The principle of cause and effect is a precise one — for every action, there is a reaction. It is in this context that the unfortunate flash floods in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand last Sunday should be seen.
The swelling up of the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers — which go on to form the Alaknanda, a tributary of the Ganga — led to a deluge which devastated two hydropower plants and has left over 200 missing or dead.
This is not a standalone event. Instead, it is a reaction to a series of actions that have been taking place in the seismically-active and geologically-sensitive Himalayan ranges. Clearance of big-ticket projects without environmental impact assessment, rampant deforestation, cutting of slopes without proper stabilisation measures, ineffective muck disposal…the list goes on and on.
It is not surprising that the Himalayas have sent us a message which is sharp and clear: unbridled development will lead to damage. It is a message that has been reiterated time and again in the Uttarakhand hills, so much so that the Himalayan state, also known as Dev Bhoomi or Land of the Gods, is now unfortunately talked about more for its natural disasters than its natural beauty. The 2013 Kedarnath deluge is the one most remembered for the sheer scale of the tragedy although the state continues to experience several big and small natural disasters every year which have killed around 6,000 people in the past two decades since Uttarakhand became a separate state. There are, in fact, dedicated ‘disaster months’ earmarked — February to May for forest fires — and the monsoon months of June till September/October for landslides and flash floods.
Yet the government goes ahead with these big and aggressive projects, citing the need for ‘development in the hills.’ Take hydropower projects, for instance. Uttarakhand has over 75 hydropower projects currently operational and has plans to take the number to 171 in order to generate around 17,000 MW of power. It means that almost every river, stream or rivulet in the hills will be tapped and its natural flow obstructed. An expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court after the Kedarnath tragedy had pointed out in 2014 that dams had a big role to play in aggravating a disaster like flash floods and recommended that no hydropower project be built in the paraglacial regions of the state.
A number of PILs have also been filed in the Uttarakhand high court against infrastructure projects like the Char Dham highway as well as hydropower plants for flouting norms. In 2018, after hearing a PIL which said that muck from projects on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi was being dropped into the rivers as a result of which these were changing course, the high court stayed construction of all hydropower plants in the state till muck disposal sites were identified. Later that year, the Supreme Court allowed construction while agreeing that muck disposal sites were a must. Work resumed on the plants but the norms were sidelined after a while.
The norm currently is to either bypass environmental clearances or to treat the exercise as a hindrance. Opinions of geologists and scientists are ignored until a disaster happens. So are the apprehensions of locals. In the summer of 2019, villagers in the Rishiganga valley — from where Sunday’s flash floods emerged — had approached the high court, complaining that blasting activities taking place as part of the Rishiganga hydro project were scaring wild animals in the forests who had started entering their villages. The area is part of the upper Himalayas, lies in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and is especially sensitive to geological activity. Any blasting done here was bound to have repercussions. The floods in the Rishiganga confirmed the villagers’ fears.
During the last polls, a political slogan that went around in Uttarakhand was ‘Pahaad ka paani aur pahaad ki jawani pahaad ke kaam aaye.’ The implication was that the Himalayan rivers should be tapped through maximum hydropower projects which would give employment to youth who are migrating outside in search of jobs. But with the recent disaster, the cry has changed — ‘What use is the paani if it is drowning the jawani?’ The need now is to look for alternative plans for sustainable development. Micro hydel projects of 1MW or 2MW capacity can generate power without the need to stop the river flow. Local communities can be trained in setting them up. This will also generate employment for the youth. Gherat or water mills have been in use in Uttarakhand for centuries for grinding grains and spices using water power. There are thousands of them lying unused. They can be upgraded and converted into small power-generating units.
The possibilities are many. It’s time that they are taken seriously — before the mountains decide to give us another message.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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