The June 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand had taken many — including the state administration — by surprise. But it should not have been so because it was a tragedy waiting to happen. The immediate reason may have been a natural cause — the state was hit by its heaviest rainfall on record that month, causing lakes and rivers to burst their banks, inundating towns and villages downstream — but the collateral damage was excessively high because of the successive state governments’ desire to build hydropower projects in a fragile ecosystem.
This view has now been corroborated by the findings of a Supreme Court-mandated panel. In a report released on Monday, the panel said that badly managed hydropower projects were partly to blame for the floods.
The building of hydroelectric plants, it added, had led to the build-up of huge volumes of sediment in rivers that was not managed properly. The sediment raised river beds during the floods and was then flushed downstream, aggravating the severity of the flooding.
The plan for building what is called bumper-to-bumper hydroelectric plants has been controversial from day one. However, it is not just the green lobby that was warning the state against such construction hara-kiri: In 2010, a Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG’s) report warned that large stretches of the Ganga will dry up if these hydroelectric power projects were built. According to the CAG, some projects, outrageous as it may sound, had gone to cycle manufacturers, paan masala firms and garment manufacturers with no experience in building hydropower projects, leave alone constructing them in seismic zones like the Himalayas.
The panel findings highlight the problem facing the country, one of the world’s lowest per-capita energy consumers, as it rushes to expand power generation to meet rising demand. But as India progresses and formulates plans to meet its various demands — land, water, energy, etc — it has to clearly answer one question: Can we go for unsustainable myopic development plans that may have disastrous consequences for its citizens in the long run?