In Retrospect

Makings of a disaster

The Uttarakhand tunnel collapse is just one of the many cases that brings to light the need to reform our lifestyle, give up on comfort and things for the sake of sustainability, paving the way for a deep dive into the debate between development and conservation

Makings of a disaster

Fourteen days after the 41 construction workers were trapped after a tunnel collapsed in Uttarakhand, officials believe that a rescue operation is close to making a critical breakthrough.

The construction workers have been trapped 260 metres inside the Silkyara-Barkot under-construction tunnel since November 12, when a part of it collapsed following a landslide at around 5.30 am.

Situated about 30 km from Uttarkashi and a seven-hour drive from Dehradun, the Silkyara tunnel is an integral part of the Central government’s Char Dham all-weather road project.

The said project, being built at a cost of Rs 12,500 crore, was supposed to widen roads in the region, keeping in mind sufficient slope protection needs. The project was challenged in 2018 for its perilous impact on the Himalayan ecology. Ecological experts and environmentalists, in a petition before the Supreme Court, had raised concerns about impending environmental disasters like flooding and landslides due to the destruction of ecosystems for infrastructure projects.

Authorities are working hard to ensure the speedy evacuation of the workers, trapped under the debris of the collapsed under-construction tunnel.

The government has implemented a five-pronged action plan for the rescue mission, seeking help from five agencies: Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Sutluj Jal Vidyut Nigam, Rail Vikas Nigam, National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation, and Tehri Hydro Development Corporation — each assigned specific responsibilities.

However, the rescue work faces significant topographic challenges, and drilling operations had to be halted temporarily as cracks were identified in the platform supporting the drilling machine.

The horizontal drilling operation could encounter additional obstacles, potentially up to three or four more, according to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) member Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Syed Ata Hasnain who stressed that predicting a timeframe for the rescue operation would be imprudent, considering the unpredictable and challenging nature of the task.

Experts believe that construction in the fragile mountains requires different skills and technology for development. This raises the question of whether the state authorities overlooked the conditions of the Himalayas, particularly in the Uttarakhand range, when approving such extensive infrastructure projects.

This issue was discussed in detail at a seminar on sustainable development and climate change, held in Uttarakhand on October 28.

At the seminar, S K Patnaik, a member of the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board, said there was “unchecked development” in the hills.

“There are Extended Producer Responsibility regulations in place but not being followed. We need to give up on comfort and things for the sake of sustainability. Change in lifestyle is a must,” he said.

And thus, the debate rages on. It is interesting to note how frequently and how strongly a view emerges that India, at its current stage of development, should ignore environmental costs for the sake of meeting its development goals. This view appears to be consistent with the larger public opinion in India, perhaps shaped by the discourse on the growth versus environment debate in this country.

The basis for this view is the idea that environmental quality comes only after basic needs such as food and housing are met. So, countries should focus initially on economic growth even if it comes at the expense of environmental quality. As countries become richer, they can afford to clean up pollution from the past and as public demand for a cleaner environment increases, governments can enact and enforce stricter pollution control regulations. This is the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) hypothesis and is supposed to explain why environmental quality has improved in richer countries. The argument is simple: “Pollute first; clean up later”.

The validity of the EKC hypothesis, however, has been seriously questioned. In a paper published in Science in 1995, a team of researchers led by Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow argues that the “pollute first; clean up later” approach is flawed. First, in the case of global pollutants such as carbon dioxide, there is not enough evidence that their levels start falling after countries become richer. Second, it is not clear how much damage we can cause to our ecological systems before which they start undergoing irreversible changes. Such irreversible changes can lead to changes in the earth’s life-supporting systems, with unpredictable consequences. Third, the improvement in environmental quality after an income threshold may have more to do with the ability of developed nations to shift polluting industries to developing nations at low economic cost and less to do with public demand for policies that lead to a cleaner environment. Thus, policies should not be based on the “pollute-first; clean-up-later” approach.

This explains why we might want to explicitly acknowledge that development projects in mining and infrastructure often come at the cost of natural forests we might never be able to recreate.

The first implication for policy is that in the planning of development projects, we should explicitly identify trade-offs between economic benefit and ecological impact. Second, to determine what trade-offs are acceptable, we must design transparent mechanisms that allow for meaningful discussion through a participatory process, in which all the groups affected by the projects are involved. We need to strengthen participatory processes such as public hearings in the environmental and forest clearance process. Research shows that meaningful public participation in decision-making in a variety of environmental and natural resources management contexts will, in the long run, build greater trust among various stakeholders and reduce conflict.

From deforestation and droughts to air pollution and plastic waste, there are several factors exacerbating global warming with consequences felt everywhere in the world. However, some nations suffer more than others. Right now, India, which has the largest population in the world with more than 1.43 billion people and vast geographical diversity, is experiencing some of the biggest environmental issues that have led to numerous man-made tragedies in the recent past — be it extreme temperature events, landslides, major earthquakes or cyclones and floods.

India ranks among the top 10 countries in the world that are prone to disasters. Thus, more research and study is required before any developmental project is taken up for the greater good.

Responding to the tunnel tragedy, renowned geologist from Uttarakhand, MPS Bisht, has been quoted as saying: “When undertaking such massive engineering projects, it is of utmost importance to conduct thorough geotechnical and geophysical mapping of the specific rock on which the tunnel is to be constructed.”

He further stated: “This exercise is essential before initiating any infrastructure project in mountainous areas. Throughout the construction process, it is crucial to consistently monitor and uphold safety measures, as rock conditions can vary. Geophysical mapping provides details about the quality of rock across the hill.”

Explaining the persistent man-made disasters in the Himalayas, Himanshu Thakker, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has been quoted as saying that a proper study and assessment of risks involved, resources, geology and safety of the project was critical.

“Without proper study, geological surprises will come up. Cost overruns, missing timelines, and safety-related incidents are bound to happen. There is no culture of due diligence before initiating such projects in our country. Cost is borne by someone else. Safety risks are borne by workers, mostly migrants from other states. Damage to the local environment, residents bear it. Developers, contractors don’t face any adverse cost impact,” Thakker said.

“The culture of accountability and consequence is absent in India. There are no lessons learnt from previous disasters, which can be used as a benchmark for future projects.”

Even by following every protocol, there is never a foolproof way to avoid the collapse of a tunnel being constructed. In terms of geologists, the Himalayan terrain is a new geology because it is still squeezing, which causes uncertainty and chances of sudden collapses.

The number of natural disasters in the region has surged since 2010. The Kedarnath disaster in 2013; repeated monsoon floods and landslides have been unprecedented, with thousands of lives lost. Pilgrims face relentless traffic disruptions caused by cracks appearing on the Kedarnath and Badrinath Highways. The locals are the worst sufferers. They want the region to flourish economically but the collateral damage is insurmountable.

The loss of lives and the social impact hurts the country. Development needs to be sustainable with the least impact on the environment, and due diligence must be done by a team of independent experts before a project begins. Development should be prioritised but not at the cost of creating ecological imbalances, endangering the lives of people who engage in building it or locals who derive their livelihood from it.

Views expressed are personal

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