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Uttarakhand disaster: 30 yrs not enough for developers to prevent such 'massacres'

By Simi Mehta, Amita Bhaduri*

Aftermath of the Chamoli disaster 2021, it has become essential to not to alter the environment. The environmental change is taking lives and livelihoods of people which is compensated with the meager amount of financial aid. Headlines reported that 70 people have been dead and 139 are missing. State government promised to provide financial aid of Rs 4 lakh to family of deceased. The disasters in Uttarakhand dates back to 1990s and the series continues. Thirty years have not been enough for economic developers to prevent such massacres.
With this background, Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development at  Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, India Water Portal and Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar organized a panel discussion on Uttarakhand Flood Disaster 2.0: From Analysis to Action. The session was chaired by Rajender Singh, Chairman, Tarun Bharat Singh, Alwar and Waterman of India.
“The Himalayan Rivers exist in steep slopes and seismic zones. The government has to tradeoff between promoting tourism or contemplating on the fact that the superfluous rivers should be favored back either as means of conservation or pilgrimage. Every river conservation policy should have incorporated the factors of climate change. Overexploitation of such rivers and natural resources at the source or origin will produce devastating results,” said Rajender Singh.
Construction of dams and hydro-electric projects in these geologically sensitive areas involving steep slopes amounts to a huge economic loss. Such losses are mounted if the project cost and the ecological cost is also considered and can be as high as Rs 18 per unit. Comparatively, the usual cost per unit of solar energy is Rs 4. For decades, people have been protesting against the construction of such projects.
However, the major reasons as stated by government are capacity building for defense and promoting tourism sector. These reasons are incessant, but a cost-benefit analysis won’t be infertile to assess the economic and social impact of the disasters and economic returns from tourism.
The supercomputer available currently only accommodates and counts one blast in the mountain of which the factors are analyzed but fails to take into account the subsequent series of blasts that take place. These blasts shake up the mountain core which then affects the river ecology, the latter getting highly disturbed mostly in terms of volume of flow. The consequence of this thus becomes disastrous.
He further urged the flag-bearers of science in this country to have a holistic perspective and to analyze things via sense and common sense. Viewing science only through the lens of calculations and equations and to be able to manipulate the same to achieve project go-ahead by the government is a regressive thought. Further, naming it ‘natural disasters’ and not man-made is nothing but greed that mankind hasn’t been able to contain. “Nature never justifies and accommodates lies in the name of facts”, he said.
Development while also contributing to the rejuvenation of nature is possible only when people start respecting नीर- नारी- नदी (Water, Woman and River).
Prof Milap Punia, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) shared his experience of Satopanth-Bhagirathi region in the Upper Himalayas that carried a drain that seeped water into a natural lake downstream, got completely demolished post-2013 floods.
He shared some of the recommendations from his paper governance and disaster on the land-use policies in Uttarakhand. These include – revision of hydro-power policy, incorporating ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ and environmental flow, lock-gate operations, mandatory installations of automatic weather stations and real-time flood forecasting systems at every medium to large hydro-power plants, strict implementation of Dam Safety Bill of 2005.
He highlights the regions prone to landslides in the state including a place near between Joshimath and Badrinath and leading to the Valley of Flowers which although have been silent for some time but would be disastrous if a landslide does happen to strike, and the chances being even more with the Char Dham project construction underway. He advocated the need to regulate such ‘development’ projects and also the public administration.
“If we cannot handle the wrath, we shouldn’t dare to disturb these ecologically sensitive places”, he said, emphasising for a resilience program to cope with vulnerabilities of such projects and also the after-effects of a disaster (mental shock).
Commenting on the loopholes in the 2021 glacial break disaster, he said that usually in the upstream of any flow, an advanced warning system should be installed to warn of any possible overflow or unusual behavior in the stream which was not the case with the Rishi Ganga flood.
Citing the observations of ground level workers and GIS experts, he concluded the fact that the disaster was worsened due to the sudden impact of the falling of rock debris which collected ice along its way and thus forming a sludge (height 1800m) turning it into a catastrophe.
He further advised coordination amongst the different agencies and they should avoid overlapping agendas, be it a research institute, government body, policy firm, academicians or individual experts. Such practice will lead to develop clear roles among institutions.
Nivedita Khandekar, independent journalist, resented the government defense to the Char Dham project. Only after seven years of Kedarnath tragedy did Uttarakhand get its first Doppler radar which is an essential Early Warning tool, she mentioned. This shows the ineffectiveness, slow action and tardy rate of implementation of measures focusing on disaster mitigation.
