at the government’s development plans and its puppet Environment ministry. And then there are the -ologists.
Since the news of the flood in the Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda river, geologists and glaciologists have been scrambling with various phenomenon to figure out the ‘cause’ of the deluge.
Earlier reports mentioned that the flash floods were caused by a GLOF or glacial outburst flood – i.e. breaching of a natural lake of glacial ice melt, causing a streaming down of large volumes of water. However, studies of satellite reports by scientists including Dr Dan Shugar and Scott Watson later revealed that a landslide triggered an avalanche, causing the flooding.
Actrually, it looks like it may have been a landslide from just W of the glacier. See here. Possibly from the steep hanging glacier in the middle of the Google Earth image. pic.twitter.com/6ImcwI91d7
— Dr Dan Shugar (@WaterSHEDLab) February 7, 2021
While finding the precise reason for the flash floods – which caused the death of 15 people and loss of 180 sheep and goats – is important to avoid a similar event in future, its pursuit has almost become a game, ignoring the larger picture.
The environmental concern of the state’s development has remained limited to the environmentalists and environment activists, while the rest are busy calculating which glacier fell and at how much speed.
Instead of pointing out the larger indifference of the Environment Ministry towards the long-term impact of power projects on the environment, the state machine is busy treating the symptoms.
For instance, there is no procedure or regulation in India for land use planning in GLOF-prone areas. Instead of a discussion on strengthening these guidelines, more technology-driven solutions like mapping dangerous lakes or installing Synthetic-Aperture radar imagery to detect changes or new formations in lakes are being suggested by the National Disaster Management Authority.
The State has created a contrivance around this phenomenon, where every time a disaster occurs, a rescue team is called in, a helicopter is sent for the chief minister or prime minister to check the damage from up there. The news of the dead are reported, ex-gratia for the injured and the dead is announced, a disaster management team is set, and the politicians go back to finding loopholes to get construction projects approved.
A case in point is the 900-kilometre Char Dham Highway project in the state, approved two years ago, for which the Modi government escaped an environmental approval by dividing this project into a series of 53 individual projects, none of which exceeded 100 kilometres in length. In 2019, the Centre approved a Rs 1,400-crore project of developing Dehradun into a smart city.
As a final nail in the coffin, NITI Aayog has commissioned a study this month to examine the loss of money to venture capitalists because of our “concern” for the environment – in other words, the committee will study the “unintended economic consequences” of judicial decisions that stalled big-ticket projects on environmental grounds. Once that report is out, it won’t be surprising if the environment ministry itself is declared anti-national.