The Uttarakhand Disaster

The Uttarakhand Disaster

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Uttrakhand landslide

Uttrakhand landslide

Thousands lost their lives in the recent Uttarakhand floods and it is not the first time that India has faced a tragedy at a religious site. Dr. Vandana Shiva says it is a wakeup call to stop the rape of our fragile Himalaya

The Uttarakhand disaster we have 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 Himalaya, and greed to profit from the exploitation of the rich natural and cultural heritage of our region.

Uttarakhand is the source of the sacred Ganga and its tributaries, the lifeline of India. The sources of these rivers were made sacred sites in order to protect the Ganga Himalaya, and hence India. The yatra to the four pilgrimage centres of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath- the Char Dham, was meant to both connect us culturally and spiritually to these “Bhu tirths”-sacred sites of the Earth- and to connect us ecologically to the sources of life, the sources of our rivers.

Our 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 Himalaya and our sacred rivers are being raped.

The disaster which has led to five thousand deaths on current estimates and the disappearance of nearly 100000 people is a wake up call to stop the rape. We need to learn once again to have reverence for our sacred mountains and rivers. We need to be informed by the latest of ecological sciences, not by an obsolete “development” model which is nothing more than a greed- and exploitation- model which has led to the tragic disaster in Uttarakhand. Contrary to what the politicians are saying, the disaster is clearly manmade, not a natural disaster. Politicians, decision makers, corporations responsible for causing the disaster through their ignorance and greed, their blindness and shortsightedness, need to take responsibility for the disaster their policies and actions have caused. 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 3000 Crore (Rs 30 billion), 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 millions of years it took the Himalaya to form. 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 3 years. In many cases the damage is irreversible and immeasurable.

Today, driven by greed and corruption, the government has become blind to nature and people, it has become ignorant of the culture of the sacred, and the ecological fragility of the Himalaya. The sacred sets limits. Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated, as rivers are dammed and diverted for electricity, and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism.

In 1916, Rai Patiram Bahadur in his book “Garhwal, ancient and modern” wrote “We may say that there is no country in the world of the dimension of Garhwal which has so many rivers as a traveller will find in this land. The district has 60 rivers of different size, besides these; there are rivulets, rills, springs and fountains in hundreds, showing that nature has been especially bountiful to this land in the matter of its water supply” (quoted in Semwal, p21).

500 dams are planned in our region on the Ganga system. Swami Gyanswarup Sanand) (formerly Dr. G.D. Agrawal) (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 has been blocking it in 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 realize the value of protection of the Ganga Himalaya as ecologically fragile zones. And it is not just the stretch between Uttarkashi and Gaumukh. We need to protect the entire catchment of the Ganga system as a cultural heritage and ecologically fragile and sensitive ecosystem.

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. We are literally stealing the ecological space from our rivers. And when they have no space to flow, they will overflow, cut banks and cause flooding.

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 Himalaya -will not loose anything. They will be bailed out through our tax money, without our consent and approval.

It is time that projects were approved by local communities who bear the brunt of the ecological destruction caused by them, not by corrupt politicians who make money all the way, including from the relief and rehabilitation packages after disasters. It is time to stop and reassess the building of dams and hydro projects in the fragile Himalaya with an internalization of all social and ecological costs.

Added to the short sightedness of “development” in an old paradigm is the denial of the deepening vulnerability of the Himalaya with Climate Change. The Navdanya/Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology on Climate change in the Third Pole had warned that climate extremes, untimely rains, melting glaciers created new challenges for us in the Himalaya. But the Government spun 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 mal development has reduced the capacity of the mountain ecosystem to deal with heavy rain. Climate havoc adds to the vulnerability. Kedarnath, 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 their was no impact on our Glaciers. The Kedarnath tragedy shows haw heavy the cost of this denial is. We need to recognize that our glaciers are threatened, and melting glaciers will lead to disasters. Disaster preparedness is the duty of government. But disaster preparedness needs honest and robust ecological science, and honest and robust participatory democracy.

Mass tourism has led to construction on the fragile banks of the rivers. When rivers flood, more damage is caused.

In my childhood old 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. Landslides create slope instability, with more boulders and debris causing destruction of forests and fields. Less space is left for water, rivers flood more easily. And instead of reaching faster, pilgrims and local people face road blocks for days on end due to landslides. Pilgrim tourism needs to be “slow” tourism to respect the sacredness and fragility of the Himalaya, like there is Slow Food and Slow Money.

40 years ago I joined the Chipko movement as a volunteer.

The women led Chipko movement started after the 1972 Alaknanda disaster, caused by logging in the Alaknanda valley.

Women connected the deforestation to landslides and flooding. As they pointed out, the primary products of the forest were not timber and revenue, but soil and water. Forests left standing to protect the fragile Himalayan slopes provide more to the economy than when they are extracted as dead timber.

It took the 1978 Uttarkashi disaster for the Government to recognize that the women were right. What the government had to spend on flood relief was much more than the revenues they were getting through timber extraction.

In 1981, in response to the Chipko movement, logging was banned above 1000 km in the Garhwal Himalaya. Today Government policy recognizes that forestry in the fragile Himalaya 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, recognizing 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 Himalaya is the youngest mountain system in the world. They cannot bear the violence of deforestation and dam building. They need gentleness and respect.

Chipko shook our policy makers out of their slumber that allowed them to think of forests as timber mines, and woke them to the ecological functions of the forests in the catchments of our rivers. The current disaster should shake them out of the slumber that allows them to see rivers as 20,000 Mega watt of hydro power, and realize that when respected our rivers are rivers of life, and when violated, they can become rivers of death.

(Dr. Vandana Shiva is a scientist, philosopher, feminist, author, environmentalist and activist. She is also Founder, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.)

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Somanjana Chatterjee

Somanjan Chatterjee is San Francisco based consulting editor