Uttarakhand floods: Easy to point finger at climate change, but humanity is equally to blame

It’s easy to blame climate change and lack of collective global action for increasing intensity and frequency of disasters, but what about the manner in which the region’s topography has been unashamedly smashed in recent years?

Amita Singh October 20, 2021 21:29:41 IST
Uttarakhand floods: Easy to point finger at climate change, but humanity is equally to blame

Troops belonging to the National Disaster Response Force rescue people stranded in floodwaters in Udham Singh Nagar, Uttarakhand. AP

Uttarakhand’s sorrow is unending as disasters begin unfolding with every monsoon into an unprecedented devastation over its pristine and spiritually grounded high mountains. Floods, landslides and overflowing lakes turn those massive gains of tourism and urbanisation into haunting silence of corpses and animal carcasses under loads of debris which was once someone’s wealth.

While the Char Dham Yatra has been halted in the face of the Indian Army rescuing tourists from hotels and homes in the Kumaon’s star cities of Nainital, Haldwani, Udham Singh Nagar and Champawat, one fact remains undisputed: There can be half-hearted, stand-alone recipe for preparedness against disasters.

If anything, nothing has been learnt from the Kedarnath’s Chorabari glacier lake outburst eight years ago which left almost 10,000 dead and three lakh stranded.

Involving local panchayats and communities in decision impacts not only the nature of development brought to their hills, but also makes them partners in a consultative processes on disaster management strategies.

One wonders what stops governments from investing in such a cost-effective preparedness policy that is likely to offload many heavy departments like the home ministry which looks after disaster management.

Recent rains, especially starting 16 October, caught the region unawares. Uttarakhand’s cumulative rainfall till 19 October has been more than 60 percent of what is normal. While the Garhwal region, where the unforgettable ruinous 2013 Kedarnath catastrophe occurred, was relatively manageable, this time the Kumaon districts were severely affected by cloudbursts.

Champawat, Almora, Bageshwar, Pithoragarh, Nainital and Udham Singh Nagar were lashed with excessively heavy rainfall recorded in 24 hours at Pant Nagar (403.22mm) and Mukteshwar (340.8mm) observatories respectively. Those figures, at this time of the year should have been between .2mm to 1.4mm.

In the tourist city of Nainital, rainfall touched 401mm within 24 hours due to which tourists were trapped on rooftops as the otherwise drying lake overflowed with water into homes and hotels. A state where 72 percent of land is forest, deaths of countless big and small animals such as tigers, elephants, deer, Barasinghas, wild boars, fox, porcupine species, rare snakes and pythons to name just a few have been recorded.

Forests remain submerged for days and bodies putrefy with little action, limited skills and ever-shrinking resources to reach out to these animals in time.

In 2013, governance and policy experts from across the Asia-Pacific were caught at Dehradun airport; most roads leading to Mussoorie’s Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration were washed away due to the Kedarnath floods. The gates of environmentalist MC Mehta’s Eco Ashram opened up for them at an elevated hill top of Doiwala, the calm of which was repeatedly broken due to a riotous and sometimes thunderous noise from the banks of river Ganges nearby.

We were told that thousands of people from all nearby villages were collecting bodies flowing downstream with a hope of reviving them or identifying them for their families. Since then, the government has changed, the Disaster Management Act of 2005 has been uploaded on the State Disaster Management Authority’s (SDMA) website as a policy, a plan and a vision statement, but the ground remains as unprepared as it was in 2013.

Back then, it was 375 percent of excess rainfall at Rudraprayag and the Garhwal region that caused the tragedy, while today the adjoining six districts of Kumaon have received an all-time record-breaking rain.

It’s easy to blame climate change and lack of collective global action for increasing intensity and frequency of disasters, but the manner in which the region's topography has been unashamedly smashed in the past decade reflects upon the state's predatory instinctive insulation from the pain of local communities.

Much of this nature of governance was reflected in the manner one Uttarakhand Minister Ganesh Joshi was acquitted by a local judiciary despite being publicly seen assaulting a royal white police horse leading to its maiming and death in March 2016. Then, veteran environmental activist GD Agarwal died at a Rishikesh hospital 111 days after he began a fast for a pollution-free Ganga.

Not a tear was shed or an expression of remorse uttered from either the Centre or the state government on the passing of the Ganga crusader and IIT professor. Notwithstanding the fragility of this Himalayan terrain, the government’s developmental ambitions only made it more vulnerable to disasters.

India is in the tropical monsoon zone. However, with rainfall having high temporal and spatial variability, and due to the impact of climate change, there are significant changes in the mean rainfall pattern. In consideration of these alerts from nature, the government action is expected to incorporate findings from science into its decisions to increase growth at the expense of the environment.

