Need a revamp
Uttarakhand mishap reasserts the need for a transformative change in ‘developmental’ planning of ecologically sensitive areas
On February 7, the people of the country witnessed a massive flash flood of devastating fury in Dhauliganga river in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. The Dhauliganga is a source tributary of the river Ganga and merges with the Alaknanda at Vishnuprayag at the base of Joshimath. The cause of the flood, on initial speculation, is attributed to the breakdown of a glacier in 'Rainee' village around 25 km from Joshimath. According to initial estimates of Uttarakhand Government, the flash flood killed 18 people and left around 200 missing. It damaged the under-construction Tapovan Vishnugad project of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) having a planned capacity of 520 MW and Rishi Ganga Power Corporation Ltd project of 13.2 MW that was commissioned in June 2020. These projects have been almost washed away. Of the missing people, 148 are those who were working at the Tapovan project and 22 were working at the Rishi Ganga project. The people working on these projects were trapped in two tunnels. From one tunnel, 16 people were rescued by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) while in another tunnel which is 2.5 km long, around 30 people are trapped and there is no communication with them and the rescue team was in action until Monday morning, as I write the column. The flood damaged five bridges and many houses.
Several villages were evacuated. The Government of Uttarakhand, ITBP and the disaster management apparatus of both Centre and the state swung into action and the downstream towns were alerted timely to prevent further damage of life and property. The Prime Minister, Home Minister and Uttarakhand Chief Minister took control of the situation. The National Crisis Management Committee met late Sunday evening and took stock of the situation. It ruled out the threat to power projects in Alaknanda in Srinagar.
The radar-based flood monitoring system developed by the Central Water Commission (CWC) with the help of Kritsnam Technologies — founded by a group of graduates from IIT-Kanpur and IIT-Kharagpur — was able to track real-time situation and promptly alerted the officials about the actual situation of water in the rivers in the entire stretch. The manuals developed by the teams of National Disaster Management Institute, Delhi, also helped in timely preparation. These inputs alerted the system and further loss of life, property and economy was averted. The Government swiftly dispatched medical teams and a 30-bed hospital was kept ready at Joshimath. Hospitals in Srinagar, Jolly Grant and Dehradun were also alerted. Eight NDRF teams were mobilised and deployed – with five tonnes of relief equipment – from Hindon Air Force base in Ghaziabad.
This is how the Government has reacted this time to the emergency and averted the confusion that normally happens in such situations. It showed the effectiveness of the emergency response system, though, its actual effectiveness will depend on how it safely brings back the remaining trapped people in the tunnel. The breaking of the glacier in daytime helped in the quick mobilisation of resources but the moot question is why such tragedies are happening time and again in this ecologically fragile area? The things as it stands today in the era of climate change, clearly point to palpable neglect of environment and ecology by the local people and the lackadaisical attitude of the Government which repeatedly ignores the experts' advice. It is a well-known fact that the 99 per cent of the glaciers are the 'ice sheets' and are located in higher altitudes of the Himalayas. These glaciers start breaking and melting down due to heavy snow, geological changes on account of gravitational forces, platonic movements and global warming and create lakes and blockages in rivers to become the ultimate cause of flash floods causing immense damage to men and material. This has exactly happened in the Dhauliganga river when the glacier broke and whipped away the Rishi Ganga power project.
If the people, their representatives and the Government are not careful, such tragedy cannot be averted. The scientists of Wadia Institute of Himalayan Studies conduct detailed studies on the glaciers and keep warning the state and central agencies to take preventive measures. The Wadia institute had predicted eight months ago that the glaciers in Chamoli district may break but no alerts were issued. However, the way development planning is undertaken, there is hardly any scope for preventive measures. For instance, consider the 54 small and medium hydro projects that have been sanctioned in Uttarakhand in past decades without caring for the fragile ecology. It only shows that many more disasters are in the offing. After the flash floods in Rudraprayag in 1998, I was leading a five-member team of the Central Government. A meeting with the Divisional Commissioner and other officers was held in Dehradun and a report was submitted to the Agriculture Ministry in which we clearly recommended 'thorough revamping' in the development strategy.
The reasons for the flash floods were attributed in the report to lopsided buildings and road construction in slopes which result in choking of drainages. The accumulation of waters in the subsoil and the formation of mini lakes ultimately result in flash floods during rains. The team had then recommended shifting of a few villages en route to Kedarnath and the entire region after an assessment of the geology. Ironically, those 32 earmarked villages in the report were washed away in the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy.
The crux of the matter is to completely review and restructure the developmental planning in the hills of Uttarakhand, especially the hydropower projects and particularly the use of science and common sense to decide on such projects. There should not be a total ban but rational decision-making is required. It is time to brace up for changes, and sooner the Uttarakhand people realise, better it will be.
The writer is the Chairman of the Centre for Resource Management and Environment. Views expressed are personal