The Himalayan floods: man-made disaster
by Arun Shrivastava on 22 Jun 2013 19 Comments

Heavy rains in the past four days have turned the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand into a disaster area. From Pithoragarh to Kumaon-Garhwal region and the religious centres in the upper reaches are all severely affected. Latest reports indicate that over 100,000 pilgrims are trapped. Roads and bridges have been washed away or so badly damaged that normal vehicular traffic can’t pass.


Uttarakhand is ‘Dev Bhumi,’ God’s Country. It is a holy land for us. Starting April, devout Hindus from all over the world come to Haridwar and on to Rishikesh. From Rishikesh they travel to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri [origin of the Ganges] and Yamunotri [origin of the river Yamuna].  Ancient shrines are located in these places.


Nearly all major shrines are now inaccessible. The local administration has reported 131 deaths, which is a gross underestimation as even local people don’t know how many homes have been washed away. On June 20, a friend sent a photograph of the destruction of Kedarnath town which is under seven feet of mud; helicopters can’t land. By 4 p.m. on June 21, 17 bodies had been recovered; no one knows how many are buried.


Although the minister for Disaster Management says that after receiving the warning from the Met Department he had stopped the travel, Hill Post says, “If the Kedarnath yatra was stopped at Ram Bara and Gauri Kund, then there should have been about 10,000 pilgrims either on their way up on their way down from the shrine”. Officials now confirm that Ram Bara has been completely washed away and there is nothing but silt and debris there. Gauri Kund and Kedarnath are completely devastated.


A Tribune report, filed June 18, says “According to the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC, Uttarakhand), there are still 61,890 pilgrims stranded at various places in the state: Rudraprayag (25,000), Chamoli (27,040) and Uttarkashi (9,850).” This is not true; the Government is lying. At least 250,000 cars pass through Srinagar university town every month during the time the shrines are open. Similar heavy traffic goes via Tehri to Kedarnath and Badrinath.


Villages in Pithoragarh district bordering Nepal have suffered extensive damage, loss of lives and property. Downstream of Kali Nadi, a river that forms the natural boundary between Nepal and India, people have observed TV sets and household items floating, indicating extensive destruction in the upper reaches of Pithoragarh. Unfortunately, no one is talking about this, not one channel, not one newspaper. Only local newspapers have reported the ground situation. 


Villages Nagni and Khari, where five decades ago the famous Chipko Andolan [Tree Huggers’ movement] was started by environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna to protect the Himalayan forests and biodiversity, can’t be accessed now because the road has disappeared at three places.


Over 5,000 men from the armed forces, ten aircrafts of the Indian Air Force [IAF], men and women from Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP], and the students’ wing of Hindu groups are helping the stranded people irrespective of religious affiliation. Helicopters could not land in disaster areas due to adverse conditions and only since June 20, when the rains stopped, sorties are on.


Why did this happen?


Five years ago, we conducted a detailed survey based research at three river basins – Satluj, Beas and Ravi – all primed for large and medium hydro-electric projects; small micro-hydels are coming up on the tributaries and small rivers that feed the big rivers. We saw that water from one basin is being transferred to another, roads and bridges never meant for heavy vehicular traffic were being used for carrying 40-60 metric tonnes load, tunnelling was being done using dynamite, muck from blasting was being dumped into pristine rivers, and more blasting was going on to produce coarse aggregate.


We warned that if this is allowed to go on, rivers will flow in tunnels and forests will be gone. We estimated that each megawatt capacity requires on average four hectare of forest and private lands for these projects. Slated for 250,000 MWe of hydro-power projects, the entire Himalayan region, from Pakistan to Arunachal Pradesh, could lose over a million hectares and that is a conservative estimate. One needs a lot more land for transmission lines and support services.


The Comptroller and Auditor General [CAG] had warned three years ago that a major disaster is bound to happen in the two main tributaries of the Ganges-Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. CAG’s environmental audit of hydro-power development had alerted the Central and State Government that the hundreds of dams that are operational or under construction were causing severe damage to the hills and rivers and that the scale of damage to the fragile ecosystem will cause unimaginable disaster. We have it now.


These projects and related construction have destabilised the mountains. The entire Himalayan region is highly unstable. The Indian plate is ploughing into the Eurasian land mass at a rate of 42 millimetre per year. In the past 100 years at least one earthquake has hit the region every four years and one major quake every twenty.


Yet, predatory capitalism has been let loose; jokers with experience of running grocery stores are setting up power plants. The Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister was collecting Rs 700,000 cash for each Megawatt of hydro-power plant approved by his Government; other freebies not counted. In this ruthless plundering of natural resources, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and world’s leading hydro-power consultants are totally complicit. These scoundrels visit project sites for a day or two and write a feasibility report sitting in Tasmania or London or Paris.


As on June 18, all big hydro-power generators, except Kalagarh, have stopped generation because of silt. This is not an unknown or unforeseen problem. Not one project authority has done detailed Environment Management Plan [EMP] or Disaster Management Plan [DMP]. None has prepared Environment Impact Assessment [EIA] seriously when EIA is the basis for investment decision; majority of EIAs are cut and paste job. Government regulators and advisors are complicit in this Himalayan fraud. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to further dilute the environmental regulatory rules and laws!


