In the din of elections and euphoria over new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the loss of hundreds of lives in one of the worst Himalayan tragedies in Uttarakhand has been forgotten.
The policy correction promised after the tragedy remained mostly on paper and Uttarakhand is back to business as usual — developing but doing little to save the fragile local ecology.
The core of the promises made was to check such man-made disasters not just in Uttarakhand but across Himalayan states vulnerable to flash floods caused by heavy rains.
That was to be done by infusing science into the developmental process — from building roads to new hydel projects.
Another major component of the plan was that geologists would no more be mere rubber stamps on engineering projects, but key players in deciding topography of roads so that these are not built on highly active tectonic fault lines in Uttarakhand. Most of the roads in the state have been rebuilt on old fault lines despite caution.
Key attention needed to be paid that roads don’t intensify fury of flash floods by blocking natural waterways.
“Authorities need to pay heed to basic scientific principles,” said professor KS Vaidya of Bengaluru’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. According to him the heavy loss of lives — more than 5,500 people were killed — in the deluge was the result of decades of disregard for the state’s fragile topography by the authorities.
After the tragedy, a study of water flow of rivers in Uttarakhand was carried out. But its key recommendations seeking slowing down of haphazard development did not find any takers among the political class. The reason was more than obvious as it would have resulted in scrapping or downsizing of some of the major hydel projects blamed for disturbing natural river flow, a reason for high-intensity of flash floods.
A ministerial committee headed by former cabinet secretary BK Chaturvedi to examine the impact of hydel projects on the state’s ecology had recommended a minimum water flow of 30% (50% during winters). But the recommendation was not implemented, as the non-official members in the committee, who favoured hydel projects at any cost, dismissed it as a “minimalistic approach”.
A year later, it appears that India has not learnt much from the Uttarakhand tragedy as both the Centre and state governments are clearing projects without visualising their impact on local ecology.