Over the last fortnight, much has been written, said and shown in public media, both print and otherwise about the flash floods and landslides that have devastated Uttarakhand, parts of Himachal Pradesh and Western Nepal. The weather pundits tell us that this is due to abnormally heavy rainfall for four days — as much as 375% more than the normal monsoon, along with melting snow from the Himalayas. Road networks, riverside settlements, and small towns in particular have borne the brunt of a furious nature. The thriving tourist season during these months has worsened the situation with huge loss of life and property. Along with natural factors, several anthropogenic factors are at play which have resulted in this unprecedented tragedy in northern India. It has now been declared as one of the worst environmental disasters in Indian history.
Uttarakhand is home to many holy Hindu temples and pilgrimage centers, dedicated to Hindu deities, Kedarnath (dedicated to Shiva), Badrinath (dedicated to Vishnu), Yamunotri (origin of river Yamuna), Gangotri (origin of river Ganga), and Haridwar that hosts the Kumbha Mela every twelve years, in which millions of pilgrims take part from all parts of India and the world. Mussoorie, Nainital, Lansdowne, Almora, Bhimtal, and Ranikhet are some of the popular hill stations established during British times. The region is blessed with abundance of natural wealth with more than 60% of the state area as covered with forest. The state has 12 National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries which cover more than 13 percent of the total area. These include the Valley of Flowers and Nanda Devi National Park, which together were designated as UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988,in the northern Kumaun Himalayas, Rajaji National Park in the western Siwaliks, and Corbett National Park in the Himalayan foothills.
Uttarakhand is a hub of tourist activities throughout the year, mainly in summer months. The number of tourists visiting the state over the year is 1. 5 times that of the population of the state itself. These figures are enough to put a focus on the magnitude of pressure that the state is under from the tourism sector.
In earlier times, pilgrimages to religious sites were performed on foot. A few decades back, there was an efficient local transport system within the state along with the state transport system from the neighboring states. With a limited number of tourists, it was a sustainable mode of commuting. In recent years, however, with the affluent middle class, private vehicles form the main mode of transport. According to an analysis done by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the number of vehicles registered in Uttarakhand increased from 83,000- odd vehicles in 2005-06 to 180,000 by 2012-13, of which most cater to tourists. Traffic densities on the narrow hill roads have already reached alarming levels.
As is the case with other hill towns across India, the hill stations of Uttarakhand are not geared up to deal with such an increase in tourist influx. Generally the towns have poor road, electricity, water supply and sewage disposal infrastructure, all crumbling under the immense pressure of growing tourism.
The increased tourist inflow has had a devastating effect on the hilly environment. There are hardly any habitable areas left in the hills that are beyond the reach of a motorable vehicle. Vehicles and parking areas have encroached on all the public spaces. There is a major concern of lack of organized sewage disposal system in the towns. Untreated sewage pollutes the tributaries and the rivers, causing the riverbed to rise, leading to floods upstream and flash floods downstream. The excavation of hillsides for new roads and residential areas, construction of unregulated number of dams to meet the increasing demand for power and electricity, sand mining along river banks, soil erosion issues along hillsides, mass felling of trees in the forest to reclaim flat land, diversion of natural water channels, and mining both legal and illegal, all disturb the ecological equilibrium of the fragile land.
Over the decades, dams have been built across the Himalayas that have delivered benefits to society, but have also caused serious social and environmental harm as well. These dams arguably have a direct connection to the extent of damage that has been caused in disasters such as being experienced at present.
The tunneling and excavation for dam projects causes deforestation, the blasting of hillsides, and the unregulated dumping of excavated debris into river basins, leading to increased siltation. The depositing of debris from dam construction and mining into rivers greatly increases the possibility of flash floods during heavy rains.
The extensive deforestation of mountain tracts has led to soil erosion and water run-off, thus destabilizing mountain slopes and contributing to more intense and frequent landslides and floods. In recent past, reinforced cement concrete has replaced most of the traditional materials of wood and stone in construction industry in hilly regions. These structures lead to heat island effect that raises temperatures, resulting in macro level increase in temperatures. It is ironical that Uttarakhand is also the birthplace of the famous community driven environment movement «Chipko Andolan» in the mid- seventies. Protests by the local communities, headed by activists Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sundarlal Bahuguna, galvanized public opinion against the government policies of cutting down of forest trees and in the process, the loss of local livelihoods in the region. Even after four decades, is the movement is considered as the most successful ex-ample of environment activism in the country.
