Uttarakhand’s Himalayan Tragedy :
Suffering for the Crimes of the Ruling Class ‘Development’ Paradigm
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first… At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
- Friedrich Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man
Yet again, we have floods devastating the Himalayan region; yet again the same criminal negligence and apathy of the administrative machinery exacerbating the tragedy. The lack of proper disaster management infrastructure in Uttarakhand, the delayed warnings, and moreover the government’s refusal to act on the warnings from the Meteorological department in Delhi – unfortunately, all of this is painfully familiar. But, even as the people of Uttarakhand bravely attempt to rebuild their lives and shattered livelihoods, we need to remind ourselves that the recent devastation is man-made in more ways than one. These floods and the subsequent destruction have important lessons for us and in fact, point to far more than administrative inefficiency and indifference.
To begin with, we need to remember that the majestic Himalayas, which feed several rivers including the Ganga and the Yamuna and their tributaries, are relatively young mountains. These ‘new’ mountains need to stabilise with time, only then can they even attempt to cope to some degree with constant destabilising assaults in the form of massive construction of roads, highways and dams. Secondly, the entire Himalayan region is an extremely fragile eco-system that can be tampered with only at our risk, it is an eco-system that demands respect, that requires us to “learn its laws” as Engels so eloquently put it. Something that our policy makers seem to have entirely forgotten in their quest for a ‘development’ paradigm premised on breakneck construction, on repeated interventions in the eco-system without regard to its disastrous consequences.
Time and again, environmentalists have pointed out that the large-scale mining activity in the Himalayas, the spate of hydel power projects, roads and highways will have serious consequences. Landslides and flash floods are after all not new to the people of the region – and with the increasing intensity of implementation of the ‘development’ project, this has only phenomenon has only strengthened in intensity. The facts speak for themselves: around 300 big and small dams are being proposed over the Himalayan rivers, and according to a study (by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming and University of Delhi) this will result in the submergence of about 1700 square kilometres of forests.
Mining activity in the Himalayan region has also intensified. And together with the construction of large dams, this process has resulted not just in massive deforestation but also in the literal blasting of the young hills and deposition of huge amounts of debris in the Himalayan rivers. As the Uttarkashi disaster in 2011-12 proved only too well, deposition of debris from dam construction and mining into rivers accentuates the possibility of flash floods during heavy rains. Moreover, with the government of Uttarakhand bent on promoting unregulated tourism (mostly religious tourism), the levels of traffic on the hill roads have already alarming levels. According to an analysis done by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the number of vehicles registered in Uttarakhand increased from 83,000-odd vehicles in 2005-06 to a whopping 180,000 by 2012-13. And as this report points out, most of these vehicles cater to tourists. Moreover, the spate of construction of roads, bridges and entire townships anywhere and everywhere in Uttarakhand – even on the ‘flood ways’ which flank the Himalayan rivers, and of course on the floodplains and terrace regions of the hills – has left rivers in spate with no option but to cause massive devastation. Ideally, a river needs wide flood ways to spread to in case of heavy rains; these flood ways essentially act as natural flood control mechanisms. Traditionally, large-scale housing and construction on flood ways was avoided. But now this important distinction between floodplains and flood ways has almost been wiped away by human activity. Together, the paradigm of ‘development’ in Uttarakhand is an ideal recipe for landslides and flash floods. For our policymakers, it seems, concepts like ‘carrying capacity’ just do not exist.
It is not only environmentalists and the people of the region who have been warning the authorities about the possible consequences of unregulated tourism and construction in the hills. The World Wildlife Fund (WII) for instance has warned the government not to go ahead with several hydropower projects planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river systems in Uttarakhand. According to the WII report, incidentally commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), these projects could destroy 22 per cent of the state’s forestland and affect the unique Himalayan ecology. Similarly, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had warned three years ago that the spate of more than 200 hydropower projects in the state could be catastrophic in the event of a flash flood. But, such reports have rarely had an impact on the state’s aggressive promotion of its model of ‘development’. And as Engels puts it, nature takes its revenge on us.
Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the ominous role of climate change in this disaster. Several experts have correctly located the Uttarakhand catastrophe in the depressingly long list of ‘extreme’ climate events with their links to climate change. They point out that flash floods are related to the changing rainfall patterns due to warming up of the atmosphere. The increased atmospheric temperature causes new precipitation patterns characterized by short spells of heavy rains rather than uniform rainfall over a longer period. It is indeed difficult to divorce the record rainfall of 340 mm in June in the hills from climate change and its impacts. And this, along with massive soil erosion and several other man-made factors only increases the possibility of flash floods.
