This Article is From Feb 08, 2021

6 Lessons From A Himalayan Tragedy - by Ramachandra Guha

On Sunday, a few hours after the news about the flash floods in Chamoli District hit our screens, I phoned a man who should be a household name but sadly is not. A leader of the Chipko movement, a thinker of originality and insight, a social reformer of courage and vision, he may be both our country's greatest environmentalist as well as the greatest living resident of Uttarakhand. Back in 1983, he had written a long essay in Hindi warning against the construction of hydel projects in the Himalaya. He repeated these warnings in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, this time in essays published in English as well as in Hindi. Had the politicians of Uttarakhand, and of India, listened to him, this tragedy in the upper Alakananda valley may never have occurred at all.

Now in his late 80s, Chandi Prasad Bhatt (to give our hero his name) has lived all his life in the region where the devastation took place. He knows every village, and has walked along every river and stream in this part of Garhwal. I first met him in the summer of 1981 in the little town of Gopeshwar, just down the road - or down the river - from where this latest flood occurred. I have kept in touch with him ever since, seeking his counsel on environmental and social subjects. It was inevitable that, on hearing of what had happened in his locality, I would reach out to him for more information.


18 people have been killed and over 200 are still missing, after a part of a glacier burst in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district on Sunday

After I got off the phone with Bhatt-ji in Gopeshwar, I called the Nainital-based scholar Shekhar Pathak. Shekhar is, among other things, the editor of the journal Pahar, and the author of a magnificent recent history of the Chipko movement. A key section of this book deals with a Chipko protest in the village of Reni, when, with the menfolk all away, a group of peasant women led by Gaura Devi stopped a group of loggers from felling a patch of forest. That protest occurred in the year 1974; now, 47 years later, the little hamlet of Reni was once more in the news, albeit for less uplifting reasons. No one knows more about the landscape and history of Uttarakhand than Shekhar Pathak, and to get a clearer sense of what had happened, I had to talk to him too.

Inspired by years of learning from Bhatt and Pathak, and drawing from my own research as well, this column suggests that there are six key lessons that the recent tragedy in Uttarakhand holds for us all:

First, that Uttarakhand is particularly prone to such dramatic and devastating events should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the recent history of the region. The Kedarnath floods of 2013 are still fresh in the memory of every Indian who watched them unfold on their TV screens. The horrific floods in the Bhagirathi in 1978 and in the Alakananda in 1970 happened before the age of satellite television; but every Uttarakhandi knows about them too. The region has also been prone to serious earthquakes, as in Uttarkashi in 1991 and in Chamoli in 1999.


The burst glacier also swept away roads and forced authorities to evacuate villages

Second, such disasters are as much man-made as they are acts of nature. An unusually heavy burst of rain, or the unpredictable behaviour of a glacier, or even an earthquake, would have far less damaging effects if the natural forests had been kept intact, if the roads had been built with more care, if no dams had been designed or built, if the siting of homes and hotels had kept in mind the distinctive ecology of the Himalaya. Because carelessly-constructed roads and dams lead to large amounts of debris being dumped, hill rivers become more violent and turbulent. Because permissions to build hotels and buildings are given regardless of local needs and constraints, hillsides become weaker and more likely to collapse when threatened by storms and floods. The loss of life and livelihood that results is therefore as much a consequence of such faulty policy-making, and of corruption and human greed, as it is of the "wrath of nature" per se.

Third, we Indians have only one Himalaya, which is ours to safeguard or to destroy. Beyond their cultural resonances and their strategic importance, these mountains are a reservoir of great biodiversity and the source of many major rivers. However, in an environmental sense, they are extremely fragile, prone to landslides, floods, earthquakes, and more. For all these reasons, there should be an absolute moratorium on dam projects in the Himalaya, and an abandonment of the destructive Char Dham Highway project too (for more on the damage caused by the latter, see this.)


The NDRF, state authorities, Army and IAF are involved in the rescue efforts

Fourth, even outside the Himalaya, we need to follow a wiser and more environmentally-responsible pattern of development. India's high population densities, and the fragility of tropical ecologies, mean that we cannot - and must not - mechanically imitate the energy-intensive, capital-intensive model of industrialization adopted in the West. We must seek to achieve growth and prosperity with less resource-extractive and more sustainable methods.

Corporate-friendly columnists naively or foolishly argue that environmentalism is for rich countries, claiming that India is "too poor to be green". So do some ill-informed mandarins in government. Thus, in a recent document, the NITI Aayog has complained about the alleged burden of environmental regulations, while calling for an "economically responsible approach by the judiciary". What does this euphemism imply? That projects proposed by the central government to benefit large corporates should be cleared with haste and without scrutiny?. I read about the NITI Aayog report in the morning edition of The Hindu, dated Sunday 7th February 2020. Later the same day, we all got news of the floods in Uttarakhand, which, among other things, had destroyed a hydel project the prescient villagers of Reni had petitioned against but which an "economically responsible" administration gave the go-ahead to.


NDRF teams arriving at Joshimath 

In fact, even more, indeed much more than richer countries, India needs to adopt an environmentally-responsible path of development. Our social, economic, national, and civilizational, future depends on our doing so. (For a book by ecological economists making the case in detail, see this.)

The fifth lesson of this latest Himalayan tragedy is that for us to adopt a more sustainable path, elected politicians must be more willing to take advice from scientific experts, and be less amenable to bribery by deal-makers. At present, the decision on where and how to build a port, or highway, or dam, or airport, is made by three sets of people - ministers, bureaucrats, and contractors. Those who know hydrology, or traffic management, or energy planning, or mountain ecology, are rarely (if ever) consulted, even if they might be close at hand.

That the neta-babu-thekedar complex breeds corruption is well-known; that it generates inefficiency, incompetence, and environmental disasters is less widely recognized. These dams in the Himalaya may have been less carelessly sited (or not sited at all) if the government of Uttarakhand had more actively consulted the scientists working at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun. The coastal highway in Mumbai might have been better planned (or not built at all) if the Maharashtra government had involved the professors of IIT-Mumbai in the process.

Sixth, the fuller and deeper decentralization of political decision-making is likely to aid more sustainable (and equitable) economic policies. The advantages of local control over natural resources are abundantly demonstrated by the success of Community Forest Management in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. Here, when villagers were given control over mixed forests earlier managed by the state bureaucracy, these forests grew much thicker, while generating a steady stream of income and employment as well.

The Gadchiroli model should be emulated in other forested districts of central India, where it might likewise regenerate nature, renew the economy, and ameliorate tribal discontent. And its lessons must be heeded more broadly. Wider consultation, a greater devolution of financial and decision-making powers to panchayats and municipalities, is likely to lead to wiser and better policies in other sectors too.

These then, are the six key lessons of the recent flood in the Himalaya. First, such occurrences happen with disturbing regularity in this region. Second, the devastation that ensues is as much the handiwork of humans as of nature itself. Third, the Himalaya are, in ecological terms, both fragile and irreplaceable, and therefore must be spared any further large projects. Fourth, environmentally-wise policies must be followed in other regions of India too. Fifth, the design and execution of such policies must involve the best scientists in the country. Sixth, these policies are likely to have happier, more benign, outcomes if they are accompanied by political decentralization as well.

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)

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