Three years after a devastating flood destroyed several parts of Uttarakhand, the state and the central government have not formed a policy to protect rivers and to deal with such calamities
Mallika Bhanot | June 16, 2016
There was an unprecedented disaster in 2013. Massive amount of torrential rainfall took place which led to flash floods near every single river of the state of Uttarakhand. From Yamuna, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Alaknanda, Dhauliganga, Kali nadi – none of the rivers were spared. The massive flash floods and landslides claimed thousands of lives and their livelihoods. Till date, people are trying to recover from the aftershocks of the disaster. It is still a long way to go. But what is important to note is that the 2013 disaster was brought to limelight only because the people who died were pilgrims. And that is the reason why it became national news. Even in previous disasters, many people have died. These disasters have been on the rise in the Himalayas since 2010 and its frequency and intensity increasing.
Uttarakhand is prone to disasters
Uttarakhand lies in the high-risk seismic zone 4, which is highly prone to landslides and is also a land sinking zone. Ganga flows through a very narrow valley. The upper catchment of the Ganga basin has a very interwoven and fragile network. Whenever any sort of developmental activity takes place, it directly attacks the fragile ecology of this basin.
There has been massive amount of deforestation, blasting, anthropogenic activities which is degrading and further weakening the ecology of the Ganga and Himalayan basin. Uttarakhand is prone to disasters because of its overall ecology. Developmental activities have further weakened its structure.
The impact of the Uttarakhand disaster of 2013 escalated because of the existence of hydropower projects all along the path of Ganga. In Assi Ganga valley, there were three bumper-to-bumper projects because of which we saw the escalation of cloud bursting.
After the 2013 disaster, the supreme court (SC) took suo moto cognizance of what really happened in the valley and it gave the direction to the central government to form an expert body to see if the mushrooming hydropower projects is actually the reason behind it. The word mushrooming is important because there is a cascade of hydropower projects which have been proposed, or are under-construction or are already existing all over the state. There has never been a cumulative impact study on whether these projects are feasible or not. The clearances to these projects are given on isolated basis.
After the SC’s order, an expert committee was formed by the UPA government which was headed by Ravi Chopra. The report submitted in December 2013, concluded that there has been a direct and indirect impact of the hydropower projects in escalating the disaster of 2013. The report also noted that the maximum disaster took place in the immediate vicinity of the hydroprojects. It recommended that at least 23 projects be dropped, a cumulative assessment be made to improve governance.
The hydropower projects have had a direct and indirect impact on the ecology of the state. Deforestation, tunnelling, blasting, mining, construction, movement of the heavy machinery – all of this is required for a hydropower project and it contributes in weakening an already fragile area.
Even when the government changed, the new government came in with a Ganga rejuvenation plan and a ministry in this name. It has done nothing but the opposite.
The NDA government came out with a report saying that the construction of projects is fine and more hydropower projects should be built.
Instead of investigating the existing and the under-construction projects and stopping further destruction, the entire discussion right now in the court is on new projects. Why would you want to build something new when you are already suffering from what you had created in the past?
Even if you do not have the scientific understanding, you do understand what Ganga means to this country and that if you kill the origin of the river then the entire river rejuvenation is a farcical concept. How can you negate the reports on the loss of biodiversity and negate the report on over burdening on all these rivers. A report submitted by BK Chatturvedi committee in 2012 highlighted that the seven rivers must be left in the pristine state.
Despite all these reports, the government tells the court that all projects are good. Later, another committee was formed. The entire investigation started at the backdrop of a 2013 disaster and now the government submitted a report in the court saying that as long as you release 1000 cusec of water, it is okay to construct. How have you not addressed the issue of disaster? The government is talking about the proposed hydropower projects when they have not even applied corrective measures to the existing under-construction ones. None of these questions are being answered.
The UPA government, in order to protect the last pristine stretch of the flowing river Bhagirathi, 100 km of the river was declared as ecologically sensitive zone and three bumper-to-bumper hydro power projects were scrapped. Of course the implementation of the notification is still pending. The state government does not want to implement it because it wants to exploit their resources to gain more and more money.
Instead of protecting the natural resources, the government is trying to further exploit them. But Ganga does not belong to Uttarakhand. No state can claim its right on it. You cannot kill the origin of the river. If Ganga is flowing through your state it becomes your moral duty and responsibility to protect and conserve its flow.
Even China, which is probably the flag holder as far as creation of hydropower projects in concerned, has identified its wild river and has decided not to build anything on it. I do not see anything of that sort happening here.
Ganga was declared the national river in 2009, but there is no single Act in place. What does it imply? What are we doing to it? In the upstream path, the river is diverted and tunneled. When it comes to the middle, sewage flow into it and there is no flow of the river. All along in 2500 km of Ganga, one or the other kind of atrocity is killing the river.
The government is portraying their agenda [on Ganga] in complete contrast to the ground reality. The government has not done anything and does not even intent to. The climate shift is phenomenal in the state. After 2013 disaster, the state is experiencing drought like situation. And it seems the government is not bothered.
As told to Jasleen Kaur
The author is a member of Ganga Ahvaan. It is a people’s movement to save the river Ganga. The movement has been initiated from Uttarkashi where Ganga Ahvaan is fighting against the construction of a series of dams being proposed on the last left clean stretch of Ganga