Recent havoc 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 houses and structures that came in the way of these sliding mountains.
This disaster destroyed the Hydropower projects of Rishi Ganga and NTPC Tapovan Vishnugad. The collapse of three dams near Raini village has completely cut off communication with several border posts.
A high alert is 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 is still looming. 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. Only 80 meters of the tunnel has been cleared so far.
From the 250-meter long tunnel in the environmentally sensitive area, only an 80-meters stretch has been cleared. Workers are trapped in the remaining 170 meter stretch of the tunnel and there are fears they might have died of suffocation while earning their livelihood.
Is this development or the destruction of the environment and people?
The incident had refreshed the traumatic memories of 16 June, 2013, when the Mandakini river killed more than 5000 people. Uttarakhand’s state has been picturesque and blessed with gorgeous natural and invaluable resources such as dense forests, rivers and high altitude mountains. However, it has a very fragile ecosystem. Hence, the state is prone to natural disasters.
A magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit the district of Uttarkashi in 1991, which killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of houses. Another earthquake hit Chamoli in 1999. 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 floodwater for days.
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 natives of Uttarakhand are knowledgeable of the fragility and eco-sensitivity of Uttarakhand’s environment. Thus, 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 5 June, 1950, titled Something is wrong in the Himalaya, documenting that the flash floods in Uttarakhand are bound to wreak havoc as the sensitivity of the environment is being overlooked during the economic development process. Later, she also wrote to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It is also pertinent to note that where the incident has taken place is 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 learned 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.
Regarding the incident, Uma Bharti, a senior BJP leader and former Water Resources Minister, in her time had requested not to build power projects on the Ganga river and its major tributaries since the Himalayas are a 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 a hydropower project’s adverse effects on Rishiganga. His fear was realised in 2021. He claimed that if his warning had been followed 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. Suppose the Government of India cuts greenhouse gas emissions per the Paris Climate Agreement; in that case, 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. This study shows 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. Center 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 Laws 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 started by dividing it into 53 small sections. The Environmental Impact Assessment Department’s permission is to be sought to construct more than 100 kilometres of road that is passing through environmentally sensitive areas. This road’s width is being kept at 5.5 meters.
In the aftermath of the 7 February catastrophe, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the country stood by Uttarakhand. He has also announced financial assistance to the families of the victims. But such promises and financial aids are in vain for the people of Uttarakhand due to continuous negligence towards environmental regulations, which led to devastating floods in 2013.
Meagre assistance won’t build people their houses and bring back their loved ones. To prevent such emotional and financial losses, 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 of Mopa Airport (Goa), Iron Ore Mining(Goa), Sand Mining (Uttar Pradesh), Sterlite Copper, Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu) and Construction Activities in and around Delhi, which have 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’ environmental pretexts.
If mountainous areas of the country, including Uttarakhand, and their people, are to be saved, it is incumbent on the Central Government to not carry out development work in these areas without seeking geologists’ and locals’ opinions. The government should immediately ban unsustainable development projects in 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 hilly regions, and the country at large, demand that the Central Government adopt a pro-people and pro-nature development model instead of a pro-corporate economic development model.
Prof Gurinder Kaur is the Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and Visiting Professor, IMPRI