The Uttarakhand disaster is indeed an ominous reminder to us. It is important not to see this disaster merely as an administrative failure, as the mainstream political ‘opposition’ in Uttarakhand as well as in Delhi is trying to do. The likes of BJP, deeply committed as they are to the ‘development’ paradigm in Uttarakhand – the paradigm of unregulated tourism, of big dams and unfettered mining, of construction of roads, bridges and townships everywhere in the fragile hills – are equally implicated in this disaster. It is high time that we wake up to the need of an entirely new model of development, in the hill regions, and also the rest of the country.
The Unfolding Disaster
[Purushottam Sharma is a member of the Uttarakhand State Committee of CPI(ML)]
The entire picture of the devastating disaster in Uttarakhand has not yet unfolded. The reports and details so far coming out are related to the Chardham pilgrim centres and their connecting routes. Reports of 75000 persons missing and hundreds dead are only an estimation of numbers with regard to pilgrims. Nobody so far has had the time to consider the fate of the local people and villages which have suffered heavily due to the disaster and they seem to figure nowhere in the rescue and relief operations of the State government. Scenes from the disaster indicate that the number of dead must be in thousands, but our laws count only an actually recovered dead body as ‘dead’. Now who can search for and bring forth those thousands of dead bodies from the furious laps of the Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Gauri so that our laws can count them as ‘dead’?
Without doubt, the Army and the jawans of the ITBP are conducting these rescue and relief operations with full intensity. Their priority is to save the lives of the stranded pilgrims and to open up the roads so that the rescue teams and relief provisions can reach the affected areas. But the scale of destruction is such that it could take months to reach many of the affected areas. In this situation it is essential to double the number of helicopters so that medicines, clothes, tarpaulins and provisions can be supplied to the remote villages which are away from the pilgrim routes and the Army can rescue all the victims as soon as possible. It must be kept in mind that in most places the victims are stranded and struggling for their lives without medical aid or provisions.
The State government cannot hide behind the veil of ‘natural disaster and tragedy’ to hide its criminal and irresponsible behaviour. In this day and age of modern technology and meteorological prediction techniques, loss of life and property could have been minimized if proper and timely action had been taken. Much before the disaster, the Meteorological department had stated that a western depression was active in the mountain areas and that the monsoon would arrive a week earlier than scheduled. With the western depression and the monsoon both active together, heavy rains and cloudbursts are only to be expected. In these circumstances, the Chardham pilgrimage should have been stopped a day earlier and an alert should have been put out for people to return from sensitive areas to safer places. However, this did not happen and as always this shameless and anti-people government and its bureaucracy are now looking eagerly to reap the fruits of this disaster.
Two examples of the insensitivity of the Uttarakhand government towards natural disaster situations are worth pointing out. Three years ago the Meteorological department of the Central government had requisitioned land in Mussoorie and Nainital to set two radars in the State to gather information for climatic predictions but these lands still remain unsanctioned. Also, 243 villages affected by natural disasters had been chosen in 2010 for evacuation and rehabilitation. By March 2013 this number had increased to 550 villages. However, till date only one single village Chhatikhal (Rudraprayag) has been rehabilitated and that too only partially. After the creation of the State, the governments of Uttarakhand are doing nothing but ravaging the lands on the one hand and complaining that land is not available for rehabilitation, on the other. Meanwhile these governments have allowed about one lakh hectares of priceless lands to be looted by capitalists, corporate, builders, religious and social institutions, bureaucrats and leaders.
The more there is flooding in the mountains, the deeper the rivers become. This can be confirmed by looking at the rivers on which hydel projects have not yet been constructed. If today, after the disaster, the riversides have gathered 8 to 10 ft. of sediment and debris, it is because of the effluents illegally dumped into the rivers by the tunnel-based hydel projects. These electrical power companies should be made to pay for the sins they have committed with an eye for greedy profiteering. The greed for tourism-generated profits has caused a veritable race for State-facilitated capture of lands, mountains and forests in Uttarakhand. It is not a surprising sight to see such improperly constructed buildings collapse and be carried away by the river. It is imperative that accountability be fixed for this loss of life and property caused by this State sponsored labyrinth of corruption and wrongdoing. q
A Report From the Ground
[Indresh Maikhuri is a member of the CPI(ML)’s Uttarakhand State Committee, and is organising people’s relief efforts in the Garhwal mandal of the State. This is a report sent by him soon after arriving at the disaster site.]
