Millennium Post

Anniversary of an avoidable tragedy

The wrath of Mandakini that had overwhelmed Uttarakhand on 17 June 2013 wasn’t just a natural calamity. It was in every sense of the term a man-made disaster. Decades of mindless ‘development’, particularly the ill-located hydel power projects and reckless damns constructed along river paths in this delicate ecosystem, along with mass deforestation, had substantially weakened the top layer of the soil in Uttarakhand, which failed to withstand a combination of cloudburst, heavy rain and flooding of the terrain. Over 6,000, mostly pilgrims, perished in the catastrophe, and their rotting corpses and skeletal remains, along with possessions, are being discovered even till this date. The submergence of the shrine at Kedarnath and its utter destruction sent shock waves and ripples of disbelief through the religious tourism industry which has spawned in the last twenty years.

It has flouted almost every ecological norm to set up thousands of illegal constructions and build meandering roads snaking through this sensitive environmental zone, making money in the name of gods while damaging the ecosystem, polluting rivers and throwing the natural balance of the region completely off balance. Landslides, unseasonal rainfall, glacial melt, erratic movement of monsoon winds, accumulation of non-biodegradable toxic debris from human activities, particularly plastic bags and bottles, breaking of soil barriers and a host of other reasons had led to the unfathomable catastrophe one year back, from which Uttarakhand government, and indeed the Centre, haven’t yet fully recovered.

     Although Vijay Bahuguna had tendered his resignation in the aftermath of the tragedy, the next chief minister Harish Rawat hasn’t been able to control and comfort the state reeling from the rage of nature, its unsparing fury. The compensation package that Uttarakhand had asked from the union government was only partly granted: mere Rs 7,346 crore was handed over when the demand had been for Rs 21,000 crore. Despite a ban being on place over all construction work along the river banks in the state, it is appalling how even repair and reconstruction work haven’t quite begun, with rehabilitation of damaged public and commercial buildings too not going anywhere. Death certificates are still being issued to the families of the victims, a clear sign of utter disregard for lives of both the pilgrims and the locals who lost their lives as well as livelihoods in the disaster.

The 14-km-long trekking route along the Kedarnath shrine lies in utter neglect: the religiosity notwithstanding. Although daring tourists and pilgrims have decided to brace the ruins of the gods once again this year, there has been no paradigm shift in how we handle earth matters.          

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