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The true scale of the disaster

The ravaged village of Saudi in the upper reaches of the Kedar valley is a grim reminder of the June 16 cloudburst over the sacred mountains. It is also a telling sign of how ill-prepared India is to deal with its natural disasters. Chetan Chauhan reports.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2013 02:55 IST
Chetan Chauhan
Chetan Chauhan
Hindustan Times

The ravaged village of Saudi in the upper reaches of the Kedar valley is a grim reminder of the June 16 cloudburst over the sacred mountains. It is also a telling sign of how ill-prepared India is to deal with its natural disasters, compounded as they are by ill-planned development.

Every home in this village of 300 in northwestern Uttarakhand is mourning the loss of at least one member; in all, 59 villagers were killed and another 70 are missing.

The official toll for the disaster that has spread across an area of about 500 sq km in this Himalayan state is about 1,000; off the record, officials say the number of dead is probably five to ten times that.

Thousands are missing, perhaps never to be found or identified. Thousands more have nowhere to go, and wait, in their pummelled homes along the river banks, for relief.

There will be more cloudbursts in this region. The number of such ‘extreme weather events’ has been on the rise here over the past decade.
Since 2000, the western Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have witnessed an average of three cloudbursts per monsoon — defined as more than 100 mm of rain per hour — up from 2.8 in the previous decade.

Across the nation, as around the world, the incidence of extreme weather events is rising. North of Uttarakhand, in Jammu & Kashmir, the threat is of extreme snowfall. Along India’s extensive coastline, water levels are rising and, in cyclonic zones, the storms are becoming more frequent and more forceful. In the east, about 46% of the severe cyclones recorded since 1891 occurred after the 1970s, according to data from the National Cyclone Mitigation Project.

In the plains, rainfall is more erratic, with spells of drought more frequent in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Across India, analysis of rainfall data from 1951 to 2000 showed that the frequency of sudden rainfall has increased by 10% to 15% while average monsoon rainfall has fallen by 2%.

“This is a present-day reality and its severity will increase with time,” says BN Goswami, director of the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, which conducted the study.

A 10-year study conducted by UN affiliated ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in the Bay of Bengal points to the sea rising by 3.14 mm a year in the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans and by about 1.5 mm a year on the western coast.

This is bad news for India’s vulnerable regions — vulnerable both because of their geographic positions and because of unplanned development that has caused mountainsides to be eroded for roads, rivers to be blocked and diverted for dams and hydel projects, mangroves to be choked to create more room for construction, trees felled, mines sunk, hills quarried for stone and ore.

In recent cases, including Uttara-khand, unplanned and poorly planned development have contributed to the scale of each disaster.

In 2008, when the Kosi river flooded in Bihar, 3 million people were displaced in 24 hours. That same year, heavy rainfall in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh left 250 dead. In 2005, India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, was brought to a standstill by 3 ft of rain in 24 hours, causing losses estimated at R450 crore.

Nationally, natural disasters have cost the nation R1.56 lakh crore between 2007 and 2012 (the 11th plan period) — only accounting for homes damaged, farmland affected and cattle lost, not including the impact on local economies.

Some of this loss could have been prevented. “Most states don’t adhere to flood plain management plans, for instance,” says MS Reddy, vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). “Building homes so close to rivers is like inviting death.”

In all, a paper by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) found, 20% of India’s 1.2 billion people live along a highly vulnerable, cyclone-prone coastline, with more people moving into these ‘prime’ areas every month.

The cyclone-prone, low-lying Sunder-bans delta, for instance, is one of the most densely populated coastal regions in south Asia, as are the packed coastal cities of Mumbai, Chennai and Vishakhapatnam.

The environment ministry, required to regulate development in coastal areas, has faltered, despite satellite maps showing blatant violations. Rather than crack down, the ministry has condoned many irregularities in the name of ‘development’. A senior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, attributed this approach to “intense political pressure” overriding scientific considerations.

It is the same in the fragile mountain ecosystems, where hydel projects must seek environmental clearances as a rule, but clearance is rarely withheld or denied.

Recently, the Maharashtra government asked the ministry to allow buildings and infrastructure projects on the seafront in Mumbai; similar requests regularly pour in from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Both the BJP and Congress in Uttarakhand wanted the ministry to scrap norms that prevent construction too close to the Bhagirathi river — a tributary of Ganga — near the epicenter of the recent June disaster there.

“You cannot imagine the pressure,” says the senior ministry functionary who spoke to HT.

Thanks to incessant lobbying and pressure tactics by builders and large industrialists, norms are rendered meaningless and state governments have been given the power to directly sanction small hydel projects, issue indiscriminate leases for the mining of minor minerals such as sand and stone, and create concrete jungles in a haphazard manner.

In Uttarakhand alone, 99 hydel projects have replaced 5,000 hectares of forest, says Pushp Jain of Delhi-based NGO Environ-mental Impact Assessment Resource and Response Centre. Similar projects have been sanctioned on a similar scale in Arunachal Pradesh, which experiences more cloudbursts than Uttarakhand.

“When the courses of rivers are changed, mining erodes hillsides, trees are cut indiscriminately and roads built in a haphazard manner, calamities are bound to occur,” says PP Dayani, director of the Almora-based GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Development and Environment.

Overall, a 2012 Centre for Science and Environment report found that India has lost nearly 12 lakh hectares of forest since 1981, with only 5.3% of that land used for hospitals, schools or drinking water projects.

In essence, says Ravi Chopra of the Dehradun-based People Science Institute, India does not have a sustainable growth model. “There is no calculation of the carrying capacity of different disaster-prone ecological hotspots,” says Chopra. “People sitting in Delhi or state capitals approve projects not knowing what their impact could be.”

Flood-ravaged Saudi village is living proof of what happens next.

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