Himalayan tragedy in Uttarakhand

Print edition : March 12, 2021

At the damaged Tapovan barrage on February 18. Photo: PTI

The flash flood in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, which left death and ruin in its wake, was a man-made calamity resulting from the government’s decision to allow destructive development activity in the fragile Himalayan region.

When will the authorities learn from past experiences? After the massive devastation caused by the flash floods at Kedarnath in 2013, which killed at least 5,000 people and ruined the lives of thousands of others, the government ought to have taken a relook at its development priorities and followed an ecologically saner route to development. Sadly, that was not to be.

Completely disregarding environmentalists’ recommendations, the government pushed through its foolhardy programme of developing run-of-river hydroelectric power projects, damming and tunnelling rivers in the process, blasting mountains to make roads and cutting down trees, destabilising the already fragile high-altitude Himalayan mountainous zones, thus creating disasters like the one unfolding in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand since February 7.

The Chamoli disaster, which has killed several people—46 bodies have been recovered so far while 158 people remain missing—is yet another example of the Narendra Modi government’s myopic vision of development: not following due process, giving short shrift to expert opinion, and bulldozing its way through opposition. The flash flood, which was apparently triggered by the breaking of a portion of a glacier in the Nanda Devi hills, not only killed people but completely destroyed the Rishi Ganga hydroelectric power project on the Rishi Ganga river and substantially damaged the Tapovan Vishnugad hydel power project on the Dhauliganga river. The humongous mass of floodwater, sludge and debris that hurtled down steep mountain slopes destroyed everything in its way along the course of the rivers. The villages on these river banks were flooded with sludge. Raini village along the banks of the Rishi Ganga suffered massive damage. Ironically, Raini is where the Chipko movement was born to save the Himalayan ecology from deforestation.

Repeat of Kedarnath

Although the degree of destruction is slightly less than the disaster at Kedarnath in 2013, the pattern is the same. Had the government followed the recommendations by the expert committee then, the losses could have been avoided this time. After the Kedarnath tragedy, the Supreme Court had appointed a committee headed by Ravi Chopra, director of Dehradun-based Peoples’ Science Institute, to ascertain whether the construction of hydroelectric power projects in the upper reaches of the Himalayan region had anything to do with the avalanche, as alleged by environmentalists.

The committee said in its report that glacial retreat coupled with construction activity for hydroelectric power projects could lead to large-scale disasters downstream because the blasting of hills and the cutting down of trees led to hill slopes becoming unstable.

Also read: Uttarakhand: Himalayan tragedy

The committee, which studied the seismological vulnerabilities of the area and cloudbursts caused by climate change, recommended a complete ban on the construction of hydroelectric power projects in the paraglacial region, that is 2,200 metres above sea level, since the Himalayan region is prone to acute seismic activity. In view of these recommendations, the Supreme Court on August 13, 2013, stayed 69 proposed hydroelectric power projects in the area, including 24 projects that had already been granted environmental clearances.

In 2014, even after the first Narendra Modi regime began, the government had accepted the Ravi Chopra Committee report, according to an affidavit by the government in the Supreme Court in December 2014. This was when Uma Bharti was the Ganga Rejuvenation and Water Resources Minister. There were inter-Ministerial differences of opinion between her Ministry and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and Uma Bharti was shunted out of her Ministry.

Thereafter, the government appointed one committee after another and the Ravi Chopra Committee’s recommendations went into limbo. Meanwhile, work continued on various other hydroelectric power projects in the Yamuna river basin despite the fact that even this area is equally ecologically fragile.

Experts told Frontline that although the Chamoli tragedy could have been a perfectly natural phenomenon of a glacier breaking off, triggering an avalanche, its magnified impact was purely man-made.

Dr Navin Juyal, a senior geologist who was one of the members on the Ravi Chopra Committee, said: “The loss of life and property would not have been so huge had the power projects not been there. Avalanches are natural phenomena but what we can do is minimise their impact by not doing construction in the river course and by not creating obstruction of any sort. Otherwise, the impact gets magnified manifold because when the surging torrent hits a barrier, it further gains energy and momentum, besides gathering more and more debris, which it dumps on its way down, submerging everything that comes in its way.”

Dr Juyal, who retired from the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory two years ago, minced no words and said that the government had not learnt from the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy and was continuing to commit the same “crimes of unmitigated tampering with the Himalayan ecology”.

