The Uttarakhand disaster has exposed many serious infirmities of the state and central government. The complete lack of a disaster management plan is obvious, both at the state and central levels. A lack of any consideration for Uttarakhand’s ecological vulnerability in its development policies and projects is also apparent.
India has taken pride internationally in its National Action Plan on Climate Change, formulated in 2009. The Plan was formulated under guidance of the prime minister’s 26-member Council on Climate Change, constituted in 2008. Halfway through the implementation period (2009-2017), however, there has been no impact made on the functioning of one of the most vulnerable state.
Everyone seems surprised and unprepared for what struck Uttarakhand on June 16, even though climate scientists have been warning of exactly this kind of disaster for years. And even though there have been several similar events in the region, albeit on a smaller scale, over the past few years.
In 2012 alone there were two monsoon-related disasters, in Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag, the same areas that took the hit this year. Eight such disasters have struck Rudra-prayag over the past 34 years. Scientists have also been warning that a large earthquake is imminent in both the eastern and western Himalayas.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests’ 4X4 Climate Assessment Report of 2010 had identified the Himalayan region as one of the four most vulnerable in the country. This region comprises 16.2% of the geographical area of the country, spread over 12 states.
The vulnerabilities of Uttarakhand are largely applicable to all Himalayan states, from Jammu & Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. And the union ministry of environment and forests must take a large part of the blame for having completely failed to ensure any credible environmental governance.
The ministry itself has shown no will to ensure compliance of norms and environmental management plans. Its expert appraisal committee on river valley projects has an almost zero rejection rate in six-and-a-half years.
It has refused to act against shoddy or dishonest impact assessments and has no credible public hearing process or cumulative impact assessment system. Many observers are calling the current Uttarakhand disaster a Himalayan tsunami. The sad truth is, a tsunami is a natural phenomenon, whereas the Uttarakhand disaster is not.
If we are to move forward now, there are some rules our government must begin to implement in the Himalayan states… n Ensure credible environmental impact assessment of all activities, including dams and hydropower projects above 1 MW capacity. Such assessments should include how the projects can increase disaster potential.
Protect and conserve rivers, riverbeds, catchment areas and flood plains. Do not allow encroachments here. Begin a phase-wise removal of all illegal encroachments in riverbeds and flood plains.
Declare certain high-risk zones no-project areas.
Set up in each of these states an active state disaster management authority with a key role in developmental decisions.
Without these changes, implemented in letter and in spirit, the march of ‘development’ in the Himalayas will only cause more loss of lives, and more tragedy.