Along with these causes, the patterns of extreme and unseasonal rainfall that we see today appear to indicate a global warming induced climate change phenomenon. According to environ-mentalists, the Himalayas being a young mountain range are not only undergoing major tectonic movements but also rapid environmental change. The rate of change in the Himalayas is more than any other mountain range in the world. The increased atmospheric temperature causes new precipitation patterns characterized by short spells of heavy rains rather than uniform rainfall over a longer period.
The first and foremost task for Uttarakhand may be to constitute an Expert Panel Group for working out integrated ecological Master plans for the hill state. The panel would be a multi- disciplinary group of scientists working in the area of geology, hydrogeology, climatology, geography, ecology (both from forests and plains), physical planning, along with social scientists and people from local interest groups. Various organizations working in the areas of conducting aerial surveys, satellite imageries, remote sensing can collaborate to form a credible data base of the complex geographical layers with their natural processes. This will address the first and foremost layer of the ecological significance, defining clearly the core conservation areas (with no development norms) and other hierarchies/ categories of development, each with detailed development guidelines (taking in view the cultural factors as well). Scientific studies need to be conducted to work out the carrying capacity of the fragile ecosystem in detail. Findings of these studies will form the basis of working out future strategies. Once the Master Plan with detailed guidelines for development is in place, it is suggested to make it a State law, based on which further policies can be developed for the detailed planning and design. The scientific planning process for the Region needs to address issues and potentials at Regional Level, Master Plan level, Zonal level, Sub zonal level and Local Area level.
Scientific methods should be adopted for sitting, constructing and managing hydropower projects in the hills. Dam construction should be geared to ensure minimum disturbance and appropriate rehabilitation to avoid sedimentation and erosion risks up and downstream of the project site. Sediment and erosion issues need to be considered and assessed at the catchment, reservoir and downstream areas. Hydropower developments modify existing terrestrial and aquatic habitats. All the vegetation including trees that already exist near the dam construction site needs to be preserved. The soil and surface water runoff during construction needs to be protected. Another challenge is to ensure that individuals and communities affected by a hydropower development benefit after new developments in areas of with improved living conditions, public health facilities, equitable distribution of benefits, and social compensation measures. The public acceptance of key decisions in planning is essential for equitable and sustainable water and energy resources development in hilly regions.
The hilly areas of Uttarakhand face the challenge of promoting livelihoods to retain people through local employment and occupations to enhance the quality of life. About one-fourth of the total population lives in several urban centers, located primarily in the southern part of the state. Northern and eastern Uttarakhand have experienced a comparatively slow rate of urbanization. There is an urgent need to revive the core local economy based on cultural factors rather than only tourism. With around 10,000 hectares of land under organic farming, organic products have a parallel market, which needs to be managed more efficiently. Cultivation of aromatic and medicinal plants is another small scale industry that can be further developed. Floriculture is another growth sector where the opportunities can offer new ways of generating livelihoods and occupations in the region. It has been given accorded 100% export status by the Government of India. Uttarakhand has already made a mark in it. There is a need to explore new collaborative models with private investors to make this industry more professional and efficient in the coming years. There is a large area of degraded land in the state that can be reclaimed and developed by agro forestry. Revival of traditional wool industry, wood and paper products related cottage industry, new art centers and training institutes to revive the art of Pahari paintings, for which the region is famous for are few of the other directions policy makers could focus on.
Exploring new renewable sources of energy — solar and wind instead of hydro projects/dams can be one of the ways to address the adverse effects of dams in these fragile areas. Moreover, there is a need to reduce the demand for water and energy in these areas.
Uttarakhand is the only state in India with a Tourism Development Board with legislation. Any planning policy must give priority to making existing water, energy and transportation systems more effective and sustainable before taking any decision about further development. The State needs a high quality tourism infrastructure including easy mobility, efficient public transport system across the places of tourist destinations, lodging facilities, well designed tourist places, market places among other facilities.
The calamity of Uttarakhand holds many hidden lessons that can be learnt to prevent such disasters to a large extent in future. The journey will be a slow one but the solutions thus found will definitely last longer.