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Uttarakhand, Kerala disaster due to policies favouring India's developmental mafia

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

Two of India’s most beautiful regions where thousands of people go to watch and feel the wonders of nature are suffering because of the extremely disastrous rains and floods. The pain that the rains brought to Kerala and Uttarakhand is a warning to all of us. It's nature’s warning to us to mend our ways.
Nobody would have doubted the fury of rains and floods if it were the monsoon season. We all know, India suffers from both heavy rains as well as a shortfall of rains. The monsoon in India this year was more than its forecast, and eventually by the middle of September we assumed that the monsoon was gone, giving happiness to farmers and others.
Unfortunately, monsoon or no monsoon, the rains continued. I was travelling in the high ranges of Uttarakhand and the weather really disappointed me. First, we could not complete our track to Dayara Bugyal, which is about 3,000 metres above the sea level, offering a splendid view of the Himalayas. When we were just short of about four kilometres from the summit, heavy rains compelled us to look for a shelter in the dense forest.
After two hours, when the ferocity of the rains stopped, we decided against climbing up and returned, which was more difficult, as at many places it was nearly 50-60 degrees slopes. Once we reached our hotel, it rained extremely heavily the entire night. The rains in the Himalayas really frighten you. They rains topped in the morning around 7 am and suddenly we saw a bright sun and snow-covered peaks.
A day later, when we wanted to trek Gomukh from Gangotri, which was about 18 kilometres away, we were happy that finally we could see some sunshine, but after nine kilometres’ stressful walking, it started raining, and we could cover our first night journey with great difficulty.
It was cloudy and raining, bringing down the temperatures heavily. My friends from Mumbai found it extremely difficult to sustain and had breathing difficulties. Next morning, when we got up, the situation was not clear and we had to make up our mind to abandon the trip, as reaching back safely was more important even when we knew well that it was a difficult terrain to walk in the rains as landslides were common.
When I planned my trip, I thought it was ideal to enjoy the bright sunshine, as Uttarakhand looks stunning even as the entire north India at this point of time suffers from gloomy fog all around. The mountains in the Himalayas glitter in the bright sun making it a fascinating region to enjoy. A couple of days prior to our journey, there was heavy rainfall and a landslide. I thought the worst was over, but heavy rains, floods and disaster proved how unpredictable the weather has become.
It was a rarity when we heard rains and floods, and not just in the mountains. We know monsoon starts in mid-May in Kerala -- around the time when the gates of the holy shrines in Uttarakhand are opened to the public, as that is the best period to visit the hills. People who suffer in the dirty, rotten heat of north India or even those in the West and the South, visit Uttarakhand in very large numbers. Most of the time, July to August is the rainy season, and by mid-September, monsoon is officially off, but this year it was shocking beyond doubt.
Kerala has lost over 42 lives to the unpredictable rains, with towns like Kottayam, Thiruvalla, Idukki and Pathnamthittha facing the biggest jolt of swelling waters in the rivers. Houses collapsed like house of cards and cars got swept away. The dams in Kerala and Tamilnadu are overflowing at the moment and water level is rising high in various districts due to opening up of the gates of these dams.
When we thought the rains were all over in Kerala, the meteorological department forecasted heavy rains for Uttarakhand. I was not sure, but the next day when we got the information it just reminded me of the terrible tragedy of 2013, which was termed as Himalayan tsunami killing thousands of people and damaging huge infrastructure.
The world saw unprecedented destruction. Houses, roads, bridges, vehicles all floated and swept away in the furious water of Ganges and numerous other tributaries, some known and others unknown or seasonal. So far, this time, about 60 lives have been lost, and hundreds have been wounded. Many of the trekkers who had come to enjoy the beauty of the regions are still untraceable. A majority of the roads have caved in, and it will take time for things to come back to normal.
The tsunami occurred in 2004 while Uttarakhand's tragedy happened in 2013. But it looks like that our governments learned very little from these tragedies. The magnitude of the devastation did not affect any change in the policies pursued by the government as well as the bureaucracy. It is clear that climate crisis is an issue which has been ignored. In the name of ‘development’, our mountains, rivers and seas are under the assault of greedy companies and political leaders as well as governments who have become their ‘agents’.
Kerala is a beautiful State but ‘development’ has reached there with growing urbanisation and ‘cemented infrastructure’ to meet the demand for the enormously growing population. Urban population which was merely about 15% in 1971, has now crossed 50%. Moreover, the heavy migration for jobs to the Middle East has resulted in building mansions which are not conducive to the local environment and needs.
Rampant mining to satisfy the needs of the urban population, particularly for sand and stone, has aggravated the crisis. Deforestation to pave the way for industrialisation and annexation of the sea beaches to attract tourists and their demands are ultimately paving the way towards a bigger disaster.
There are about 58 big or small dams in Kerala and one is certain that many of them are in important ecologically sensitive zones. For the first time we heard that many of these dams were running beyond their capacity. The fact is that the reason for floods in many areas in India is these overflowing dams which suddenly open up their gates, resulting in massive flooding everywhere. Experts will have to think it over now as to how long this will be allowed.
in Uttarakhand they wanted to reach the ‘top’ to ‘promote’ tourism, and for that they have no shame in destroying our basic identity, the mountains. The Chardham Yatra Project, which is adding a new railway network to the high hills, is an invitation to disaster. Nobody denies that we should have good roads infrastructure, but it is important to take into account the destruction that we may be causing to the nature.