Uttarakhand is in the throes of a tragic disaster. For the last three days, ever since the start of the heavy rains, we have been in constant touch with the local administration at Joshimath in order to get information, give suggestions and offer assistance as citizens. However, the half-baked insufficient information provided by the administration has been far from satisfactory.
Therefore, on June 19, 2013 CPI(ML)’s Garhwal committee member Com. Atul Sati, Mahdeep Panwar from the AISA and I set out to study the situation from close quarters. Govindghat is barely 20-25 kms from Joshimath. But in spite of travelling the first 10-15 kms by motorcyle, it took us about two hours to reach Govindghat. At two places, large portions of the road have been washed away and it is possible to get across only by climbing a steep ascent. As natives of the hills this was a comparatively less difficult task for us but for people from outside unaccustomed to the hills, climbing up the steep mountainside and then again descending was a difficult and terrifying experience, despite being assisted by the jawans from the ITBP.
The scene at Govindghat was horrifying. The Alaknanda has extended its banks upto the place where markets had existed until recently. The main bazaar of Govindghat is now stacked with boulders of varying sizes. Each room of the Gurudwara is filled with sand dunes 4 to 5 feet high. The shops behind are also filled with sand the shopkeepers are trying to exricate the goods from beneath the sand. The polce chowki in the Gurudwara complex is also filled with sand. Branches of trees have also fallen into some rooms of the Gurudwara. More than half of the road leading from the Gurudwara and the main bazaar to the Badrinath Road has vanished. Assistant Professor in Geology at DBS (PG) College, Dehradun Prof. Pradeep Bhatt who was travelling to Badrinath with his family and has been stranded at Govindghat for the last 3 or 4 days tells a story which leaves us shaken. In his hotel at about 2 in the night he heard great rumbling sounds from the river and he, along with with his wife, elderly mother-in-law and carrying their two small children, ran towards higher grounds. After reaching the higher part of the road he realized that his car was parked in the parking lot below. He described to us how, as soon as he had brought the car up from the parking lot, the road behind them was washed away. A few seconds’ delay and his car and he himself would have been submerged in the river.
Hotels, parking lots and hundreds of motor cycles and cars were washed away by the Alaknanda. Eyewitnesses told us that the driver (possibly also the owner) of a car which was washed away jumped into the seething river saying that there was no point in remaining alive when his car worth 10 lakhs was lost! Two children who were left sleeping in a car by the driver while their parents had gone to Hemkund were also submerged along with the car. Eyewitnesses also told of many drivers sleeping in their cars being washed away.
Claims of rescue and relief operations on a war footing are being made through the media. At Joshimath the whir of helicopters engaged in rescue work can be heard from 6 am to 6 pm. They are bringing people stranded in remote areas to the safety of Joshimath. But we can imagine how long it will take for two helicopters, each with a seating capacity of 6, to rescue about 14,000 stranded people! The Sikh pilgrims stranded at Govindghat are angry because neither are efforts being made to rescue them, nor is assistance of any kind reaching them. When we reached Govindghat and spoke to the Sikh pilgrims, they surrounded us and told us we were the first people from the government to reach them. We told them that we were not from the government but part of the common people. These Sikh pilgrims are stranded in Govindghat with their vehicles which for many of them are their means of livelihood. Therefore they are not prepared to leave their vehicles unattended here and return home. They told us that for 2 days they had nothing to eat. Then they themselves dug out grains and other edibles from the debris in the Gurudwara, washed and cooked them and are feeding everyone in the langar. These Sikh pilgrims upset not only with the Uttarakhand government but also with the Punjab government and the SGPC who have also ignored their plight. They are also very angry at the people who use even this moment of tragedy for profiteering. Manjeet Singh and Charanjeet Singh from Mohali and Lakhbir Singh from Patiala tell us in enraged tones that in the past few days a bar of soap was sold here for Rs. 40, a plate of rice and a packet of Maggi noodles (worth Rs. 10) for Rs. 100 each. The Donation box of the Gurudwara was broken open and looted and windows of stationary vehicles broken and goods stolen. On the one hand there are people offering cool drinks and food to victims who manage to climb down the steep descent, but on the other hand there are also people who loot and steal even from the distressed victims. Such opportunistic looting has become a disease which is rampant in the ruling classes as well as the common people, the only difference being that it is termed ‘corruption’ in the former and ‘inhumanity’ in the latter.
The bridge across the river from Govindghat to Ghanghariya and Hemkund has been washed away. About 200 pilgrims are stranded across the Alaknanda without food and drink. Jawans from the ITBP were trying to pull them up with ropes but so far it had not been possible to bring them across the seething river. In the absence of proper cleanliness in Govindghat and the rampant malodour, garbage and flies, there is certain to be an epidemic of diseases if preventive measures are not taken promptly.
