The chief minister of Uttarakhand, the north Indian state that bore the brunt of the Himalayan monsoon tragedy has said that the final toll of fatalities may “run into thousands”. This makes the extent of the damage from landslides, cloudbursts and resulting flash floods truly apocalyptic and one of the biggest human tragedies and property losses in India in several years.
What started as a routine pre-monsoon shower on Saturday, June 15 in several parts of northeastern India and parts of the Himalayan region soon turned into incessant rains accompanied by several cloudbursts in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The fury was such that it even affected a town – and areas around it – in Haryana, the small northern state in the Gangetic plain. Opinion has been varied on what to call the episode – a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy?
Newspapers and magazines have been packed with reports and opinions that pin the blame on several human practices, including unbridled construction along the banks of the Himayalan rivers which in any case are known to sustain fragile ecosystems in one of the youngest mountain ranges.
India’s television channels have also not been behind after realising the extent of the disaster and broadcasted talk shows and discussions with lawmakers, officials, members of think tanks and activists groups. In the conflict of opinions, even the union environment minister has stepped into the controversy saying a proposal to declare a large area in the Himalayas as an eco-sensitive zone was in place. She has also demanded that her ministry be given more teeth when it comes to clearing development projects in the Himalayan region.
A major controversy has also emerged over whether the Indian Meteorological Department had given any warning of the impending disaster and, if so, whether the warnings were given in time for the civil administration to alert people and take steps to minimise the damage.
What is the truth? Did the government blunder? Is the disaster a result of mindless development? Is the only solution to completely stop new construction and review the safety of existing buildings? Is it time to completely stop large hydroelectric projects and resort to other forms of electricity generation?
Having grown up in the regions close to the foothills of Uttarakhand, this writer is personally aware of the chaotic growth on the slopes of the rivers. This has largely been because tourism has thrived as an industry with a burgeoning middle class travelling there like never before. In most tourist destinations in the hills it is almost impossible for people to find suitable accommodation in hotels without advance booking.
The Himalayan region is also home to several major Hindu pilgrimage centres – beginning from Haridwar and Rishikesh where the River Ganga first flows out into the plains. Every year thousands go to do the Char Dham Yatra for which big and small tour operators provide packages to suit every pocket. All this requires more infrastructure, not just hotel rooms but also vehicles and fuel, more roads and more electricity.
It is not fair to blame the tourism industry alone for the chaotic development and construction in the Himalayan region. Part of the region stems from the fact that Uttarakhand is a new state which was carved out of India’s geographically largest state of Uttar Pradesh in November 2000. The state was formed as a result of a campaign running for decades for a separate state because people of the hills of UP felt discriminated against by a state leadership mostly dominated by those from the plains, with a few notable exceptions.
Naturally the expectations of people were high and to ensure that their popularity did not decline, leaders of the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party – who have alternately governed the state – focussed on improving infrastructure facilities with the aim of providing ready cash in the hand of the expanding middle class in towns and hamlets.
In the past decade there has also been a rush to propose, clear and construct large and small hydroelectric power plants. These projects have resulted in reckless felling of trees, blasting of river beds and mountain slopes, changing the course of rivers which have raised the spectre of the gold rush. In a report India’s official and constitutionally designated auditor warned that the state “had no disaster management plan worth its name despite the region being highly disaster prone.”
Political parties and leaders have played along with unbridled construction projects which also have unspoken benefits for political leaders and state officials. To ensure that there are no further such recurrences, Indian opinion makers, officials and lawmakers need to rise above pre-formed ideas and opinions.
For the moment, efforts have to be focussed on rescue, relief, rehabilitation and ensuring no outbreak of epidemics. People of the region also have to be given back their livelihoods. Only a concerted effort from all will be able to achieve this.