Excessive rainfall provides only a partial explanation for why the ‘abode of the Gods’ — the Himalayan hill States of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh — has been battered beyond measure in recent days. For man’s excesses and follies have also been a factor in the destruction that nature has wrought. Whole villages, stretches of roads and communication links have been effaced. Thousands, including those from other parts of the country who were undertaking pilgrimages to religiously significant temples in the region, remain stranded. It is evident that the problem of poor soil stability on the steep slopes in this fragile region has been compounded by man-made factors like indiscriminate deforestation and mindless construction. Hundreds of buildings along the banks of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi have been swept away in Rudraprayag district alone. Downstream, the Ganga, Yamuna and other rivers have reached levels not seen in years, posing difficulties even in Delhi. This tragedy truly has the makings of a national calamity.
A mighty task of evacuation, relief and reconstruction lies ahead. The longer term lessons are many. Towns and villages in such terrain ought to be better planned. There should be a comprehensive renewal and relook at construction techniques and methods employed. Better systems of forecasting and dissemination of weather-related information are also essential. Over the past weekend, the India Meteorological Department did issue routine warnings about the possibility of heavy to very heavy rains, but these were not sufficiently stern, considering the uncharacteristically high precipitation levels that were recorded since. It is also unclear if the warnings were acted upon with alacrity and disseminated promptly by the State authorities. Crucially, a 2011 notification to declare as eco-sensitive a zone extending to a distance of 130 km from Gomukh where the Alaknanda begins, up to Uttarkashi, remains unenforced to this day. The Uttarakhand government’s misgivings on this move, based on the argument that it would impede development, need to be re-examined in an informed manner. Strategies to ensure better overall management of water resources in the region are needed. However, observations by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2010 expressing concern over disturbance to the natural ecology and destabilisation of hill slopes caused by the construction of hydel projects along the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, and over the failure of the administration to plant enough trees to mitigate risks arising out of soil degradation, have a fresh resonance at this point.
The reference to Gomukh being the starting point of River Alaknanda was inaccurate. The Alaknanda, one of the headstreams of the Ganga, is by tradition thought to rise at the meeting point of the Satopanth glacier and the Bhagirath Kharak glacier.