Forests and wildlife have been wholly disturbed. The result? Visuals being shown on TV of a tractor driving in to rescue hotel guests standing on the rooftop of a Lemon Tree resort flooded by the overflowing Kosi river within the Jim Corbett National Park at Ramgarh.

Should these resorts be allowed within the sanctuary in the first place? Should the government fan childish pranks of tourists obstinately demanding a closer view of a tiger or other wildlife? The Uttarakhand High Court had banned jungle safaris and vehicles inside Jim Corbett and Rajaji National Parks and had given additional enforcement powers to the Chief Wildlife Wardens.

Most of these resorts, construction of hotels and other properties around Corbett Tiger Reserve, irked the locals and a PIL was filed by Mayank Mainali, chairperson of a Ramnagar-based NGO, Himalayan Yuva GraminVikas Sanstha. Further, the decision in the Gauri Maulekhi vs State Of Uttarakhand case on 5 March 2019, outlined the amount of cruelty this nature of wildlife tourism brings to animals. Much development has been in breach of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

The region has also accumulated enormous strain due to ongoing tectonic movements that makes it enormously susceptible to seismic tremors. The most disaster-prone districts of the state, i.e.; Pithoragarh, Bageshwar, Chamoli and Rudraprayag, along with some areas of Almora, Champawat, Tehri, Uttarkashi and Pauri districts, fall in Zone V, while Udhamsingh Nagar, Nainital, Haridwar and Dehradun districts fall in Zone IV. It is impossible to delete the horrifying memory of the two major earthquakes of Uttarkashi 1991 and Chamoli 1999 while many lesser tremors are witnessed very frequently.

Is the government sensitive to the fragility of these hills?

Uttarakhand, a land of many glacier rivers, has been undergoing intensive riverbed quarrying operations since 2010-2011. The stone crushers’ industry has been raised as a big lobby which mines unabated for riverbed minerals (RBM) inflicting adverse impact on neighbourhood villagers and rivers.

The state in 2019 allowed mining within one kilometre of either side of bridges on rivers in complete defiance of Nainital High Court order of October 2016 and also the NGT order on a report filed by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and National Mission of Clean Ganga (NMCG). The state government has neither studied its impact on rivers, people and environment, nor has ever conducted any replenishment study or even formed a District Mineral Foundation to make the process more transparent and accountable.

All such decisions, which relax and dilute environmental norms. are part of political ad hocism of changing leadership with little accountability or responsibility.

In the 2017 case of Naveen Chandra Pant & Another v. State of Uttarakhand, the petitioners were residents of village Ganwa Sirmoli, Bageshwar district and brought out before the court how severely they were affected by alleged carrying of illegal mining activities in their village. The petition was filed pro bono publico to highlight the degradation caused to the environment by state authorities and agencies.

The judgment highlighted the impact of mining on the environment such as the Alpine Treeline Rise, Climate Change Response and its effect on sustainable development. At Dokriani glacier valley and at Chorabari glacier valley, the treeline had moved many kilometres uphill to generate greater heat for glaciers to melt. It impacted every other glacier including the Gangotri and Pindari Glaciers.

The court outlined its directions in very clear terms: “The mighty Himalayan mountain ranges are young and fragile. The mining activity has affected the stability of Himalayan mountains. The glaciers are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and global warming. The Himalayan range glaciers, rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, jungles, forests and air are polluted. Their survival is at stake.”

Notwithstanding all these concerns, the state government attempted to do away with restrictions over illegal mining activities such as the removal of radio frequency identification chips (RFID) to curb illegal mining at the Gola river in Haldwani, and as preordained, the mega bridge over it was washed away in recent floods.

The government did much to entertain private players, in contravention of ethical and judicial norms, in stone crushing and riverbed mining who invested in taking battles against local communities and panchayats to higher courts and in some cases got orders of the lower courts reversed. Despite the clear statement of Disaster Management Act 2005 in Section 22(2), 24, 30 and 34 for inter-agency coordination as no single agency can handle a disaster situation, the outdated state government’s disaster policy and State Disaster Management Plan put on its website is an eye-opener to the country.

The chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority is the prime minister himself and the disaster management is handled under the Ministry of Home. Some of these locational anomalies which make disaster management an overloaded terrain with little scope for decentralisation also need to be resolved.

A panchayat-based devolution of authority combined with participatory decision making in disaster management plan for Uttarakhand could be brought up with determined and sustainable leadership. It’s time to move beyond chest beating and blaming climate change.

The author is president of Asia Pacific Disaster Research Group, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

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