In June 2013, unprecedented flash floods and landslips wreaked havoc in Uttarakhand. That it was a man-made calamity was clear: unplanned development and misuse of the lower Himalayan region’s natural resources were at its root. The chief question to be answered is this: to what extent did human over-activity contribute to it? Specifically, what has been the impact of unhindered religious traffic, even tourism? The boom in such traffic had put a severe strain on infrastructure. Scores of hotels, guesthouses and religious centres sprang up, some of them on the flood plains of the Mandakini and the Alakananda rivers, which join to form the Ganga. Several of them were washed away. The valley where the Ganga, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda flow should be declared an eco-sensitive zone. This has to be done in a manner that factors in the religious sentiments of millions of people keen to undertake what they would consider a sacred journey. The livelihood concerns of people who depend on tourism need to be taken into account, too. Dams, barrages and tunnels had impacted the course of rivers. Scores of them are in place in Uttarakhand alone. Some of them come with dams, but a majority are run-of-the-river projects requiring tunnelling through mountains. Debris from some of the displaced structures caused havoc downstream. However, it is equally true that the devastation would have been even more widespread had the Tehri reservoir failed to contain a significant volume of the deluge. So, the critical issue may not be dams per se, but overall hydel management. Another lesson that remains to be learnt relates to the role of deforestation in making the region vulnerable to landslips and erosion. The absence of vegetation in the higher reaches aids landslips.
The task of reconstruction is nowhere near completion. Post-disaster, the State government set up a Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority to look into planning and development of the region. But in a holistic sense, precious little has been done to address the larger issues. A full-fledged Ministry as part of the Union government needs to be created to chart out and implement — in tandem with the State government — an action plan to set priorities for the region and preserve its ecology, while striking the right balance between its development needs and the vulnerability factors. A suitable mechanism, bringing together scientific expertise, dispassionate efficiency and administrative acumen, should be put in place to ensure proper and transparent utilisation under diligent oversight of the aid package that was made available. Uttarakhand and the rest of the region needs to pick up the pieces and move forward — and be certain that its future will be secured against any more disasters to come.