She recommended two specific actions:
  • Monitoring glaciers, rivers, weather in general. The flood forecasting of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and also the state governments are very weak and need revamping.
  • Restricting entry/footfalls in the Higher Himalayas, where the restriction on the height can be debated and discussed.
Common Alerting Protocol, a centralized system of information and warning dissemination by collecting data from various government bodies and sources, has been on the pipeline for some years with the Government of India and one that needs to be phased out to practice sooner. The information will not just be sent personally to individuals but also broadcasted and communicated in a larger scale like a public place.
Highlighting the disruptive livelihoods due to disasters, she says, various techniques like homestay based tourism to avoid foreign and commercial exploitation of land and resources, Processing and marketing of local products, et cetera needs to be done.
Hemant Dhyani, convenor, Ganga Ahwan Movement, and member, High Powered Committee of Supreme Court on Chardham project, was saddened that no practical lessons have been learnt from the 2013 deluge. He vouched for accountability for such criminal negligence. His two-step solution – build Early Warning Systems at Upper Himalayas and regulate or stop the Hydro-electric power plants at para glacial zones.
On the state of dams, he started by saying that the situation could have been much worse if some of the other projects which were cancelled were allowed to run. A dam constructed in a sensitive area will only add to the problem and havoc of probable disasters. He visualize the apathy and the terror that the workers faced due to the mismanagement; he raised the question that why not even a single siren was called on to help the workers get to a higher altitude to save their lives.
He requests and appeals to the government to let go of the greed and the unrequired shift from Dham to Dam, the whole catchment area where the Ganga meets its tributaries to be declared as eco-sensitive zones and, a strong regulation against the growing township and urbanization that has led to deforestation, soil degradation and, loss of water quality.
In his closing statements by citing the fact that deposition of Black carbon on the glaciers has led to tremendous climate change and an increase in disasters, he raises the question of what does ‘development’ actually mean? “Sustainable approach comes from a sustainable mindset”, he said.
Dr Anjal Prakash, research director and adjunct associate professor, Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, highlighted findings and inference from three studies trying to understand anthropogenic activities’ effect on the social and physical strata of the region (report published in 2019). The findings include:
  • There is a strong climatic link to disasters.
  • Out of the thousands of glaciers present in Uttarakhand, only a few are monitored in terms of disaster response and subsequent action.
  • With the access to basic resources like water, sanitation, roads, etc. being quite low, some infrastructure and development projects are therefore required and makes sense but those which directly affects the ecology of the place should be checked and regulated upon.
He further dwelled that masculine development projects have only extracted as much as they can from nature and its elements and thus, more feminity is required in the decision-making process and an acceptable proportion is desirable for women in central roles.
Highlighting the best practices from India’s neighbouring countries, Nepal and Bhutan, he said, decision-making process for building dams and other commercial activities in the mountainous regions involve strict monitoring even from the highest governor themselves and assurance to the citizens and the locals that the environmental impact will be at the most minimum.
Ranjan Borah, disaster management specialist, Centre for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPPGG), Government of Uttarakhand, recommended micro-level planning of training and building capacity amongst the local communities along with empowering the Panchayat Raj will build a strong resilience. He stated that the government is working on the shift from ‘response oriented action’ to ‘disaster preparedness’. There is need to incorporate people as valuable stakeholder.
He spoke of some of the important points in the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines to cope with disasters:
  • Focus on mitigation policies.
  • Local governing bodies should incorporate these mitigating guidelines.
  • Enforcement of Law, Regulation and Accountability.
  • Specific set of guidelines or policies involving only the Himalayas.

Way forward

There is need to receive feedback from all stakeholders, most importantly the communities while exploring any project in the region. Students’ and community needs to be involved in tracking the local weather along with the designated authority. Train the Glaciologists working in the state and in the region by the locals who are expert in exploring the area around them.
Real-time flow of information and the density of observations should be high. There is a need to look forward to newer and equally important technologies like Sensor-based alert system which will give information to the concerned agencies and which then will pass the adequate and necessary information to the public as and when required.
India being a signatory of the Sendai Framework should abide by it cover to cover and not deviate from it for shrewd development purposes.
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Acknowledgment: Indranuj Pathak is a research intern at IMPRI. He is pursuing Masters (Public Policy) from NLSIU, Bengaluru

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