A month on, questions remain over cause of Chamoli disaster
A month after a glacial breach and subsequent deadly floods hit Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on February 7, many questions remain over what caused the tragedy in the Himalayas, even as search and rescue work continues at a tunnel of a hydel project hit by the disaster.
Over 70 people died after the floods that occurred after a lake breached at Nanda Devi glacier in the upper reaches of Himalayas, triggering flash floods that hit Raini village and nearly washed away two hydropower plants downstream.
Several studies in the past one month, including that by The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), have said that the tragedy was caused by human-made reasons, even though the Defence Geo-Informatics Research Establishment – a research body under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) – said that human activity was not an immediate cause. A month after the tragedy, 132 people are still missing. Rescuers have so far recovered 72 bodies.
Experts said that tragedies such as the one in Chamoli have happened primarily due to the presence of humans in vulnerable areas on account of various projects and population surge. Many said that policymakers’ attitude over the years to such events showed no sense of urgency even after the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy.
Delhi-based activist Ajay Gautam said he filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the aftermath of the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy to push the state government to monitor glaciers.
“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 is waiting to happen”, he said.
Gautam said that in July 2018, the HC directed the state to rope in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology to study the status of the glacial lake 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 the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre for non-compliance,” he said.
After the Chamoli tragedy, the state government has announced many steps with regard to disaster mitigation in the state – setting up siren-based water level warning system at Raini village in Chamoli, announcing it will rehabilitate people from four disaster-prone districts and approving ₹45 lakh for 15 earthquake sensors are some. But many question why it took all these years even after a tragedy like the one in 2013 to take such initiatives.
“The most tragic part is nobody seems to be owning the responsibility for 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...,” said Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Dehradun-based think tank Social Development for Communities.
Nautiyal said immediately after the Kedarnath tragedy, the state should have started work on moving people from vulnerable areas and it should have fine-tuned its policies with regard to seeking a balance between development and environment in the fragile Himalayas.
Hemant Dhyani, a member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert body that studied the impact of hydropower projects on environmental degradation post-2013 Kedarnath tragedy, said the main question the Chamoli tragedy triggered was why such projects were built so close to glaciers. “The people responsible for this tragedy should be held accountable...”
Dhyani said that after the Kedarnath tragedy, the expert body recommended that hydel power projects 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.”
State Congress president Pritam Singh said the government also failed to expedite the search operation after the Chamoli disaster.
“Even after monitoring from the top level and involving so many high-tech means, 132 people are still missing... The government should take responsibility for what has happened.”
District magistrate Swati Bhadoriya, who has been coordinating the search and rescue operations, said it was wrong to say that the operation was 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.