If there is one defining collage of the ongoing monsoon mayhem in Uttarakhand, it’s this: multi-storied concrete houses collapsing like a pack of cards into an angry, wild river and cars and lorries being tossed around in the swirling muddy waters, as if they were plastic toys.
As I watched the unfolding drama on TV, I remembered what a green campaigner told me some years ago in Uttarkashi: unsustainable development could destroy this ecologically fragile Himalayan state much earlier than we expect it to happen.
While it is true that this year’s monsoon has been uncharacteristically early and heavy, let’s not just blame the deluge for the widespread destruction in the state.
What we are seeing now is a result of the construction mania (dam building, unauthorised housing on the river banks) and illegal sand mining and deforestation that have been taking place in the state for years.
The building of bumper-to-bumper dams all along the Ganga has lead to blasting, digging, tunnelling and deforestation. Such activities have left the area weak, making it susceptible to landslides during the monsoons.
When landslides happen, mud is added to the monsoonal flow of the river, leading to a rise in water level and flooding.
Last year, we saw a trailer of what is happening now: the under-construction reservoirs of small hydro-projects on Asi-Ganga started holding monsoon water.
And then when the cloud burst happened, the stored water of these reservoirs added to the fury and three under-construction projects on the Asi-Ganga were washed away along with people and houses.
There are other man-made pressures on the area as well: ever-increasing tourism, especially religious tourism. Experts are now asking for a study to assess the carrying capacity of the Himalayas.
However, it is not the green lobby only that has been warning the state against such construction hara-kiri: in 2010, when the BJP was in power in Dehra Dun, a Comptroller and Auditor General’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 prior experience in building hydropower projects, leave alone constructing them in seismic zones like the Himalayas.
But this report was never even tabled in the assembly for discussion.
The latest round of politics in the state is over the Eco-sensitive Zone (ESZ) notification and how politicians negotiate this debate will have a bearing on the future of the state.
In 2012, the Congress-led Centre declared the 100-kilometre stretch along the river Bhagirathi, from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an ESZ.
The ESZ notification restricts quarrying, commissioning of hydropower projects on Bhagirathi and construction of roads in the prohibited area, ban on felling of trees and setting up of factories to manufacture wooden items.
Plastic carry bags and hazardous waste processing units are also banned inside the zone. Some activities can still go on with checks and balances: defence installations and other infrastructure relating to national security.
All development activities will have to be according to the zonal master plan, to be prepared by the state within two years. Unsurprisingly, the contractors’, builders’ lobby and the BJP have been demanding the cancellation of the notification.
The notification has led to a bizarre situation: the Congress government in the state, under pressure from the Opposition BJP and the local support it has managed to drum up, has opposed the notification, saying that it is anti-people.
But, as Ganga Ahavaan, a public forum, which supports the ESZ, says the notification will actually secure the future of the people and make them immune from exploitation by moneybags.
This year’s disaster is a timely warning and it would be sheer madness on the part of the state not to learn from these events and stonewall the ESZ.