Time to act

The June 2013 flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand in which many lives were lost and much property was destroyed had occasioned a serious debate about what caused such a large-scale disaster in the region. Millions of people, including pilgrims, tourists and residents were affected, and many villages and a good part of the state’s infrastructure, including roads and electrical and communication facilities, were destroyed.

The  entire region’s economy was badly hit. It has not yet fully recovered from the tragedy. There is general agreement that decades-long mindless assaults on nature were a major reason for the disaster. Though heavy rains acted as an immediate trigger, the danger had been in the making for long. Policy changes have been suggested and many specific proposals have been made to avert a future tragedy.

A Supreme Court-mandated expert panel has now endorsed much of the criticism of the old policies and practices and supported many of the known prescriptions. The report, which was made public last week, has concluded that many hydro-electric projects in the area had aggravated the impact of the catastrophe. It has recommended the scrapping of 23 of the 24 hydro-electric projects proposed for the state.

This may sound a drastic prescription but the special circumstances of the region call for difficult proposals. The committee has also suggested designation of eco-sensitive zones for all rivers in the state and enactment of legislation to protect all rivers. The report recommends many measures to protect the biological diversity of the region and to ensure that unsafe building practices are not adopted, and a ban of certain kind of projects above a particular altitude.

Some of proposals may seem extreme and going against the accepted and generally supported course of development. But it should be noted that the large number of hydro-power projects and the construction boom in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand had invited widespread criticism in the past also. Uttarakhand’s geology is very  special, sensitive and vulnerable and all activities there have to take this into consideration.

Wrong ways of use of resources and exerting excessive pressure on nature can only be counter-productive. Every state and region should have its own method of development which is sustainable and suited to its nature. The recommendations of the committee should be taken seriously by the state and central governments. They may perhaps call for more study but their general thrust is in the right direction.

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