It pains me to see how the mountains are being drilled by big machines and concrete replacing the natural forests. We cannot have four lane roads in the Himalayan region unless we destroy the entire ecological system. If we destroy that, how much damage it could create to the entire northern and eastern India will be unheard of.
Dams need to be damned. Unlike Kerala, the hills of Uttarakhand have shown a negative growth rate of population. Hundreds of villages have no habitat as people have migrate. During chilling winters many villagers move to other regions. It’s a kind of nomadism when people migrate to other towns or villages from the middle of October till February-March end, when the entire Himalayan region is covered with deep and dense snow.
Forest cover in Uttarakhand is much higher, and it is controlled by the government. While villagers have to seek permission for having basic public utility in the forests, big resorts are allowed to come up easily. You can see big resorts in the Jim Corbet National Park, which is in the Tarai region (Himalayan plains). This is true for the higher ranges above 3,500 metres, too. There are so-called environmentalists’ lobbies which make the local people look like enemies. They are also damaging the cause of the nature.
Laws must ensure local cultures, communities and ecological issues are protected and respected. This huge crisis is the the result of absolute disregard and inability of the Indian States to respect people and their knowledge, which is often regarded as ‘localised’, hence ‘experts’ are brought in and they legitimise the political propaganda of the power elite in their effort to create their hegemony over locals.
The fact of the matter is that all ‘developmental’ projects have ‘ideas’ and ‘experts’ emerging from private companies sitting in big metropolitan cities whose major work is ‘lobbying’ with the politicians, ministers and political parties to get through their work.
Most of them have least concern for local sentiments or environmental protection, or what is essentially known as Free Prior Informed Consent, which is an international practice whenever there is a developmental project planned in an area of environmental concern for indigenous communities.
The world over, the rights of the people are respected, and it is assumed that local communities are the best bet to protect the environment, but back home the contractors in big cities with political connections and ‘experts’ funded by the Industrial houses have used judiciary for their purposes where ‘local communities’ are perceived as ‘threat’ to environment.
Unfortunately, the power centre of the ruling party has not been able to come out of its Gujarat obsession
Hailing from the hills, I consider them my identity. I have often said whenever a friend wishes to visit the hills that they wouldn't find huge palaces, big buildings, historical spaces like those in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Lucknow, Mysore, Chennai etc. in the hills. They would only find glacial rivers, fountains, mountains and other natural things, and these are not ‘resources’ meant to be exploited but are our basic identity. If there is no ‘pahad’, there cannot be any Pahadi/Pahari, which is our identity. If the mountains are destroyed, we will have to pay a heavy price and we will ultimately be forced to eliminate our identity.
As a humanist, I live with rivers in the hills, listen to their songs and their soulful humming. Their ferocity, power, serenity and intensity are unparalleled. They are a treat to watch. What have we done to them? We have tried to control them. How many dam(ns) are being built on various rivers in Uttarakhand which ultimately gave us Ganga, the most fertile and revered river of the country?
A journey from Rishikesh or Dehradun to Gangotri-Yamunotri as well as Badrinath-Kedarnath would show how mercilessly we have betrayed the mountains as well as the beautiful, adorable and revered rivers. This is nothing but a brutal assault on the greatest gift of nature to India. We live in a strange society at the moment where in the name of ‘respect’ we pollute our rivers and mountains but remain quiet on the issue of their destruction.
The nature’s wrath at Kerala and Uttarakhand have sent a categorical warning. You call these States ‘Gods own country’ and ‘Devbhumi’, respectively. For me, both of them are the finest creations of nature to enjoy. The beauty of Arabian sea and the stunning greenery of mountains in Munnar, the loving backwaters at Kumarkom and many more places are nature’s creation, which are now being destroyed by greedy humans.
Just travel to Uttarakhand and you will get fascinated with the beauty of Ganges, and the more upward you move, the beautiful snowy rivers with the pristine water and humming would attract you. The snow-covered peaks of Himalayas literally protect India from its mighty neighbour. It is our best defence. There are lakes, meadows, fountains and what not, but human greed and comfort create infrastructure that hurts nature.
We all know that global warming is a reality. Climate change is a reality. So far, our governments, political parties and politicians have no time fighting climate change. While the divisive agenda has already hurt India and its ideas, the developmental model that is being pursued is purely to provide contracts to those who are close to power.
Unfortunately, the power centre of the ruling party has not been able to come out of its Gujarat obsession. It is trying to create a Gujarati monopoly everywhere, which is dangerous and detrimental. Look at the contractors, airports, big ports, telephone companies, internet services and find out who the people are. For these ‘versatile’ geniuses, profit is everything, even if it has devastated humanity.
It is time local municipal bodies and State governments act and develop local models. We can’t see a beautiful and adorable city like Nainital suffering in flood or the devastating videos that emerged from Kottayam. We need to protect our heritage which emerges from nature. There must be an eco-audit of our schemes and programmes so that we know what is happening on the ground and what are the threats to our nature and biodiversity.
It is time for all to stand up and be counted. We cannot allow our lonely planet to be destroyed by the ‘developmental mafia’. One hopes people of Kerala and Uttarakhand will stand up for protecting their natural identity and make environmental-ecological issues a prominent political agenda. Time has come to question the ‘developmental’ model to save our fascinating and enchanting natural heritage.
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*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat, twitter: @freetohumanity

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