Dr Juyal, who was in the same area during February 3-6, just before the tragedy struck, said that it was unusual for a glacier to break off during the winter season and that it could have been triggered because of the unusually bright and hot days just before the flash flood. He said: “The upper reaches of the hills had received heavy snowfall a few days before and then unusually sunny, hot days followed. This could have triggered the melting of snow which, while gushing down, could have possibly hit the glacier, causing it to break, resulting in the avalanche.”

According to him, the real picture would emerge only after a thorough study was done. However, he said that had the dams and barrages not been there, the loss of life and property would not have been so huge.

Hydel projects

Significantly, the 13.5-megawatt Rishi Ganga project, which was set up in 2005, was completely washed away in a flash flood in 2016 too. However, work restarted in 2018 and the project started operating in June last year. Fearing a repeat of the 2016 experience, residents of Raini village petitioned the Uttarakhand High Court against it. Kundan Singh of Raini filed a public interest litigation petition saying that the project developers were flouting all norms for stone-crushing activity in the area. The High Court directed the State government to constitute a panel to monitor the project, but nothing happened. Now that the project has been completely washed away, thousands of crores of rupees has also been wasted.

The Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric power project is a similar story, multiplied several times over. This 520 MW project, on which work began in 2006, was about to be completed this year when tragedy struck. The project, which is being executed by the state-run NTPC Limited, has been plagued by problems since its inception. It was expected to be completed by 2012 but was delayed, and then the 2013 Kedarnath disaster happened and it was extensively damaged. Work restarted in 2016 and was almost reaching completion when the Rishi Ganga river wreaked havoc. The project was initially expected to be completed at a cost of Rs.2,978 crore.

Also read: Inviting disaster

Dr Juyal said: “Not listening to honest expert opinion and tampering so irresponsibly with nature in this fragile ecological zone is a crime which this government is committing.”

The government’s lopsided priorities and its complete lack of vision while planning for developmental projects in this sensitive area were also reflected by the fact that the Modi government quietly shut down the Centre for Glaciology (CFG) in July last year during the lockdown.

The second United Previous Alliance (UPA) government had set up the CFG in 2009 to study the effects of climate on glaciers in order to develop strategies for tackling climate change and for adaptability. The centre was set up following fears that Himalayan glaciers were receding fast as a result of global warming.

The Manmohan Singh government announced an eight-point agenda as part of its National Action Plan called Himalayan Ecosystem Mission and the setting up of the CFG was the first point in that agenda. The government set up the centre at the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and earmarked Rs.500 crore for its development. The centre was supposed to eventually develop into an autonomous Institute of Glaciology to be based at Mussoorie. The government had also earmarked a 50-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) plot of land at a prime location in Mussoorie for it.

Senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan, who inaugurated the centre in 2009 as the Minister of State for Science and Technology, expressed shock at the Modi government’s ignorance of crucial issues such as Himalayan ecology and its lack of vision. He said: “This is a classic example of this government’s hypocrisy. This shows they only pay lip service to the environment. This government is only concerned about fast development and is completely anti-environment. Their whole attitude is that this environment thing is nonsense, an irritant for development. They have completely diluted the guidelines for development in the river basin areas also.”

Road construction

Yet another proof of the government’s short-sightedness in its development paradigm is the ambitious “char dham” project, which seeks to link the four religious shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath with 12-metre-wide roads. Environmental norms dictate that roads in such mountainous regions should not be more than 5.5 metres wide. Increasing the width of the roads needs large-scale cutting of hill slopes, blasting of mountains, and flattening of hilltops. All this leads to the generation of huge amounts of debris, which gets dumped into the rivers flowing along the routes of these shrines, such as the Alaknanda, the Mandakini, the Ganga, and so on. This further raised the riverbed, which increases the chances of flooding manifold.

Also read: Uttarakhand: State of paralysis

Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Avahan, a non-governmental organisation working to save the Himalayan ecosystem, said: “There is substantial proof that the constant road construction activity has set off many landslides in these areas, but the government is bent upon pushing through this project without paying any attention to environmental concerns.”

This issue too has reached the Supreme Court, which has stayed the road widening activity. But enough damage has already been done: over 800 acres of forest land has been lost and over 50,000 trees have been felled.

The Rishi Ganga flash flood has acquired a new, scary dimension. The falling debris in the upper reaches has caused the formation of an artificial lake on the river, whose level is rising continuously. Scientists are apprehensive that this may cause yet another and bigger disaster. When will the government wake up?

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