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Big machines, experts 'can't tame' Himalayas: Big lesson from Silkyara tunnel collapse

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  

The safe return of the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel near Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand is a matter of great satisfaction for the entire nation. Kudos to all those involved in the rescue operation for the last 17 days! The tale must have been horrifying, but the way we saw the smiling workers coming out, reflected their energy level despite all odds. Yes, in one sentence, these are the sons of the soil, who toil hard to make our lives better.
There are three issues involved here.
One, which has been projected by the government, and that is the rescue effort to save the lives of the people, and we must give full credit to those who were involved. All the agencies of the government did this Herculean task with a great sense of duty.
The result is, the government has been able to send a signal to the families of the trapped workers that it cares for them and would go to any extent to protect their lives. Perhaps, the government has succeeded in communicating this message. Every government or party does that and the government would take all the credit for the successful operation. So congratulations to all those who were involved in it.
The second part is related to the company engaged in the operation which remained out of sight and out of scrutiny. Who gave them the contract and whose company is it? Did it flouted the norms of tunnelling in the region, where a safe passage must have been prepared in advance? Will accountability be fixed?
And finally, the most important part, is the need for policy level decision. How long will one rob the #Himalayas? Will the government and its advisers ever think of maintaining the sanctity of the Himalayas -- that they cannot really claim victory over nature? They should not try to tame the Himalayas. If they feel that their big machines and experts can tame the Himalayas, they are grossly mistaken. At the end of the day, it was the rat miners who took us to the ultimate victory.
It seems that the government has still not learned its lessons from various disasters that have been occurring in the Himalayas. This year, Uttarakhand saw terrific rains, landslides, cloudbursts and floods, but in the din of an unprecedented crisis that happened due to Himachal Pradesh rains, all this was lost.
The fact is that even in Himachal Pradesh, the massive devastation that has happened was not purely natural but an outcome of the concretisation process and building of various hydropower projects, which the government is unable to manage properly.
A section of "experts" appear to feel that a state like Uttarakhand has not been able to use its maximum potential of hydro power projects and are advising the government to go in for bigger projects. The Char Dham Highway is not yet completed, and most of the time the roads are getting 'thrashed' in the midst the mountains.
All need good roads, but one has to understand the fragility of the Himalayan region, too. Anyone familiar with the Uttarkashi region will vouch how sensitive it is. Nobody denies making roads comfortable is needed, but it also needs to be seen how much do we want to preserve nature and the local people attached with it.
One shouldn’t make the region flooded with religious tourists -- it would ultimately bring destruction. A small place like Kedarnath, where 5,000 people at one time is an extremely high number, hosts lakhs of people. Will it not damage the sacred area? How is one going to meet the daily needs of the people? Where is the sewage system?
It looks like we don’t care for what is happening to the local people. After the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, the number of developmental projects have increased, and so have the disasters. The 2021 disaster at Raini-Tapovan aream particularly on Rishiganga-Dhauliganga confluence revealed the might of nature again, when the entire hydro power project got swept away, apart from the lives of several hundred workers, mostly from outside Uttarakhand.
Joshimath and many other towns in Uttarakhand are endangered. So far, not much is done to have a relook into what has happened After a few months, we seem to forget things.
Policy planners should seriously think about all the projects in the Himalayas. They must ensure dignity, sanctity and serenity of the Himalayas and its sacred rivers worshipped by all. One should not destroy our heritage of the Uttarakhand region. It is our identity.
The incidents reveal that the projects in Uttarakhand so far are not giving any employment to the local people. Whether in Tapovan or Silkyara tunnel, most of the workers and labourers working are from outside the state, which reflects how the companies do not trust local people and bring in outsiders to get their things done.
The servile media converts every tragedy into an event and focuses these events in such a way that people don’t discuss the real issue of safety and protection of the Himalayas. As the rescue operation has succeeded, it is time the government to seriously ponder over and order an audit of all the projects in the Himalayan region.
I am still remembering the warning by legendary poet Girda about this 'development’. He was a visionary. He still reminds us about the Himalayas and development.
Says Girda:
एक तरफ बर्बाद बस्तियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
एक तरफ डूबती कश्तियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
एक तरफ हैं सूखी नदियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
एक तरफ है प्यासी दुनियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
अजी वाह! क्या बात तुम्हारी,
तुम तो पानी के व्योपारी,
खेल तुम्हारा, तुम्हीं खिलाड़ी,
बिछी हुई ये बिसात तुम्हारी,
सारा पानी चूस रहे हो,
नदी-समन्दर लूट रहे हो,
गंगा-यमुना की छाती पर
कंकड़-पत्थर कूट रहे हो,
उफ!! तुम्हारी ये खुदगर्जी,
चलेगी कब तक ये मनमर्जी,
जिस दिन डोलगी ये धरती,
सर से निकलेगी सब मस्ती,
महल-चौबारे बह जायेंगे
खाली रौखड़ रह जायेंगे
बूँद-बूँद को तरसोगे जब -
बोल व्योपारी – तब क्या होगा?
नगद – उधारी – तब क्या होगा?
आज भले ही मौज उड़ा लो,
नदियों को प्यासा तड़पा लो,
गंगा को कीचड़ कर डालो,
लेकिन डोलेगी जब धरती – बोल व्योपारी – तब क्या होगा?
वर्ल्ड बैंक के टोकनधारी – तब क्या होगा ?
योजनकारी – तब क्या होगा ?
नगद-उधारी तब क्या होगा ?
एक तरफ हैं सूखी नदियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
एक तरफ है प्यासी दुनियाँ – एक तरफ हो तुम।
(Rough translation:
On one side are the ruined settlements – on other side is you.
On one side are sinking boats – on other side is you.
On one side there are dry rivers – on other side is you.
On one side is the thirsty world – on other side is you.
But wow! what about you,
You are a water merchant,
The game is yours, you are the player,
You have laid out this chessboard,
You are sucking all the water,
You are plundering the rivers and seas,
On the chest of Ganga-Yamuna
You are crushing pebbles and stones,
Ouch! This selfishness of yours,
How long will this whim continue?
The day this earth shakes,
All the fun will come out of your head,
Palaces and squares will be washed away
Only empty ashes will be left
When you yearn for every drop -
Speak trader – what will happen then?
Cash – credit – what will happen then?
Even if you have fun today,
Make the rivers thirsty,
Turn Ganga into mud,
But what will happen when the earth shakes – says businessman?
World Bank token holders – what will happen then?
Planner – What will happen then?
What will happen then for your borrowed cash?
On one side there are dry rivers – on other side is you.
On one side is the thirsty world – on other side is you.)
These wise words of Girda, a people’s poet of Uttarakhand, are still valid for us all. Will we ever learn our lesson? The Himalayas need our attention. They enchant us and give us enormous joy, standing for us as our borders. It is time we bow to its might and respect it and enjoy its beautiful localities for which a bit of inconvenience should be acceptable to all.
*Human rights defender. Facebook: X: @freetohumanity. Skype: @vbrawat



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