The Chamoli catastrophe highlights that unregulated construction along the Himalayas exacted a huge price from nature and humanity
Aseem Shrivastava | 11 Feb, 2021
‘On the tallest Himalayan peak, sitting in the cool shade of the rock
A traveller, with moist eyes, watched the waves of the deluge sweeping the earth’
—Jaishankar Prasad, Kamayani
A strange fact has baffled naturalists recently. Rhododendrons and Himalayan daisies have been flowering in Ramgarh in the freezing winter of January, normally a snow-bound month of the Himalayan calendar. It has been one of the warmest winters in Uttarakhand. Ramgarh (at 2,100 metres) received half-a-dozen snowfalls during the winter of 2019-20. This season (and for many years before 2019), it did not get any snow till a minor snowfall earlier this month. Hence, the early arrival of spring.
Barely a week after a student of mine living in Kumaon sent the images of the January rhododendrons and daisies to me, news arrives of the Chamoli catastrophe. All prima facie evidence suggests that deforestation, climate change and the winter warming of the Himalayas, much more than in other mountain regions of the world, is a large part of the story.
Nowadays, one is reduced to the absurdity of prophesying the past. Ecological history keeps repeating itself every decade, every year, every month now—without in the least changing the minds of the blind men in office, solipsistically intoxicated as they are with the fantasy of what they regard as the vintage wine of their patriotic faith, vikas (development). It is hoary wisdom, truer than ever now, that the one lesson history teaches is that men refuse to learn from it.
Just how long back was it when those televised images of the Lord Shiva statue, hotels and other tall buildings along the Ganga, all tossing like toys in the surging floodwaters, reached us? Large dams and unregulated construction along the restless watersheds of the Himalayas exacted a huge price from nature and humanity. And yet, here we are again, watching similar scenes of nature’s wrath at human excesses unfolding on our screens. Thousands perished in the manmade disaster of 2013. Downtown India forgot all about them. We seem to have a national gift for ecological amnesia. Hundreds may be gone by the time this catastrophe settles down. Most of them are workers employed in the construction of power projects built at what should have been forbidden altitudes. Some of them may still be alive and trapped in the slush and debris clogging the freezing tunnels of the power projects. How many martyrs are justified by the short-sighted developmental ambitions of ‘New India’? Will they also be cremated with state honours like the jawans sacrificed on our borders?
After the 2013 floods, there was great public concern expressed over the very viability of large hydroelectric dams in the Western Himalayas. In fact, in December 2014, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) itself submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court accepting that the hydroelectric projects ‘aggravated the impact of floods’.
A high-level committee under the chairmanship of water expert and environmentalist Ravi Chopra was set up by the Supreme Court to study the impact of receding glaciers and the ecological viability of hydroelectric power projects in the upper Himalayas. In its report, it raised serious objections to such projects in the paraglacial regions, between 2,200 and 2,500 metres above sea level. Uttarakhand already had many such dams by then. The experts recommended the decommissioning of 23 of the 24 dam projects they studied. The committee also recommended that the six dams proposed on the Dhauliganga and the Alaknanda should not be built. It may be noted here that all the existing and proposed dams (most notably, the massive Tehri dam on the Bhagirathi) are in areas classified as ‘seismic zones’ IV and V, vulnerable to earthquakes of severe or very severe intensity, respectively.
Official warnings came in 2016 too, this time from the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation itself. It filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying several mountainous areas in Uttarakhand should be left clear of major development projects. Dams and water diversions, it claimed, had caused significant damage to rivers already. Yet, in 2017, the Uttarakhand government was found lobbying for speedier clearance of hydel power projects.
Far from heeding the advice of the experts, the Uttarakhand government actively pushed for new projects as public memory of the 2013 floods receded. In clear disregard of the Chopra Committee recommendations, work on a dam on the Alaknanda, the government-owned 520 MW NTPC Tapovan-Vishnugad project, proceeded regardless. Much of the dam was swept away on February 7th. At least three other major hydel projects in the same area have suffered serious damages, their debris causing mayhem downstream. At least 30 people have lost their lives and hundreds are still missing. Local villagers say that the authorities gave them shallow, unconvincing assurances and never prepared them for disasters like this.
Large dams are not the only source of ecological havoc in the Himalayas these days.
In December 2016, the Prime Minister himself laid the foundation for the Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana, an ambitious 900-km four-lane highway project to make the most significant pilgrimages of Uttarakhand—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath—convenient for pilgrims to reach by road. Gone are the days when Hindu devotees had to exert themselves physically and trek steep slopes to meet the gods in temples located on mountain tops. The deeper—spiritual—reason for the remote location of Himalayan shrines has been entirely forgotten by the undertakers of Hinduism today. Even helicopters can bring people to temples whose reigning deities they think will bring them moksha.
A Himalayan highway project of such a scale has vast ecological and human consequences. Modern road building in such an environment involves damaging levels of dynamite blasting and the use of explosions which disturb the fragile balance of the mountain slopes. Not only are hillsides hollowed out and rendered vulnerable to mudslides and landslides (a few years back, several workers were killed); the large amounts of mud and earth removed have to be disposed of. This adds to the construction debris that often falls by default into already shallow and thinning rivers, contributing, among other things, to floods. Road construction is adding to growing water shortages in the Himalayas also because it disrupts local hydrology, clogging the network of water springs. Unlike what is often assumed, most water in north Indian rivers gathers in the main basins through such springs, whose health depends on the condition of the forests.
Yet another expert committee headed by Ravi Chopra was set up by the Supreme Court to assess the ecological wisdom of the Char Dham project. Not surprisingly, when it came to the crucial question of the width of the highway, there was a clear difference of opinion between the committee members. Those holding government offices wanted a wider road (of 10-12 metres) while independent experts, a narrower one of 5.5 metres. Even the solicitor general got involved in the deliberations last year, arguing for defence and security considerations for wide Himalayan roads to allow military convoys to pass. The chairman of the committee found himself among the dissenting minority!
