Uttarakhand is still in dire need of a development plan that is also sensitive to the fragile ecosystem that was crippled by the floods and landslides of 2013

Santosh Naudiyal stood on the verandah of a building in Rudraprayag last December while he narrated his story. On October 1, 1994, the night of the Rampur Tiraha massacre, Santosh and his friends boarded a bus to New Delhi to participate in a dharna to demand for a separate State of Uttarakhand. “We fought for it and today we have it,” he told me, pointing towards the Rudraprayag collectorate that stood shakily on sinking ground.

The June 16-17 deluge last year — one of the worst calamities the State has witnessed — resulted in flash floods and landslides. The situation was exacerbated by a defunct disaster management system, the result of the apathy of consecutive governments that have ruled the State.

This was not the Uttarakhand that Santosh and his friends had desired.

The floods and after

The deluge left Uttarakhand in shambles. Flash floods pummelled the Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Gori Ganga, Pindar, and Kali rivers. According to official data, 4,190 people died in the disaster, more than 2,500 buildings were completely destroyed, and 2,070 roads and 145 bridges were damaged. However, numbers alone do not reveal the extent of loss.

In the weeks that followed, more than a lakh pilgrims and locals were evacuated from the disaster-hit areas: the Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri shrines, the Sikh pilgrimage site, Hemkund Sahib, and parts of Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts. Only after rescue operations were over did the government shift focus to the locals.

It has been a year since the tragedy crippled the State; yet, sadly, locals continue to remain the government’s second priority. Rehabilitation of villagers is still incomplete. Locals continue to make trips to their tehsildars, patwaris, sub-divisional magistrates, and district magistrates for pending compensation issues, to appeal for the construction of safety walls and for the rebuilding of roads and bridges.

Last year, yatras to the four shrines and to Hemkund Sahib resumed. But with two months of inaction following the catastrophe, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna’s exit was on the cards. Only after Harish Rawat replaced Mr. Bahuguna as the State’s new Chief Minister on Februrary 1 did the post-disaster reconstruction work gain momentum. However, the pace again slackened when elections assumed priority.

In a year, the blocked roads have been opened, some have been black-topped, some reconstructed. Broken bridges have been replaced with makeshift ones. Roads have been reconstructed, but by boring deeper into the mountains, already subject to constant erosion by the river flowing beside them. At some places, protection walls have been built; at others, debris from landslides has been left as it is, blocking the roads this monsoon season too. A biometric registration system has been introduced this year to keep track of the pilgrims, and the State Disaster Response Force has been deployed on the yatra routes. However, the meteorological equipment has not been upgraded since last year. Talks of establishing an early warning system began only recently.

An area prone to disasters

The June calamity apart, Uttarakhand has witnessed a number of disasters in the past — from earthquakes and landslides to flash floods. Yet, little seems to have been done by the State governments, past and present, in the area of disaster prevention, mitigation and management.

According to the State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre’s (DMMC) records, in 1999, a major earthquake in Chamoli caused the deaths of 101 people. Another earthquake hit Uttarkashi in 1991 killing 768 people. Both earthquakes measured more than six on the Richter scale. “The State has not witnessed a major earthquake for more than 200 years,” the DMMC’s 2012 report stated. “This enhances seismic risk in the region.”

The Earthquake Risk Map of India places 13 districts in Uttarakhand under seismic zone IV (severe intensity zone) and V (very severe intensity zone). Despite this, several dams and roads have been constructed along fault lines, K.S. Valdiya, an eminent geologist and honorary Professor of Geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, said in a discourse after the deluge.

According to the authorities, nothing more than regular training and awareness programmes are being conducted on disaster management in case of an earthquake.

The DMMC report also states that other than earthquakes, the State is vulnerable to hailstorms, cloudbursts, flash floods, forest fires, and avalanches. In 2012, a landslide in Ukhimath and flash floods in the Assi Ganga and the Bhagirathi rivers killed about a 100 people and caused extensive damage to livestock and property. A 2010 Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report states that the 2010 monsoons affected 29.24 lakh people; 214 people lost their lives in the season. The report further states that between 2005 and 2009, 474 people across Uttarakhand lost their lives to various disasters.

What is perhaps lacking in Uttarakhand is an effective disaster management system. A combined effort needs to take place between the State Disaster Management department, the State Disaster Management Authority, the meteorological department, and other departments. If every agency continues to work towards disaster management in isolation, the death toll will only increase.

Redefining development

Bumper-to-bumper construction of hydroelectric power projects, buildings and roads, with little knowledge of the effects of such constructions in the region, continue at a reckless pace in the State’s current development framework.

Last year on August 13, the Supreme Court issued an order in which it directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to constitute an expert body to “assess whether the existing and ongoing/under-construction hydroelectric power projects have contributed to the environmental degradation and, if so, to what extent.” It also directed the MoEF and the State government to “not grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in the State of Uttarakhand, until further orders.”

The expert body, in its Chopra Committee Report, elucidated the adverse role played by the projects in worsening the disaster.

A Himalayan policy drafted by Shekhar Pathak, a historian from Uttarakhand, and Hemant Dhyani of Ganga Ahvaan, a movement for the conservation of the Ganga and the Himalayas, states that after witnessing calamities in the Uttarakhand region for almost four decades, it was clear that “all these calamities failed in fully sensitising the system, administrators, and policy makers.”

The draft of the policy, which is a part of the Chopra Committee Report submitted to the Supreme Court, suggests establishing micro hydel projects, solar projects, stopping illegal mining, strengthening Van Panchayats, and demarcating cultural eco-sensitive zones for the conservation of biodiversity, among other recommendations.

The State’s tourism sector has suffered a loss of about Rs. 12,000 crore following the calamity. A population of around 7 lakh, which was dependent on the earnings from religious tourism, has been affected. Lack of livelihood opportunities and safety concerns are resulting in migration from the affected areas. The State is in dire need of a fast-paced development plan that is also sensitive to the fragile ecosystem.

The missing momentum in development efforts coupled with a change in leadership and redevelopment plans implies that political will is necessary for the State to develop while addressing environmental concerns.

kavita.upadhyay@thehindu.co.in

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