Could the Uttarakhand tragedy have been avoided, or at least minimised?

There is no simple answer.

Environmentalists describe the death and damage as a man-made disaster while geologists say the extent of destruction could have been far lesser if stricter regulations had been put in place and the authorities equipped to deal with the situation.

Importantly, the events focus attention on the debate on the December 18, 2012 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which declares the entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarakashi, along the Bhagirathi river, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. This, in practice, bans all construction activity in the area. The State government has been opposing it stoutly, arguing that such an order will adversely affect development and the economic progress of the region.

The notification, if implemented, would result in the closure of hydropower projects of 1,743-MW capacity along the Bhagirathi and a ban on mining and construction, especially of hotels and resorts, and land use conversion. Power projects and mining and construction activities are the main causes of preventable environmental degradation. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed a resolution against it, and Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month to urge him to cancel the notification.

The former Deputy Director-General of the Geological Survey of India, V.K. Raina, told The Hindu that natural calamities such as cloudbursts and flash floods could not be prevented, but deaths and damage could be contained if there were laws to regulate construction along the rivers, and authorities were equipped to deal with the situation. “Construction in Uttarakhand is not planned. The owners have taken a calculated risk and paid for it.”

Had India Meteorological Department alerted the State government, authorities should have been prepared to deal with the threat, or they would have stopped more people from going to these places. “There seems to be no accountability and no coordination,” he said. “Such things will keep happening in future, and people living in ecologically sensitive areas also have needs which have to be fulfilled…, but there needs to be enough restrictions on the activities, including the movement of pilgrims and tourists.”

Suggesting that the States along the Himalayan ranges reconsider their development models, Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, said that while there could not be a blanket ban on development activities in these fragile zones, given the needs of the people, “we need to look at ways of development without destroying natural resources.”

Terming the Uttarakhand tragedy a “man-made disaster,” Ms. Narain said development in the ecologically sensitive areas had to be different from the plains. “We cannot have roads on the Himalayas like the ones on the Alps. The Himalayas are young mountains,” she said. Technology was available for this, and one need not depend on the Border Roads Organisation as it outsourced construction works.

Calling for conservation of ecological heritage, Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch Alliance said no agency should be allowed to build permanent structures in ecologically fragile zones. “Development fundamentalism, combined with religious tourism, is eroding ecological heritage.” “In the aftermath of these disasters, if lessons are indeed learnt, all ongoing development projects must be reviewed, and their carrying-capacity and cumulative impact on the Himalayan ecosystem should be assessed and the ecological integrity of the Himalayan watershed made non-negotiable.”

Studies conducted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and the University of Delhi on the impact of the dams planned in the Himalayan region predicted that “about 1,700 square kilometres of forests would be submerged or damaged by dams and related activities.” “Stage-managed and faulty environmental clearances in India and China contributed to the colossal crisis that is staring us in the face,” Mr. Krishna said.

Corrections

The artcle has been edited to reflect the following corrections:

The reference to the India Metrological Department was wrong. It should have been Meteorological Department.

The penultimate paragraph referred to an organisation called Toxiclinks Alliance. Actually, it is ToxicsWatch Alliance.