Such is official impatience that in January, the government asked the Supreme Court to accept the majority view. On the ground, the Uttarakhand administration, not known for its adherence to environmental norms at the best of times, has once again ignored the court guidelines, dumping mud and construction waste everywhere and not planting the legally stipulated number of trees.
This is all of a piece with the ecologically irresponsible leadership both in Uttarakhand as well as in New Delhi and elsewhere. Pre-empting predictable criticism, Trivendra Singh Rawat, the chief minister of Uttarakhand, warned against seeing the latest flooding episode as “a reason to build an anti-development narrative.” “I reiterate our government’s commitment to develop the hills of Uttarakhand in a sustainable manner, and we will leave no stone unturned in ensuring the achievement of this goal,” Rawat said on Twitter.
A few thousand unturned stones and rocks might have saved many a human life on February 7th. But brave leaders like today’s cannot let inconvenient details like those get in the way of their Himalayan ambitions. After all, they must serve those who fund their elections, money which no political party is willing to make transparent, as was evident some years back when a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed. Meanwhile, the state wants all your data.
Several hundred hydel power projects are proposed in Uttarakhand, intended to raise the state’s power-generating capacity from the present 3,500 MW to an ecologically devastating 25,000 MW. And even that cannot be enough for the competitive politics of destructive delusion.
Village elders living in Kumaon tell me that they have never seen as little snow on the face of towering Himalayan peaks like Nanda Devi, Nandakot and Trishul as this year. A staggering quarter of the world’s population, almost two billion people, depend directly or indirectly on the Himalayas for their survival. Due to accelerating climate change, these young, once holy, mountains are melting rapidly, significantly faster than other high mountains on earth. There are over a thousand glaciers in Uttarakhand alone. Glaciers, melting at the rate of several feet every year, are fast turning into unstable lakes which threaten the valleys and the plains below. They also mean greater volatility of water flows for the many dams that clutter the river basins at high altitudes, also increasing the peril of lethal flash floods. Furthermore, the greater mobility of glaciers, mudslides and landslides also means that the projected life of dams is significantly curtailed due to sudden spurts in siltation. The director of the Central Water Commission has himself warned recently that “the storage space in Indian reservoirs is receding at a rate faster than anticipated. Reservoirs are poised to become extinct in less than a few decades with untold consequences already underway.” He foresees that “the nation will eventually be unable to find sufficient water in the 21st century to feed the rising population by 2050, grow abundant crops, create sustainable cities, or ensure growth.”
One fact of the latest catastrophe stands out. Glaciers on the retreat normally melt in the warmer months. What is alarming about the latest disaster is that a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier split from the sanctuary in the frigid cold of winter.
“This is an anomaly. In winter, glaciers remain firmly frozen. Even walls of glacial lakes are tightly bound. A flood of this sort in this season is usually caused by an avalanche or landslide. Neither seems to be the case here,” according to Manish Mehta, senior scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology. As part of a bigger study of the glaciers of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, Mehta has researched the Upper Rishiganga catchment from where the Trishuli glacier split off on February 7th to precipitate the flash flooding of the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga river streams. Being south-facing, and thus more exposed to the tropical sun, the glacier has shrunk by 10 per cent over the past four decades since 1980. Mehta’s research also shows that a possible reason for the glacier coming loose in winter could well be the greatly reduced snowfall which normally grounds the glacier in its accustomed place. The same cause that accounts for the winter daisies may also explain the melting of glaciers in an unexpected season.
Greed, especially when it is structurally rooted in the political and economic system of the world, corrupts and corrodes a culture, and eventually destroys it. All the wisdom of the centuries is at one on the matter. And yet, we feel little shame in hiding our collective greed behind noble words.
The time has come to ask: what do lofty words like ‘development’ or ‘progress’ mean to the family whose sole breadwinner got buried alive in the snowy debris of one of the NTPC tunnels on February 7th? What material interests actually hide behind such high slogans? How many martyrs to development would it take for the myopic cowardice in office to realise the immediate and long-range consequences of today’s structural avarice? Will our children and grandchildren forgive such selfish excesses once the ecological devastation makes our cities too uninhabitable?
Even when environmental disasters do not originate in human follies, the loss of lives that happens as a consequence is entirely a result of the growth policies created and sustained by powerful policy elites and governments as also of the profligate metropolitan lifestyles promoted by celebrity brand ambassadors across screens.
Who pays the price of what is understood as ‘progress’? Never the ones who take decisions with far-reaching consequences. Metropolitan advocates of ‘development’ need to ask themselves a simple ethical question. Would they be willing to send their young men and women to work on the deadly frontiers of what they understand as ‘development’? It is sheer cowardice to ask the poor to do for us what we are unwilling to ask our own youth to do.
The poor and the underprivileged do not ask for economic growth. Nor do they ask for modernisation. They merely need a modest livelihood—which they can even assure for themselves if the powers do not interfere with their lives. But the collusive structures of global avarice are petty enough to deny them even that. ‘Development’, a colonial idea hatched in Washington towards the end of the Second World War, has become our longest living national lie. In international negotiations, no less than in domestic politics, our blinded leaders continue to hide behind the poor, while letting them foot the growing bills of sand mining, deforestation, climate change, and the like.
We live today in a misguided, wrong-footed India, in a wrong-footed world. The future, if there is one, will have very different tales to tell than the developmental ones we console ourselves with today.
Vinaash-kaal, vipareet-buddhi (In an age of destruction, the mind works in a direction opposite to the one it needs to move in.)