"Do you think the cloudburst at Kedarnath happened because of wrong or commercial construction on the river beds of Haridwar? Kedarnath doesn’t even fall in the eco-sensitive zone and the dhabas on the walk path couldn’t have triggered calamity of this magnitude." declares Vijay Bahuguna when asked by Times of India if Uttarakhand is a "man-made disaster.
A "calamity of this magnitude" may make a lesser leader second-guess his decisions or rethink his future policies, but not Mr Bahuguna. He has no plans to reassess a single tourism or hydro project just because some "activists" are making a fuss.
Bahuguna's searing contempt for all things environmental is hardly remarkable in a nation of development fundamentalists obsessed with growth rates. In political discourse, the E-word is synonymous with bleeding heart activists. It's the bogeyman raised by NGO jholawala types who rant about consumerism, tribals, nuclear plants et al; or worse, hypocritical Westerners who want to keep us in mud huts while they power up their washing machines. This knee-jerk disdain may be ideologically satisfying but is, in the long run — as the Uttarakhand tragedy reveals — wholly self-destructive.
"There are of course links between climate change and extreme weather events as has happened with the torrential rain in Uttarakhand. But this has been exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many of the settlements have been built right next to the rivers in blatant violation of environmental laws," says director general of Centre for Science and Environment, Sunita Narain.
It's fashionable in free market circles to pooh-pooh environmental laws as wrong-headed obstacles to development, but doing an end run around them has turned out to be a recipe for disaster. The state and centre governments indiscriminately green lighted hydro-projects without proper environmental clearance, despite a CAG audit that warned of flash floods, uncontrolled construction and deforestation.
Even though the CAG warning has come tragically true, Bahuguna is still beating the development drum. He continues to oppose a December, 2012, Ministry of Environment notification banning all construction activity and ordering the shutdown of all hydro-projects along the Bhagirathi river. His reasoning:
If you take a decision, then stick to it and not scrap it because some activists raised uproar... We got nod for 53 run of the river hydro projects and we have started the process for 36 of them. We will roll them out for bidding by December after getting all clearances. By 2016, Uttrakhand will be a power-surplus state.
A power-surplus state with a high fatality rate in flash floods, mudslides and avalanches — but, hey, that's the price of development.
The Chief Minister isn't interested in any talk about unsustainable tourism either. "Without tourism, development will take a hit. It will lead to poverty, unrest and migration and raise a major security issue," he insists. But what about thousands of dead, stranded and starving tourists? Do they not represent a blow to development?
Bahuguna is determined to ignore the other hard lesson of the Uttarakhand tragedy: the Himalayas are not a resort where we can romp at will and in ever greater numbers. "The mountains have a certain carrying capacity. A place where there should be 10,000 to 15, 000 settlements is now flooded with lakhs of pilgrims," environmental expert Maharaja K Pandit tells India Today. Tourists in turn fuel the unplanned construction of hotels, shops and shanty towns which inevitably prove hazardous to human life.
In our national debate, every policy issue becomes a political football, expediently defined to fit ideological calculations. As with Uttarakhand, scoring political points becomes more important than dealing with a national crisis. The truth is that there is little disagreement between the national parties on the matter of the environment, destroying it, that is. Unplanned growth and its unhappy side-effects reflect 20 years of uninterrupted bipartisan consensus which embraces short-term gain over long-term sustainability. It's why we now live with swarms of dengue-carrying mosquitoes, mountains of unprocessed waste, polluted ground water, deforestation, decimated coastlines — the list goes on, and we add to it each day.
And yet we nod our head like sheep each time the free market pundits warn us against environmental extremists.
It's easy enough to roll one's eyes when eco-activists like Narain say “we need to look at ways of development without destroying natural resources.” It sounds absurdly utopian and impractical in the face of our languishing growth rate — and when China is blithely mowing down entire villages to create insta-cities. But what comfort will our disdain bring when our rivers run dry, air turns to smoke, and the mountains come tumbling down?