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Uttarakhand tragedy: Why development couldn't save lives

Nearly all the visitors who survived the catastrophe in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region have been rescued. All that is left now is a ravaged valley and its hapless residents who will have to cope with the consequence of this calamity for years to come.

While offering to rebuild Kedarnath and much of Garhwal’s infrastructure that has been washed away, chief minister Vijay Bahuguna flatly refused to acknowledge thatthe disaster as manmade. Since he is not alone in his obsession for growth and contemptfor the environmental bogey, it may be useful to examine a few myths that were reinforced in the past two weeks.

Dismissing the manmade angle to the disaster, the CM said it was childish to suggest that riverbed encroachment or illegal construction triggered the cloudburst that rained down on Kedarnath. He could have been more polite but certainly not more right.

Of course, construction – unless one builds a castle in the cloud – cannot trigger cloudbursts or heavy rainfall. Though I have not come across any such claim made by any activist or environmentalist in the media, it is possible someone had indeed lobbed that full-toss to the CM for a free-hit. Otherwise, Bahuguna was being either too clever or plain naive.

Rescue operations in Uttarakhand. AFP.

Rescue operations in Uttarakhand. AFP.

Natural calamities are called natural, or acts of god, for a reason: they are beyond human control. Now there is apparently enough evidence to suggest that global warming is changing the monsoon pattern and making it increasingly erratic. Unfortunately, that bit of science is still soaked too much in faith for and against and anyway Bahuguna’s Uttarakhand alone could not have reversed any global climate trend.

When a cloudburst and a cloudburst-induced glacial melt or landslide happens, a lot of water flows downhill. Till this part, the disaster is natural or an act of god. It is also natural that gushing water destroys properties and lives in its path. But way too many properties and lives came in the way of the Mandakini and Alakananda on 16 and 17 June because we placed ourselves where we were never supposed to. That part, the part that made a natural calamity an enormous human tragedy, is entirely and unquestionably manmade.

So when Bahuguna said it was not a manmade tragedy, he was probably objecting to calling it a tragedy. Maybe, the CM, too, like many in politics, media and other allied industries, believes that such loss of lives and property is in fact part of legitimate (read manmade) risk-benefit trade-offs.

There are several false and self-contradictory assumptions in this risk-benefit argument. For example, it claims all infrastructure development is fine if it takes necessary safety precautions. Now, any precaution involves certain restrictions on the size or even the scope of a project. Can development be restricted and yet unlimited? Can it be indiscriminate and yet policed?

Let’s look at the dams since these are the biggest bone of contention. The argument goes that no dam was ever breached in India in spite of the sustained scare-mongering of the environmentalists. But can the safety records from our plains or the old-rock Deccan plateau be any benchmark for the Himalayas which is the world’s youngest and most unstable mountain range?

It is convenient to forget the recent warnings from Sikkim (here and here). But suppose all our dams are quake resistant, what purpose will they serve if therivers they are built on change course due to seismic activity? Or if landslides drop huge masses of debris in reservoirs causing overtopping, like it happened in Italy in 1963and two weeks ago at Kedarnath?

Besides, susceptibility to breaches is not the only issue with dams. They change the very hydrology of a river by blocking water and silt, affecting the riverine ecosystem and livelihood of thousands downstream. If all goes to plan, the Ganga will almost entirely flow through tunnels for a distance of 130 km -- from 14-km downstream its origin at Gangotri to Dharasu near Uttarkashi.

Does our risk-benefit calculation factor in the damage to the tunnelled river’s hydrology or the biodiversity it supports? Does it account for the instability such extensive tunnelling will cause inthe mountains, or the impact of blasting and widening thousands of kilometres of roads through the hills to carry heavy machinery and material for these monstrous constructions?

We are told that the Tehri dam saved the plains by holding the Bhagirathi discharge. Indeed, the damage to the crowded floodplains downstream would be higher if the water released in cloudbursts flowed unrestricted. But only because we forgot that floodplains are supposed to get flooded and should not be used as real estate. Or did we deliberately put ourselves at risk?

But even Tehri will not be lucky every time. Ask the Srinagar residents who built on the Alakananda floodplain and had to abandon their houses on 17 June when dam waters were released without any warning. Even the massive Tehri dam can hold only a finite quantity of water and silt is steadily filling up its reservoir. During some monsoon in the future, it will be forced to release water and the impact will be more devastating than what we witnessed at Kedarnath.

This brings us back to the deadpan risk-benefit argument. To enjoy the fruits of development, we are told, we should be ready to pay a price. But who are ‘we’ in this question? The people of the hill in whose name the roads, resorts and dams are being peddled?

For all the hype, only 2 per cent of Uttarakhand’s jobs are in tourism. The resorts and tourist services are mostly owned and run by outsiders. For all the talk of the state becoming power surplus in three years, the electricity will be channelled to distant plains to run factories and light up shopping malls.

To make that growth story come true, the poor hill people must die in hundreds and thousands every few years. Because the power revenue earned by the state will soon change their fortune, just like the revenue of its booming tourism industry already has.