Natural disasters often follow a predictable path in India. A flood or an earthquake happens every few years, the government blames the vagaries of nature, the right sympathetic noises are made, and all is forgotten until the next one comes along. But last week’s cataclysmic floods in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, surrounded by the Himalayas, have provoked a debate on whether this particular disaster was caused – or at least worsened – by reckless human greed.
At last count, 5000 people are feared killed, and the number is expected to rise further. More than 33,000 people have been rescued in an amazing effort by the Indian army, but an estimated 19,000 victims are still stranded.
On the face of it, the floods seem like a calamity that was unpreventable. The Indian meterological department reported a record rainfall of 385 mm during the first few weeks of June, which is 440 per cent over the usual rainfall. But green groups say that while a cloudburst may have been the immediate cause of floods, the region has been slowly eroded by rampant development. Too many roads, hotels and buildings have caused the valley to collapse like a stack of dominoes.
The government is blaming a massive “tsunami”, but this easy blame masks its criminal neglect of disaster systems and history of ignoring danger signs. A report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General in April 2013 revealed that the State Disaster Management Authority has never met, has received no funds, and has framed no plan to cope with disaster, despite a series of deadly landslides over the past few years.
Development in the Himalayas has long been contentious. Both the ruling Congress party and the opposition BJP party have insisted that the people of Uttarakhand want, nay need, development. On 18 December 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests declared a 135 km stretch along the river as an eco-sensitive zone, which meant that construction along the river, especially hotels and hydropower projects, would be banned. But the Uttarakhand Ministry passed a resolution against the zone, and chief minister Vijay Bahuguna hastily met the prime minister to argue that the order was opposed by local people because it would affect their livelihoods. End result: the order was ignored by the state government.
But greens allege that successive governments from both parties are colluding with land and construction mafia to skim off profits from construction. It’s supremely convenient to argue that locals want development at any cost, but has anyone asked the people of Uttarakhand how they feel about lethal landslides every couple of years?
Then there’s the iffy question of dams. Politicans love them, and currently around 70 dams are supposed to be built on the River Ganga. Many green groups say they are not against all dams. “We really need to move beyond this ‘All dams are bad’ philosophy. No one’s arguing that sometimes we need dams, but do we really need 70?,” asked Dr Sunita Narain,environmentalist and director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, speaking on the popular TV talk show “We the People” yesterday. More importantly, Narain pointed out that there is no clear cut policy on dams, and no thought given to how many dams should be built, where, or how.
Meanwhile, no one’s talking about the fact that growing numbers of religious pilgrims are putting huge stress on the Himalayan ecosystem. The Hindu shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri were visited by a staggering 30 million people this year. A move to restrict the entry of pilgrims would be immensely unpopular in such a religious country, which explains why political parties refuse to discuss it. But experts, including geologists, have suggested regulating the entry of tourists.
In hindsight, of course, politicians are full of helpful suggestions. The good news is that Union minister of state for environment Jayanthi Natarajan is now strongly supporting an eco-sensitive zone, though a mere 135 km may not make much difference. “Uttarakhand must not compromise on its ecology,” Natarajan is reported as saying.
Too little, but hopefully not too late. India needs to come up with an action plan to save its mountains, one that takes the mountain people into consideration, restricts pilgrims, considers dams carefully and aims for sustainable development. Not easily done, but if the government doesn’t get its act together, expect more disasters in the future.
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