Millennium Post

Falling water needs a cushion

It is now understandable. I mean the myth of Ganga coming down to earth (martalok) from her heavenly world (swargalok). The munis and rishis or people who had given the story of Ganga’s earthly appearance would probably have seen some natural phenomenon like the cloudburst over Uttarakhand last week.

Remember the myth. After unswerving meditation of Bhagirath to cajole Ganga leaving the godly world for benefit of thirsting humanity, Ganga Devi agreed to flow on earth. But the Gods foresaw complete destruction if Ganga descended on earth with her cascading waters. It was then that Shiva offered his matted hair to receive Ganga waters. But then, as Ganga waters fell on Shiva’s matted hair, it lost course and had to be retrieved from Mahadev’s thigh.
The myth hides an important lesson. Falling water needs cushion.

The enormous cloudburst over Uttarakhand could have wrecked much less destruction had it fallen on a cushion like Shiva’s matted hair. For the Himalayas, the natural cushion would be its mighty trees which grow to 100 feet, with stems as rotund as the size of half a room, and most importantly, their roots spreading like veins in intense embrace of boulders, rocks soil and whatever formations there are under the subsoil. The network of roots in the thick forests is like an enormously powerful mesh holding together everything in its way.

A cloudburst is formed when an enormous quantity of rain-bearing clouds get trapped between opposing air currents which sandwich and start compressing it. Once compression reaches a critical point where it can shrink no further,  the cloud bursts hurling its immense water body down, with the force of gravity multiplying its speed and impact.

Such a natural phenomenon will surely cause destruction. But it can be minimised when the first brunt is borne by the huge Himalayan trees and then muted by the root network underneath. Kedarpuri had typically borne the worst devastation because the area had least vegetation. The bed of loose rocks behind the temple had come down rolling with the impact of waterfall with little to hold them back.

The temple could escape with little damage because of its location and also the deft construction of the current shrine by the Maharajas of Jaipur sometime in the 1890s.
Surely, the reconstruction of Uttarakhand will begin. But the lessons of the calamity should be kept in mind while rebuilding. If the Himalayan hills are to be developed, it should be on sustainable basis not following the same model as in the rest of the country.

The first act of reconstruction must start with widespread afforestation. The fruits of afforestation started today might be reaped three decades hence. But that should not deter such long-term rebuilding effort. There will surely be cloudbursts and high rains again. The best way to receive them should be with enormous stretches of thick forests.

Secondly, the hill states must put emphasis on reaching a stable population. The population pressure on the limited natural space in the hills is building up and resulting in activities which are alien to such lands. The transient population should also be regulated.
Thirdly, higher levels of economic activity and government schemes for employment generation have raised the average level of income in the hills. Anyone visiting the hills for the last thirty or forty years cannot fail to notice the radical changes which have come in the hills. It has resulted in higher standards of living, including better housing.  All that is welcome change.

Unlike previously, you will hardly come across a person not reasonably clad in warm clothing, you come across reinforce concrete buildings in place of the old dwelling houses made of locally available materials like stone slabs and wood struts. The houses come up all over, notwithstanding how stable are the ground to support such high rise buildings. Housing and construction norms and policies should be radically overhauled. A concrete structure, which can be very rigid, may not be ideal for these areas.

Fourthly, tourism, which is one of the principal sources of income in the hills, cannot be rampant. Imagine a small little outer post like Kedarnath receiving over a million tourists in the high season. Kedarpuri certainly does not have the capacity to meet the pressure of such inflows.
The burgeoning tourism in the hills is at the same time a result of development as well as its driver. Imagine till the early sixties when there were nothing but walking trails to reach Kedarnath and Badrinath and pilgrims had to trudge for 200 to 250 kms to reach the destination. A cloudburst of this magnitude in those days would have entrapped few people. The enormity of the tragedy would have been less and rescue burden manageable.

Maybe, the state government should impose some capitation fee for those entering Kedarpuri, Badrinath, Gangotri or Yamunetri even if it militates against religious sentiments just for the sake of the pilgrims and the ecology. What Uttarakhand is suffering today could have happened to any of the hills states from Jammu and Kashmir in the west to the eastern and outer Himalayas till the borders of Burma. A national knowledge centre should be established for study and development of sustainable development format for these states.

It is sad to learn that the Samadhi of Adi Sankaracharyya on the left of the Kedar shrine has been wiped out after a millennium since his death. That possibly was the last physical remnant of a man who it is difficult to imagine lived on this earth in flesh and blood.  IPA
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