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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 31, July 20, 2013

Uttarakhand Disaster: Development at What Cost?

Sunday 21 July 2013, by Sunita Vakil

The devastating fury unleashed in the form of heavy rains, cloudburst, landslides and flash floods in Uttarakhand have taken a heavy toll on human lives and property. Thousands have been devastated and many structures have been swept away. Though the official figure of people who died in the tragedy has been put around 3000, the actual number may be much higher. The unprecedented tragedy has forced us to re-examine how the fragile ecology of the Himalayas has been exploited in the name of development. It is easy to pass the buck to nature but it is obvious that greed, corruption and the politician-bureaucrat-builder nexus have contributed to the tragedy in a big way. The ghastly calamity was brought about because we have abused nature by indiscriminately felling trees, launching large scale construction activities—all in the name of development. But we forget that this development comes at a horrendous cost, as the devastation in Uttara-khand has shown.

The catastrophe shows how unplanned development creates unprecedented havoc. The insatiable greed for monetary gains, pressure on land due to increasing population, unplanned and haphazard constructions near the river banks and hills, widespread deforestation have disturbed patterns of weather. Besides, blasting hills to accommodate hydel projects, unscientific methods of building roads and illegal construc-tion contributed to the enormity of the tragedy. All ecological and sustainable parameters have been breached incessantly over time. Despite knowing that the State faces natural dangers, the so-called infrastructural development was allowed to continue in full steam to the detriment of the ecologically fragile area. The disaster was compounded by hotels, shops and housing colonies raised near the river banks. Add to that the annual tourist figure of a whopping three crore. No registration of the tourists was done. Even the flow of pilgrims to these places was not regulated. The disaster management also failed to come up with pre-emptive measures to tackle such situations. Despite the fact that the weather is unpredictable in such areas and roads become the first victim of the inclement weather, no alternative modes like ropeways were provided here. Indiscriminate environ-mental destruction in the name of development has only compounded the problem and is the biggest challenge that the State faces today. Indeed, Uttarakhand has come a long way from the Chipko movement of the seventies when women hugged trees to protect them from being felled to the present time when this highly vulnerable region has become a sitting duck for developmental exploitation.

It goes without saying that climate change and the way the country is dealing with natural resources and ecology are increasing disasters. Experts say that the unbridled approach to exploitation of mountain resources has contri-buted to the Uttarakhand disaster. “There is a connection between deforestation, constructions and the property of the soil to retain water. Dams and other constructions reduce the absorbing capacity of the soil,” says Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. In August 2012, Uttarkashi saw a similar tragedy that left 29 dead and many more missing. The Uttarakhand State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre’s report of this disaster said that it was highly important to strictly regulate development initiatives in close vicinity of streams and rivers. Similarly, in September 2012, Okhimath in Rudraprayag saw monsoon related landslides which killed 69 people. The State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre’s report of this tragedy recommended reduction of the risk of landslides and even banned the use of explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructural development. In fact Rudraprayag has faced monsoon related major disasters seven times in the last 34 years, each resulting in heavy death and destruction; yet, despite warnings by all agencies concerned, nothing has been done. If the proposals of various agencies had been implemented, pilgrimage would not have become a nightmare for thousands who fell victim to landslides and floods.

Amid all this, political parties and their leaders, instead of sincerely joining relief and rescue efforts, have been busy making political capital of the devastating tragedy. As is well known, politicians are quick to try and draw political mileage from tragedies. True to their nature, they are busy taking potshots at each other, even in such a crisis. Shinde observed that the work of the rescue teams gets disturbed if VIPs visit. The aerial surveys conducted by them also seem a sheer waste of time and public money. It is cheap gimmickry when the CM of a State makes inflated claims about rescuing his “own people” and when senior party leaders flag-off trucks carrying relief and aid. It is clear that with 2014 drawing closer, ministerial aspirants are now trying to cash in on the Uttarakhand tragedy to reap rich dividends. In stark contrast, when Japan was struck by a massive earthquake and nuclear catastrophe two years ago, its leaders apologised to the victims and promised to initiate some changes. Back home, our leaders do nothing other than promising relief packages and ex-gratia payments.

Political leaders should learn a lesson or two from our armed forces and voluntary organisations providing yeoman service to the victims of the tragedy. The entire nation should feel proud of our armed forces and their sacrifices. Paraphrasing what Union Minister P. Chidambaram said on the rescue efforts in Uttarakhand, one can assert that soldiers, not politicians, are the real heroes in the present conditions in the State.

The Himalayan tsunami has exposed the bankruptcy of our development and disaster management policies. It is time to commit ourselves to a sustainable eco-friendly and integrated developmental model. We have to draw proper lessons from this tragedy so that such calamities don’t wreak havoc on thousands of innocent lives once again.

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