The tragedy that continues to unfold is a potent reminder that 'development' is not an either/or paradigm, pitting industrialisation against the environment. Pretending it is so will devastate India’s fragile ecosystems and with it, our peoples who depend on them for protection from nature’s fury.

Scientists may be reluctant to link specific weather-related incidents, such as the intense rainfall and cloudburst in Uttarakhand recently, to climate change. But what is certain by now is that human activities – deforestation, the use of explosives for construction, including of tunnels, dams and roads, and dumping of muck and debris on river courses – have exacerbated the magnitude of lives lost and property damaged, and converted a natural event into a national disaster.

Such development manifests itself as more power plants, desalination plants, roads, dams, rockets, bombs, faster cars, glitzy malls, buildings where buildings were never ever meant to be, empty seas, poisoned rivers and deforestation. Development's collateral damage, the argument goes, must be acceptable to us. Otherwise, we would not have development.

Not seeing the lessons from the Uttarakhand tragedy for the rest of the country would be a Himalayan blunder. From previous natural disasters, the one thing we know for certain is that nature is unpredictable and often uncontrollable. But one wonders if the writing on the wall is in invisible ink. Rather than scaling down climate changing activities, India is on a carbon binge.

Near Krishnapatnam port in the Nellore district of coastal Andhra Pradesh, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has cleared eight coal thermal plants totalling a capacity of 14,300 megawatts (MW). Another 19 projects totalling 12,815 MW were in the pipeline in 2011 when the Hyderabad-based NGO Cerana Foundation reported on the subject. According to Cerana, the eight projects alone will emit 68 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, requiring 27,000 square kilometres of forests to sequester them, i.e., to “capture” and thus remove them from the atmosphere. No sequestration would be done, though, as the land costs alone would then amount to 15 percent of project costs, thereby making the projects unviable.

In Tamil Nadu, the Environment Ministry has cleared large coal-fired thermal plants with an installed capacity of 27,440 MW in five coastal districts, according to doctoral scholar K.V. Preetha of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. When operational, they will burn 102 million tonnes of coal each year, emitting 130 million tonnes of CO2. Together, they will suck about 6 billion litres of seawater each day and discharge a major fraction of the same as hot and polluted water back into the sea. Most of these plants will also construct their own captive ports and jetties. Breakwaters constructed for such jetties will interfere with the transport of sediments along the east coast, causing shoreline erosion to the north of the structures, and accretion to the south.

If the tragedy in Uttarakhand has taught us not to build in areas defined as “vulnerable to natural forces,” our current view of “development” eggs us on to explore these new spaces. If Uttarakhand has advised caution when building on such dangerous zones, our breed of chest-thumping, macho engineers tell us that subduing nature is a matter of trial and error and ever-improving engineering.

Institutions and committees, such as the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEF, that are supposed to temper such technological adventurism, are populated by rubber-stamp scientists. Following the Uttarakhand disaster, 50 organisations and individuals, including former bureaucrats E.A.S. Sarma and Ramaswamy Iyer, wrote to the MoEF urging it to remove all existing members of the EAC dealing with river valley projects.

“One of the direct consequences of what the EAC has done can seen in the hugely increased proportions of disaster that Uttarakhand is now facing,” the letter notes.

Like the dams in the hills, the spate of thermal plants and captive coal jetties being cleared along the South Indian coast are dangerously altering land-use, shorelines and drainage patterns. These will leave local communities vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Take the examples of the Cheyyur 4000 MW Ultra Mega Power Plant in Kanchipuram district, and the 3600 MW IL&FS plant in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. The Cheyyur plant is located amidst hundreds of 600-year old irrigation tanks that trap rainwater, recharge groundwater and mitigate flooding. The biodiverse Odiyur lagoon, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-recognized “Important Bird Area” of Kaliveli tank, the mangrove-studded Yedayanthittu estuary, and the tropical dry evergreen forests of Kurumpuram Reserve Forests all fall within the scope of influence of the power plant. The captive jetty is to come atop a sprawling sand dune in the Panaiyur Periakuppam village. While the water bodies are known shock absorbers against flooding, sand dunes are a proven buffer against cyclonic storms and salinity intrusion.

Flattening the dune would only accelerate salinity intrustion, and construction of the port would drastically alter a shoreline that is already classified as prone to erosion by a MoEF study titled “National Assessment of Shoreline Change.” Experts at the Ministry, though, have cleared the project without verifying claims by the company that there are no sensitive ecosystems nearby, no sand dunes and a “negligible” number of migratory birds. Needless to say, it is the local fisherfolk who will face the consequences.

The 3600 MW IL&FS plant in Cuddalore district will have its captive port barely two kilometers from the Vellar estuary. The shoreline changes triggered by this port will erode the beaches of Pudukuppam to the north, and block the Vellar river mouth for several months in the year, if not perennially. When that happens, the Pichavaram mangroves which depend on the flushing facilitated by this estuary will be doomed.

In a climate uncertain future, vulnerable coastal communities should be made more resilient to changes like rising sea levels and more intense and frequent storms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that mean sea levels could rise by up to 44 cm by 2070. That will inundate low-lying areas, and bring the sea closer to existing coastal habitations. India's climate action plan notes an increasing trend in severe storm incidence along the Indian coast.

Land-use changes, such as those proposed at these two power plants, will alter drainage patterns and change shorelines, leaving local villagers more vulnerable to extreme weather events.

From Koodankulam to Pudukuppam to Cheyyur to the mountains of Himalayas, local communities are told they would have to be the proverbial eggs that need to be cracked for the sake of the greater common omelette. As the Uttarakhand disaster has once again highlighted, more and more of the cracked eggs are ending up not on our plates but on our faces.

Nithyanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer, researcher and social activist.

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