Schools and municipality rest houses in Joshimath have been turned into temporary relief camps where the victim pilgrims and villagers have been accommodated. People from Bhyundar village on the road to Hemkund Saheb are in the municipality council rest house at Joshimath. The elderly ladies from this village tell us that they have lost everything in this disaster, including fields, houses (some single and some double storied) and cattle sheds. They lament that though they have come away, they have been obliged to leave behind their cattle. Some have left their cattle free so that they could graze and try to escape in case of disaster. Some villagers whose cattle have recently calved have stayed behind with their cattle.
Apart from pilgrims and local villagers, others who are feared to be in the clutches of this disaster are the locals who go into the high alpine meadows every summer to collect ‘cordyceps sinesis’, also known in some areas as ‘yarsa gumba’. This is a fungus or mushroom which looks insect-like and is available in the alpine meadows when the snow melts. This has great medicinal value and is sold in the international market at the rate of Rs. 5 to 6 lakhs per kilo. The government system is that the right to collect this fungus will be given to certain persons by the forest panchayats. After collection, these persons will hand over the fungus to the panchayats who will sell them and distribute the income to the collectors in the ratio of their collections, after keeping back 5% royalty for itself. It is the responsibility of the district Collectors and Forest officers (DFOs) to ensure that this system is followed. However, this system is not visible anywhere on the ground. Every year the collectors go to the alpine meadows for the fungus (known as ‘keeda jadi’), which is then illegally sold to smugglers for lakhs of rupees whereas the official rate is Rs. 50,000 per kilo. This year too the concern for the collectors who have gone into the alpine meadows in search of the fungus does not seem to be on the agenda of the rescue and relief operations. There are reports of ten such collectors who had gone to the Urgam valley in Joshimath having lost their lives and several others missing.
Several questions arise in the aftermath of this disaster, answers to which do not seem to be forthcoming. How will the 100 or more victims stranded at Govindghat with their vehicles be brought to safety? The police have announced that as it will take at least 15 days to repair the roads, the victims are advised to leave their vehicles and return home. The Sikh travellers are unwilling to risk leaving behind their vehicles which are their only source of livelihood. Another question is, who will compensate for the hundreds of vehicles which have already been washed away and how will the compensation be effected? The villagers of Bhyundar are asking how they will live now that everything in their village has been destroyed, and if they cannot go back, how long can they remain in Joshimath? After this total destruction, what will be the fate of their children’s education?
In the midst of this disaster, the Army and the paramilitary forces will be praised for their rescue work and indeed their efforts are praiseworthy. But the Nepali workers who are the silent soldiers in these rescue operations and who carry heavy bags, suitcases etc. of the victims on these steep roads where even carrying oneself is a difficult task, these workers will receive neither praise nor acknowledgement. Without their efforts, the rescue and relief operations will be near impossible to carry out.
This was a natural disaster but the enormity of the disaster was caused by the role of man in ravaging nature. The offensive model of development foisted on the people by the government through deceit and tyranny, destroys everything except profit for the tyrant. Just above Joshimath, the blasting of the mountainsides, tunnel-making and throwing of debris into the rivers for building hydel projects, the water released from the barrages and the breaking of the barrages has increased the intensity of the disaster manifold. Victims from Bhyundar village tell us that just 15 days ago they had gone with a complaint to the Super Hydro Company constructing a hydel project on the Lakshmanganga that the blasting activity was shaking the foundations of their homes. The Border Roads Organization has also contributed to the ravaging of the mountains through indiscriminate dynamiting and throwing of debris into the rivers. Unplanned, unregulated urbanization is another contributing factor to the escalating natural disasters. The main bazaar, hotels and parking lots which were washed away in Govindghat had been built practically encroaching into the river. The Gurudwara at Govindghat which is today filled with sand and tree branches is also built right on the banks of the Alaknanda. Did the authorities who sanctioned this 5 storied building on the river bank not realize that it would be an easy prey to natural disasters of this kind? The parking lots right on the banks of the river, which charged Rs. 600 as parking fees, have been washed away. This money would have been collected to ensure the safety of the vehicles. Who will take the responsibility for the vehicles which were washed away—the owners of the parking lots which were built in unsafe locations or the police and the administration whose pockets were made heavier from part of the earnings of these parking lots?
CPI (ML) appeal for relief funds in Uttarakhand floods