THE SUNDAY STORY When floods and mudslides swept through Uttarakhand, they removed in one fell swoop the effects of many years of neglect and corruption. It will take political will to leave the hills undisturbed, and avoid a repeat of the death and destruction

Uttarakhand has come a long way from the Chipko movement of the ‘70s, when women hugged trees to protect them from being felled, to the present times when market-driven development is threatening to rip apart the valley. The region sustains a large part of the country through the perennial rivers that originate in the Himalayan glaciers.

The hill State, source of the Ganga, is also the site of the Char Dham pilgrimage which attracts Hindu believers who undertake it at least once in a life time. This year, the pilgrimage became a nightmare for thousands who fell victim to landslips and floods with the Alaknanda, the Mandakini and the Ganga unleashing unprecedented devastation.

Nature’s fury reinforced the fact that preserving the ecosystem and the harmonious balance with human beings cannot be compromised. Moreover, the fragility of the Himalayas is due to its steep slopes, which should be a major consideration while planning for development, with the participation of locals. A watershed approach to soil and water conservation that drains out rainwater into the river is a must.

Traditionally, agriculture, forestry, horticulture and animal husbandry have been the mainstay of sustainable income-generating activity in hilly regions, with women at the centre.

In recent years, though, commerce and the quest for short-term gains have prompted successive governments in Uttarakhand to allow new hotel clusters, resorts and commercial complexes to come up on river boundaries.

Hydel projects have been constructed in the seismic zone, and many more are planned. Roads have been built haphazardly by blasting through the vulnerable Himalayas, destabilising them and loosening up boulders, soil and plantations.

Despite protests by local residents, builders and contractors have been allowed to dump vast mounds of debris into the rivers that killed pilgrims as gushing floodwaters brought up the detritus and boulders.

Afforestation, which should be an integral part of any development activity, has been given the go-by, whereas the fragile Himalayan ecosystem cannot be endlessly exploited.

The Chairperson of Gandhi Peace Foundation and Sarva Sewa Sangh, Radhaben Bhatt, who, having being born and raised in the valley, describes herself as “Uttarakhand ki beti.” She is clear that corruption is at the root of haphazard growth of construction activity. “For whom is this unplanned development and at whose cost,” she asks, speaking to The Hindu.

When the Kedarnath landslips and floods occurred, Radhaben was touring the State to protest against the government’s decision to allow a Coca Cola bottling plant to come up on Gauchar land in Charba village. “For years, villagers had done afforestation on this land with the State refusing to help in any way, and now it is selling this land to the Coke company for Rs. 19 lakh per acre. It will cut down all the trees on village land and allow the company to extract six lakh litres of water a day. This is the kind of politician-private company nexus that is destroying the valley,” she asserts.

After the completion of the 1000-MW Tehri dam across the Bhagirathi, 18 more projects are planned across the Alaknanda, Mandakini, Pinder and Ganga.

However, last December, following protracted protests by activists, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests declared the 100 km of Bhagirathi watershed an eco-sensitive zone and banned all construction activity, including large dams, stone-quarrying, polluting industries, commercial felling of trees, saw mills and so on.

Questions are being asked about why warnings were not issued about the impending danger on the fateful night of June 16 when it all began. The Central Water Commission (CWC), tasked with issuing flood warnings, says it does not have a Flood Forecasting Station in the command area of the Alaknanda and Kedarnath.

In fact, experts say the onset of monsoon — early by two weeks — itself should have alerted the State government as the Kedarnath and Badrinath pilgrimages were at their peak then. The two days of incessant rain on June 15 and 16 should have swung authorities into action, but that did not happen.

The claim by CWC officials and Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna that the Tehri dam prevented Rishikesh, Hardwar and parts of western Uttar Pradesh from being washed away were a ruse to keep alive the proposal for large dams in the eco-sensitive zone.

Himanshu Thakker, of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says the claim is nothing but “hype.” “Data show that if the Tehri dam were not there, the water level downstream might have risen earlier on June 17 than the levels eventually reached on June 18; but the levels would have been lower than the peak levels reached on June 18 at Rishikesh and Haridwar.”

Experts point out that construction activity in the hill State should not be confused with development, which must be people-oriented.

In the hills, it must be rural and cottage industries, agro-forestry, hill agriculture, animal husbandry and technology to reduce drudgery for women, besides enhancing literacy and providing for sanitation, drinking water and domestic fuel. Tourism may be allowed, but should be regulated.

In the ‘land of the gods,’ it makes sense to plan robust shelters en route to the pilgrim spots and build pathways that makes climbs easier, especially for the aged. Small hydel projects that produce electricity and help local entrepreneurship should replace the idea of large dams.

This requires political will of the kind that Indira Gandhi showed when she reversed an order to construct a hydroelectric project in the Silent Valley forest in 1983.