One of the most alarming video clips of the Himalayan floods that devastated Uttarakhand showed houses collapsing like packs of cards into the furious river.
When the shock of seeing large structures crumble faded, you wondered why so many tall buildings occupied precarious spots, how building permissions were granted to so many in such an ecologically fragile zone, and who profited from flouting the law.
The buildings weren’t five star hotels — so, in this instance, the rapacious capitalist couldn’t be blamed — but from the look of them seemed to have been put up by families keen to make a living off pilgrims and tourists.
Since the disaster, old photographs of a pristine Kedarnath circulating online have highlighted how untrammeled urbanisation has transformed the area. Uttarakhand was a disaster waiting to happen.
It is a disaster that awaits all our once-scenic havens in the Himalayas: the quaint hill stations, the holy towns and all those out-of-control mountain cities from Shimla to Gangtok. Landslides and other ‘natural’ disasters brought on by massive deforestation, relentless road laying and uncontrolled construction have already transformed these once gracious towns into urban eyesores complete with tedious traffic jams and crumbling infrastructure.
Sadly, as with other natural disasters whose effects have been multiplied because of man-made factors leading to immense injury and loss of life, livelihood and property, we seem to grasp the enormity of our blunders only in hindsight.
Nobody is suggesting that people in these areas return to a pre-modern era of quaint traditional architecture and have no easy access to the outside world.
But only the truly blind would reject the need for the stricter enforcement of environmental rules and for more planning in everything from roads to large residential and commercial structures and dams.
Earlier this week, the National Green Tribunal asked the state government of Uttarakhand and the Union ministry of environment and forests to justify how large-scale construction was allowed in such a fragile area. Only the very optimistic will expect honest answers to emerge.
If there’s one lesson that India should learn from Uttarakhand it is that we must be conscious of the power of Nature. Development cannot be oblivious to the environment in which it takes place.