Uttarakhand: A heavy price for reckless destruction of the Himalayas

The Uttarakhand disaster that has been witnessed at the beginning of the 2013 monsoon season is a consequence of ignorance and greed -- ignorance of the ecological systems that hold up the fragile Himalayas, and greed to profit from the exploitation of the rich natural and cultural heritage of the region. Uttarakhand is the source of the sacred Ganga and its tributaries, the lifeline of India.

The sacred mountains have sustained local communities and pilgrims for thousands of years because they have been treated with reverence and respect. Today the ecologically fragile Himalayas and our sacred rivers are being ruthlessly exploited. The disaster which has led to around 5,000 deaths on current estimates and the disappearance of nearly 1 lakh people is a wake up call to stop the rape. Politicians, decision makers and civic bodies responsible for causing the disaster through their shortsightedness, need to take responsibility for what has happened. The ‘polluter pays principle’ needs to be expanded to cover the scale of ecological devastation we are witnessing.

The chief minister has said the damage will cost Rs 3,000 crore and it has undone 3 years of “development”. He obviously is only looking at profits from concrete and construction. He cannot see the soil that has been washed away and the 500 years it will take to build one inch of the protective layer of top soil, the skin of the mountains. He cannot see the thousands of years it took for rivers to shape the landscape and the communities to create their settlements in river valleys. He cannot see the sustainable economies and cultures built by local communities over thousands of years of hard work to coexist with the fragile mountains, their home. He cannot see that the destruction of their lives and livelihoods cannot be reversed in three years. In many cases the damage is irreversible and immeasurable.

Around 500 dams are planned in this region on the Ganga system. Swami Gyanswarup Sanand of Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam has been repeatedly going on fast to save the Ganga.
His efforts forced the Central government to declare the area from Uttarkashi to Gaumukh an ecologically fragile zone. The present chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, has been blocking the declaration of this area as an eco sensitive zone in the name of ‘development.’ I hope that the disaster of 2013 will make him realise the value of protection of the Himalayas as an ecologically fragile zone.

Blasting with dynamite recklessly for the construction of dams and tunnels has triggered thousands of landslides. When the first rain comes, these landslides fill the river bed with rubble. There is no space for the water to flow.

Local communities, who have been made invisible in the media and government reports of the disaster, will never get back the lives of their loved ones that were extinguished, or the fields and homes that were washed away. But those that have caused the damage -- the construction companies like JP, GVK, LANCO, L&T etc who are building dams by recklessly blasting the ecologically sensitive Himalayas will not lose anything. They will be bailed out through our tax money, without our consent and approval.

Ecological destruction

It is time that local communities are taken into confidence before taking up such projects as it is they who bear the brunt of the ecological destruction that may be caused. The Navdanya Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology on Climate Change had earlier warned that climate extremes, untimely rains and melting glaciers created new challenges for us in the Himalayas. But the government went into denial mode in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference.

Usually floods come at the end of a heavy monsoon. This year they came with the first rain. The monsoon came early, and the rainfall was much more than normal. This is climate instability. Meantime, the ecological damage caused by maldevelopment has reduced the capacity of the mountain ecosystem to deal with heavy rain.  The Kedarnath temple, the 8th century Shiva shrine is located at the source of the Mandakini river. The damage at Kedarnath was caused by the breaking of the Kedar Dome glacier that led to the bursting of the glacial Charbari lake. These are climate disasters. Yet just before the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the government issued a report saying there was no impact on our glaciers. The Kedarnath tragedy shows how heavy the cost of this denial is.

Another major reason for the disaster is that mass tourism has led to a lot of construction on the fragile banks of the rivers. When rivers flood, more damage is caused. In my childhood, elderly people did the pilgrimage on foot. Along the main arteries we had roads for one way traffic. Today, there is an attempt to make 4-lane highways in the mountains. Highways means landslides as mountain slopes are dynamited, and the rubble is thrown down the slope.

In 1981, in response to the Chipko movement, the logging was banned above 1,000 km in the Garhwal Himalayas. Today the government policy recognises that forestry in the fragile Himalayas has to be conservation forestry which maximizes the ecological services of the forest in protecting, not extractive forestry.

In 1983, the Supreme Court stopped limestone mining in Doon Valley, recognising that the limestone left in the mountains, contributed more to the economy than the limestone extracted through mining. The 2013 disaster should wake us up to the social, ecological and economic costs of destructive policies that have devastated our fragile and beautiful mountain ecosystems. The Himalayas are the youngest mountain system in the world.
They cannot bear the violence of deforestation and dam building. They need gentleness and respect.

(The writer is an author and environmental activist)

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