Border Roads Organisation (BRO) workers engaged in building a valley bridge over the Rishi Ganga River at Raini village of the disaster-hit Chamoli district. (PTI)
Border Roads Organisation (BRO) workers engaged in building a valley bridge over the Rishi Ganga River at Raini village of the disaster-hit Chamoli district. (PTI)

Chamoli tragedy: Month later, rescue continues; experts say 'no lessons learnt'

  • Several studies in the past month have said that the tragedy was because of man-made reasons.
By Neeraj Santoshi, Dehradun
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 10:44 PM IST

After a month of Uttarakhand's Chamoli tragedy that struck on February 7, many questions remain unanswered while the rescue work at Topavan hydel project is still going in.

Several studies in the past month, including that by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), have said that the tragedy was because of man-made reasons. The Defence Geo-Informatics Research Establishment - a research body under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) - claimed that human activity was not an immediate cause of the disaster.

Experts said that such a tragedy happened primarily due to the presence of humans in vulnerable areas on account of various projects and population surge that has brought people close to the door of the tragedies, and when such natural events happen, they become sitting ducks.

Many alleged that the attitude of policymakers to such events over the years shows no sense of urgency even after the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy.

Delhi-based activist Ajay Gautam said he had even filed a PIL in the aftermath 2013 Kedarnath tragedy to push the state government to monitor the glaciers. He said he has been fighting legally in the High Court that glaciers like Gangotri should be monitored to ensure there is no recurrence of tragedies like the 2013 Kedarnath one.

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“I will share my own experience on the government’s attitude towards such sensitive issues. In 2017, I filed a PIL in Uttarakhand High Court pointing out that an artificial 1500x250 metre glacial lake had formed at the mouth of the Gaumukh glacier due to piling up of the nearly 30-metre-high debris at the mouth of the stream and if is not cleared in time, another Kedarnath-like disaster could happen,” he said.

Gautam said in July 2018, the HC directed the state government to rope in the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology to study the status of the glacial lake after every three months and present the reports to the court. “But nothing like that was done, forcing me to approach the HC again last year and following the court’s strong comments, the state government suspended the executive director of Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre for non-compliance with the court directions,” he said.

After the Chamoli tragedy, the state government has taken or announced many steps concerning disaster mitigation in the state, like setting up siren based water level warning system at Raini village in Chamoli, announcing it will rehabilitate people from disaster-prone four districts to safer places, approving 45 lakhs for 15 earthquake sensors and so on. But many are questioning why it took so many years even after a major disaster like the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, in which over 3,000 people are still missing, to take such initiatives.

“The most tragic part is that nobody seems to be owning the responsibility for the Chamoli tragedy. Initially, when the tragedy struck, there was urgency from all sides, but now, as time passes, that urgency seems to be missing. And I fear people will soon forget Chamoli tragedy and go about their business as usual,” said Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Dehradun-based think tank Social Development for Communities.

Nautiyal said immediately after the Kedarnath tragedy, the state government should have started work on moving people from vulnerable areas, set up early warning systems and finetune their policies with regard to seeking a balance between development and environment in the fragile Himalayas.

Also, a month after the tragedy, 132 people are still missing. The rescuers have so far recovered 72 bodies, including 14 from the Tapovan dam tunnel and 42 body parts, samples of which have been taken for DNA testing to ascertain their identity.

Many experts are pointing out the fact that it remains unanswered why in the first place are such hydel projects being built up so close to sensitive glacial regions.

Hemant Dhyani, member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert body that studied the impacts of hydropower projects on environmental degradation post the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy, said, the main question Chamoli tragedy puts and which is being brushed aside is why such projects were built so close to glaciers, endangering the lives of people.

“The people responsible for this tragedy should be held accountable and proceedings as per law should be initiated against them,” he said

Dhyani said in 2014, an expert body (EB) had recommended that hydel power projects should not be built in disaster-prone Himalayan valleys north of the Main Central Thrust (MCT). “But those recommendations were not adopted. Even Rishiganga valley is located in the region north of the MCT, which is highly prone to landslides, flash floods and earthquake. The inter-ministerial group (IMG) had also recommended in 2014 that the Rishi Ganga should be left pristine," he said.

Some like Congress have questioned why despite all technological means and so many agencies involved in rescue ad search operations, the digging of the tunnel couldn’t be expedited.

Uttarakhand Congress president Pritam Singh said the government has failed to expedite the search operation. “Even after monitoring from the top level and involving so many high-tech means, 132 people are still missing. We fear that like in the case of the Kedarnath tragedy, many bodies may not be found at all. The government should take responsibility for what has happened in Chamoli,” he said.

Swati Bhadoriya, district magistrate who has been coordinating the rescue and search operations, said, it is wrong to say that the search operation has been slow. “The rescuers are facing very difficult challenges, like water flowing into the muck and big boulders coming their way, which makes digging very difficult. Despite all odds, the rescuers have dug around 200 metres,” she said.

Timeline of Chamoli disaster:

Feb 7: Snow avalanche and rockfall in Chamoli district caused flash floods. Two under-construction hydel power projects- Rishi Ganga and NTPC's Tapovan washed away. Water flowed over the dams causing havoc, with muck and debris also entering dam tunnels. The SDRF and local police reached the spot to start the rescue operation, The ITBP and the Army join from nearby bases. Recover 5 bodies and rescue 12 from a tunnel in the NTPC Tapovan project. About 200 reported missing. CM Trivendra Singh Rawat, DGP Ashok Kumar and other officials reach the spot. Launch helpline numbers.

Feb 8: Massive rescue operation launched to rescue about 35 workers trapped in a 1.7-km tunnel at NTPC dam project site. Union power minister reaches the spot, claims 1,500 crore loss to NTPC dam at Tapovan. Total 26 bodies recovered, about 180 still missing.

Feb 9: Rescue workers fail to progress beyond 100 metres inside the tunnel to rescue 35 workers trapped. Face the challenge of heavy muck and boulders. The CM visits affected villages, provides relief material. Total 32 bodies recovered, 174 still missing.

Feb 10: Rescue workers use drones for laser scanning of the tunnel to spot trapped workers. No breakthrough. Total 34 bodies recovered, 170 still missing after agencies revise figure of total missing to 204. Police start collecting DNA samples of bodies for identification.

Feb 11: Rescue workers start drilling vertically down to reach to slit flushing channel 13 metres below the floor of the main tunnel to find out the status there as 25 to 35 workers still said to be trapped. Total 35 bodies recovered, 169 still missing.

Feb 12: Total 38 bodies recovered, 11 identified while 27 unidentified.

Family members of survivors protest at Tapovan dam site, alleging delay in rescue operations to find out their loved ones.

Mar 6: 72 bodies recovered and 132 people still missing. Tapovan tunnel-digging reaches around 200 metre

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