Mindless ‘development’ could bring more calamities like Chamoli and Kedarnath floods

The people of Reni protested against the Rishi Ganga project, well aware of the river’s flood history. They even went to the Uttarakhand High Court. The Supreme Court of India and the Uttarakhand High Court gave judgments against the construction of dams in the inner Himalayas.

The flash floods due to the burst of an artificial lake created by a huge landslide (rock, frozen mud and ice) in Rishi Ganga, inside Nanda Devi Sanctuary, is the newest warning given by the Himalayas to the blind supporters of “development” in the fragile mountains. The loss of lives, property and projects is immense. It is estimated at more than Rs 4,000 crore. In addition, two bridges have also been lost.

According to Planet Labs, ice along with frozen mud and rocks fell down from a high mountain inside the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, from a height of 5,600 m to 3,300 m. This created an artificial lake within the sanctuary in Rontigad, a tributary of Rishi Ganga. Within eight hours, this lake burst open and its water, laden with mud and stones, rushed through the Rishi Ganga gorge which opens near Reni. This is the same village where Gaura Devi and her sisters saved their forest in 1974 during the Chipko movement.

Studies say that the current winter season has seen little rain and snow, with temperatures being highest in the last six decades. Winter forest fires are also indicative of this temperature shift. So, the effects of chemical weathering were much more active in the higher Himalayas. There is a possibility of more such events this year. It is also to be noted that Rishi Ganga has had a history of similar devastations. There was a lake burst in Rishi Ganga in 1968. Another lake known as Barital was created in Rishi Ganga and burst at the time of the 1970 Alaknanda floods. In fact, this pattern can be seen in several other higher Himalayan rivers.

As a mountain system, the Himalayas have had earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, soil erosion, forest fires and floods, and these are its natural expressions, parts of its being. Except for earthquakes, humans have directly contributed towards aggravating all the other phenomena. Now the so-called development activities (roads, dams, barrages, tunnels), for which more appropriate and less destructive methods, technologies and rules are available but not followed, have increased the destructive powers of the above calamities.

When we do not allow a river to flow and instead build big dams on it; when we do not let a forest remain in its natural habitat playing its economic and ecological role; when we build roads against all signs of Himalayan fragility with dynamiting and “dig and throw” method, the land, forests and rivers start behaving differently. Another factor which cannot be overlooked is that of climate change. Studies have suggested that the pace of this change is faster in mountains and fastest in the Himalayas. While earthquakes and weathering work at their own pace, climate change can contribute towards altering their natural speed.

If we call the events which took place within the Rishi Ganga gorge “natural”, then we have to accept that what the river did with the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan-Vishnugad projects, bridges and nearly 300 workers, local herders, their cattle and fields is “manmade”. The huge displacement of soil, silt, and stones in the river floor compels the raging river to behave differently. Moreover, common people to whom development is promised become victims of it. If we do not reconsider this pattern, we will have to relive this past in future also.

People protested against the Vishnu Ganga project, which was also devastated in the 2013 floods and rebuilt. The people of Reni protested against the Rishi Ganga project, well aware of the river’s flood history. They even went to the Uttarakhand High Court. The Supreme Court of India (SC) and the Uttarakhand High Court gave judgments against the construction of dams in the inner Himalayas. The Ravi Chopra committee formed by the SC recommended closure of all the 24 hydro projects in question by Wildlife Institute of India. The SC also formed another committee to look at the impact of the Chaardham road project. However, the politician, babu and contractor lobby opposed it. The SC has not yet forced the governments to implement its recommendations fully.

This calamity cannot be viewed in isolation. Road and hydro projects are being operated in the Himalayas with practically no rigorous research on the ecological history of the area, cost-benefit analysis and many other aspects including displacement of communities, destruction of biodiversity, agricultural land, pastures as well as the cultural heritage of the area. Earlier, while independent experts carried out the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), today it is assigned to a government agency, which does the work for other government departments. Furthermore, during the lockdown, the government changed the EIA rules and diluted labour laws (most of the workers in both the affected projects belong to unorganised sector) in the name of pandemic measures. For the first time in our country’s history, the Ministry of Environment has shown no interest in environment and conservation and instead advocates the cause of corporates.

If we have some courage and honesty, we can look back at the terrible calamity of 2013, and see how it washed away not only the encroachments in river areas (dams, barrages, tunnels, buildings, roads) but also the myths of development. The communities paid a much heavier price than what they received in compensation. Further, the 2013 calamity has to be studied and understood in all the other regions and river valleys of Uttarakhand, Western Nepal and Himachal. It was not specific to Kedarnath, although much of the focus was directed there. It was a much larger tragedy. Till date, we don’t have any white paper on this calamity. The India Meteorological Department failed in its prediction and wrongly announced at the end of the first week of June that the monsoon will reach Uttarakhand by June 27-28. It reached on June 16-17 with 300-400 per cent more rain, a record never heard of before. Consequently, the death toll and scale of destruction was also unprecedented.

In 2013, 24 big and small hydro projects were destroyed. The muck created by these projects was also the cause of their destruction. The road debris, always dumped in rivers, was another cause. The smaller rivers were more aggressive in 2013. For instance, the Vishnu Prayag Project was destroyed by the combined power of Khiron Gad and Pushpawati; NHPC project at Ailagad by Dhauli (east) and Aila gad. Similarly, hydro projects in Saryu and Asi Ganga (both non-glacial rivers) valleys were also destroyed.

Any obstruction in the river-bed increases the power of the river. In such a situation, out of the four elements of a river (water, silt, power and all forms of riverine life), the first two tend to dominate and dictate the surrounding and downstream areas.

People do not want to risk their homes, fields, pastures, forests and rivers in the name of development. Most of such development work in the Himalayas is being carried out without an understanding of its fragility, seismicity, glacial behaviour, climatic changes and their collective destructive power. The Himalayas have been giving us life through water, fertile soil, biodiversity, wilderness and a feel of spirituality. We cannot and should not try to control or dictate the Himalayas.

The writer is a historian and environmentalist; his recent work on Chipko movement was published in Hindi and English

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