Uttarakhand: Why growth argument will crush eco concerns
While the cloudburst caused the floods, the situation aggravated due to manmade conditions, argue ecologists.
Was the calamity in Uttarakhand man-made? The debate, as is the case in all such debates, would remain inconclusive.
Champions of growth would jump to the defence of the mushrooming hydro-power projects on the rivers across the state, claiming, the harm to the environment is a collateral damage mankind has to bear if it’s serious about energy security and industrial progress. The other side would whine about the long-term impact of the mindless manipulation of the fragile mountain range on the people and the eco-system. They would keep reminding that thousands of human lives is too a big price to pay for any initiative for future good.
So far, we have no answer whether the calamity could have been averted if there were no dams. The cloudburst between June 16 and 17 caused a rainfall of 380 mm, the highest in a day in the state. In the hilly terrain susceptible to landslides and flash floods this is recipe for disaster. The region is known to be prone to earthquakes too. This kind of rain would have caused some damage in normal circumstances.
In fact, chairman of the Central Water Commission Rajesh Kumar in an interview to The Indian Express dismissed talks of dams being responsible for the extensive damage as uninformed speculation. He said the devastation in the hill state was restricted at places where water flowing down the hills was successfully trapped in reservoirs. There was havoc where there was no reservoir. He discounted the possibility of man-made factors being behind the recent developments.
The environmentalists would have none of it though. Their argument is, while the cloudburst caused the floods, the situation aggravated due to manmade conditions. These conditions include cutting of slopes and blasting activity in the hills and rampant development activity along the course of the rivers. Dams have made the situation worse by blocking the natural flow of rivers. The Siwalik range of the outer Himalayas is one of the youngest geological formations and is thus unstable. Intense human activity adds to its instability. Thus any big change in what is normal has the potential to turn into a major catastrophe, like in this case.
An amazingingly high number of dams are either being constructed or are in the process of being constructed across the Ganga and its tributaries. As many as 70 dams are likely to come up to be constructed across the Ganga if the state government has its way. There are plans to construct a whopping more than 480 across tributaries such as Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, Mandakini and Gauriganga. According to the website of the state-owned Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, 45 of its own projects are under operation and 32 are being developed; 25 are being developed by the Central PSUs and 38 are being developed under IPPs. As many as 104 are being developed by other states and private agencies.
How many dams the state needs really? Definitely not as many as being planned. And why are the numbers so high? Obviously, something is wrong somewhere. It all boils down to money. Execution of dam projects involve a lot of money. No wonder a construction mafia has entrenched itself in the state, backed by the rent-seeking political class and the bureaucracy.
When in December 2012 the Ministry of Environment and Forests, headed by Jayanthi Natarajan, declared a 130-km stretch along the river Ganga - from Gomukh to Uttarkashi - as an eco-sensitive zone and mandated a ban on all construction activity along the river, the nexus of builders and politicians revved into action. Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna appealed to the centre to keep in mind the economic interest of the locals. Earlier, BJP’s chief minister Pokhriyal Nishank had raised the same objection. The order remains dormant and people’s interest has come as a good excuse for all concerned.
After the disaster, will there be re-look at the dams and construction activities? Fat chance. With vested interests at work, be sure the nexus of the construction and political interests will call the shots again. This happens every time in India.
Environmentalists will whine some more and get ignored and go silent - till the next calamity strikes.
In the growth vs environment argument, the former wins always. It gets the support of those who matter.
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