The devastating Uttarakhand floods have one again proved that taming natural forces through human interventions is all but a myth

A great tragedy has befallen thousands of Char Dham yatris and many others in Uttarakhand, the full enormity of which is still to unfold despite some disturbing vivid footage beaming out of the television screens. But the blame game has begun. And since the easiest and most convenient to blame is ‘nature’, so most have gotten busy lamenting the nature’s fury without even trying to grapple with the root cause, where hopefully measures to prevent such recurrences could be found.

Let me try and explain such extreme natural events.

High and low ambient temperatures in summers and winter months result in heat (loo) and cold waves respectively. High to very high rainfall in catchments result in floods in rivers during monsoon time. All very natural and periodic, and yet why is our response to these natural events so very different?

We deal with the heat wave in summer time and cold wave in winters to our best abilities and within means available to us without much murmur. This is because we have taken for granted these two to be natural annual phenomenon that we must learn to live with their concomitant but temporary inconveniences.

But come floods in rivers and we seem to forget the fundamental truth of dealing with such climatic situations and temporary inconveniences. This is because a ‘mistaken’ human technological endeavour in form of structures on the rivers has mainstreamed the thought that since rivers can be tamed (sic), thus dealing with floods need no longer be even a short term inconvenience. With such thoughts in ascendance, the time tested and socially respected land use principles and classifications of khadar (flood plain) and bangar (very high flood zones) were thrown out of the window. Construction of dams, barrages and embankments on and along the rivers became the norm. But if we had thus really fixed the flood challenge, then why has the flood prone area in the country seen, over the decades since Independence, a massive increase from five per cent to 12 per cent, rather than a net decrease? Why do tragedies like Uttarakhand in 2013 (Ganga and Yamuna) and Bihar in 2008 (Kosi) still visit us?

The fact is that the dams, barrages and embankments on one hand, magnify the enormity of high floods when they come and on the other, instil a false sense of security in minds of those who come to occupy the erstwhile khadar lands that all is well. The truth is the opposite. Only normal and periodic climatic events have been converted into man-made disasters, with man coming to colonise khadar lands in plains and fragile river valleys and slopes in the hills, with impunity. ‘Nature’ is then often during high floods conveniently blamed for a calamitous situation which is essentially man-induced with subsequent flood relief becoming a money spinner for the clever.

In our vanity, we have also lost track of the irreplaceable benefits resulting from floods in the rivers. But for these very floods, wherefrom would have come the rich soils which form the backbone of the food security of our country? Or the periodic recharge of our aquifers and well being of our wells and ponds? Wherefrom the flushing away of all the muck that we have no qualms in putting into our rivers? Wherefrom would have come our rich deltas, coastline fisheries and mangrove forests and the biodiversity thriving in them?

So where do we go from here?

First of all we must accept that floods in rivers are natural climatic events resulting from high rains and these shall come and go with little or no harm if we treat them as mere natural and inevitable events and let them and our rivers be, just like we have come to accept and deal from time to time with heat and cold waves.

Then the time tested traditional concept and practices relating to Khadar and Bangar lands must be legislatively established. Policies and laws must ensure identification and delimitation of 100-year, 50-year and 10-year flood plains, as well as fragile river valleys in hills, with strict regulations in place on prohibited and permitted land use/s in these flood and fragile zones.

A move was initiated way back in 2002 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to formulate such a regulatory framework called RRZ (River Zone Regulation) but which, for reasons best known to the powers that be, remain under wraps, must be unveiled in an urgent manner in the interest of both of the people and the river. It is a sad commentary that what the lawmakers and the executives should have done long back, is now left to the National Green Tribunal to rein in the brazen abuse by the land sharks of the Yamuna flood plains in the National Capital Region and beyond.

On hindsight, we believe that at least some of the recent tragedies in Uttarakhand resulting from improper use of fragile hill slopes on the banks of Ganga and Yamuna, would have been prevented if the RRZ had been in place to prohibit and regulate such self-defeating misuse of river banks.

(The writer is the Convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)