Accounts from local activists


Pithoragarh: Renu informed me that first reports from people suggest that Jauljibi village is completely devastated; perhaps not one home stands there. The village is about 25 kilometres from Ascote village where Renu lives, which is close to Block headquarter at Dharshula. If Jauljibi is gone one can only guess how many villages are gone. Pithoragarh is the eastern-most district and shares border with Nepal. About two weeks ago, cloudburst had caused glacier collapse destroying two bridges and many villages and then the rains started.


Neither the administration nor the national media bothered. It is only when pilgrims from all over India started calling up their friends and relations about the disaster that the media woke up and the administration even started talking.


We are told that there was no preparedness on part of the administration. Disaster Management Fund remained largely unutilised. This is the story that is repeated over and over in continental-sized India: climate change devastates one or other region, yet the administration and the disastrous Disaster Management Team warms its cushioned chairs.


And I say this: If one European tourist gets stranded, it becomes international news; when tens of villages are washed away with hundreds of families, no one talks. If one European life is more precious than the families of ten villages up in the mountains, we don’t need this sort of media or these tourists and both have become a liability for us. They can stay in their country and spare us some costs and the media presstitutes can go #$@% themselves.


Chief Minister kicked out


Vijay Bahuguna, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, is a scandal in his own right. “What can I do when the roads are gone?” he said. And when he landed on his Government helicopter at Gulab Rai helipad and other ‘helipads’ of these non-performing assets and heavy weight liabilities, the people told him to ‘#$@% off.’ ‘People are angry is an understatement,’ says Biju Negi, an environmental activist from Dehradun.


The grave situation was known on June 16, right across Uttarakhand. The Indian Army’s response time is 45 minutes from the time a disaster is declared to reaching the spot to commence rescue and communication restoration. In these parts, soldiers trained in mountain warfare are placed. But the army can’t move unless the Army Chief orders it. General Bikram Singh (about whom the less said the better) did not order his men to move for two days when the Kokrajhar events happened last year. He sat over the Chinese ‘incursion’ in Ladakh. Why did he not order his army to stay on full alert and move? Was he waiting for the district administration’s request? Doesn’t India know that the district civilian administration has effectively ceased to exist?


Shameless politicians and bureaucrats


Chief Ministers from different states in India, from West Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, from where pilgrims are trapped, are talking about rescuing their citizens! In Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh shrine, reports indicate minimum casualty. Their ministers and secretaries have landed in Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s capital, to ensure the safety of their state’s people. Can there be a more overt divisive strategy between the people of India? Who is doing that?


What about the people of Uttarakhand who host these tourists? Has anyone shown any respect and courtesy to the host population? Has India’s secularist brigade raised voice to find out where have the tens of thousands of villagers disappeared? Is it because we are Hindus? One senior journalist told me that officers are least bothered about doing their job. This is generally true across India: they are no more interested in work except writing memos to defend their inaction.


Presstitutes [Press+Prostitutes]


For the first 24 hours, this was no news. On day-2, some channels started showing old footage of an earlier disaster. According to one local media expert, the footage of a 3-4 storey building breaking apart and being engulfed in flood water was an old footage. The national media took notice when they got wind of the fact that many chief ministers have taken the matter very seriously. And even today, the major disaster that has befallen upon the people of Pithoragarh district has not been front-paged or shown on leading TV channels. 


History submerged


In 1900, at the height of alien colonial rule, over 50,000 Hindu pilgrims went to Kedarnath and Badrinath and further up. Many were old men seeking penance. Many never returned. Some were attacked by wild animals; some died of exhaustion. There is an ancient stone road by the river Alaknanda that goes from Srinagar town right up to Rudraprayag, and many caves where pilgrims used to halt for the night. Between Srinagar town and Rudraprayag, these ancient pathways are under water from Alaknanda Hydro-electric project.


Too little, too late


The story is over; people are dead, dying, many going hungry for the fifth day. The entire focus is on the tourists, not the villagers. And certainly not on serious planning to avoid similar disasters. Manmohan Singh’s Rs 10,000 million sop to Vijay Bahuguna’s fund will line the pockets of ministers, bureaucrats and lower level thieves and contractors. Nothing will happen to mitigate the pain and suffering of Uttarakhand’s hill communities. What will money do when farmers have lost their entire rice crop and because of that loss, will have no seeds for next year’s sowing? Private seed companies are already active in these parts. ‘Every disaster is a business opportunity for them,’ says Biju Negi.


For centuries, Hindu pilgrims have been travelling to these parts. The Government could have provided good roads and bridges and places to stay. Even proper planning rules merely exist on paper: about 50% of the hotels, dharamshalas and private residences have been constructed in violation of building code and planning rules. There is no shortage of technically competent engineers in India but are they allowed to work? The indifference that the Central and State Governments have shown in managing and preventing disaster exposes the incompetence and sheer callousness of officers.  



For photographs of the survey see:

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