ML Update 27 / 2013

MLUpdate

A CPI(ML) Weekly News Magazine

Vol. 16 No. 27 25 JUN- 1 JUL 2013

Uttarakhand’s Himalayan Tragedy:

Natural Disaster of Man-Made Origin

The unusually high rainfall and flash floods devastating the Uttarakhand region have cost lives that are yet to be fully counted. Thousands of local people, pilgrims and tourists still await rescue even as the heroic rescue efforts by Armed forces, and relief efforts by local people who are putting aside their own adversity to help others in distress, continue. As we go to press, one rescue helicopter has crashed, tragically killing several people including 8 armed forces personnel.

At the same time, India’s ruling class politics has cut a sorry figure, with a sordid drama of one-upmanship. The macho boasts made by Narendra Modi’s spin doctors of ‘rescuing 15000 Gujaratis’ are not only unsubstantiated, they stand in stark contrast to the modesty of those on the ground who are truly risking lives to save people, without unseemly boasts of body-counts. They are also a shameful display of regionalism at a time when people’s concerns for the disaster-affected are overcoming boundaries of states and nations. The helicopter trips by various political ‘VIPs’ and photo ops by Congress and UPA leaders ‘flagging off’ relief trucks are no less unseemly and shameful.

The inescapable fact of the matter is that both the BJP and the Congress that have ruled Uttarakhand and the Centre are implicated in this disaster. To call it a ‘natural’ disaster is only a half-truth. The unfolding tragedy of Himalayan proportions has been caused by decades of criminal policies of plundering hills and rivers in the name of ‘development’.

Environmentalists and people of Uttarakhand have pointed out time and again that the Himalayas are young mountains, prone to high intensity rainfall events, cloud bursts, flash floods, and landslides. The rivers in the region are silt-laden and capable of great destruction. Yet the model of ‘development’ imposed on the State – riding rough-shod over the struggles of the local people – has been one of hundreds of hydro-electric projects, big dams, illegal sand mining in river beds, deforestation, unregulated tourism, indiscriminate real estate activity and urbanisation on mountainsides and river-beds in the absence of any zoning laws, and indiscriminate blasting of mountains for roadways. All this has happened without any assessment of the carrying capacity of the region’s delicate environment. And all this brutal ravaging has rendered ‘nature’ less able to cope with cloudbursts and rainfall.

Those who have raised environmental concerns have been derided and branded as ‘anti-development.’ Resistance to environmental regulations has been guided, not by the purported concern for local people’s development, but by the powerful public and private sector hydel power and real estate contractors whose interests are threatened by regulations. One glaring fact is the failure to issue a timely warning against the disaster, and the delay in beginning effective rescue operations. In spite of disaster after disaster, India is yet to invest in proper mechanisms to predict disasters and cope with disasters.

The Uttarakhand CM has pooh-poohed the criticisms linking the disaster with the development policy of the State, claiming that all projects commissioned by his predecessor governments as well as in his tenure, enjoyed the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The CM’s claims are belied by the facts. A CAG report has pointed out that Uttarakhand’s disaster management authority formed in 2007 did not hold even a single meeting till date, and had warned that the 53 hydel power projects proposed on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers would damage the mountains, dry up the riverbeds, and increase chances of flash floods. The CAG report was flouted – and there are now around 680 dams in various stages of commissioning, construction, or planning in Uttarakhand. The CM has claimed that the dams have actually helped to control the floods – but this claim is yet to be substantiated. Instead, there are reports from some areas – such as Srinagar town and Rudraprayag – that release of water from hydropower projects, along with the illegally dumped muck in the river beds resulting in diversion of the river course, contributed to the force of the disaster.

Moreover, the State Government stubbornly refused to learn lessons from past disasters. Just last year, when Uttarkashi witnessed devastation due to flash floods, the State’s Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre report had recommended legislation to "strictly regulate developmental initiatives in close vicinity of streams and rivers." Needless to say, no steps have been taken in this direction. Similarly, following landslides in Rudraprayag last year, the State’s DMMC had recommended a ban on the use of explosives in the fragile Himalayan terrain for infrastructure developmental works. In spite of this, the use of explosives is rampant. Reports from the ground by CPI(ML) activists indicate that even now, in the midst of the disaster, the Border Roads Organisation is using explosives to clear the roads blocked by landslides. The possibility of the extreme climate events being linked to climate change is also strong – and calls for urgent investigation and corrective action.

While media attention and that of the ruling political class has focused almost exclusively on the pilgrims and tourists, the plight of the people of Uttarakhand has been criminally neglected. Many of the local people working as guides or running shops in the affected areas, agricultural workers, as well as those eking out a living gathering rare herbs and fungi, are yet to be rescued. The numbers of such people missing or killed is yet to be estimated. Their homes and sources of livelihood – cars, transport animals, shops etc – have been washed away. While those pilgrims being rescued are starting to see an end to their ordeal, the local people’s struggle for survival and rehabilitation is just to begin.

Relief and rehabilitation will of course be a priority for people’s movements at this juncture. At the same time, it is equally urgent to struggle to ensure a reversal of the policies that lead to such tragedies in the first place. The State and Central Governments must immediately halt the construction of ongoing hydel power projects and declare a moratorium on new ones, until a comprehensive review of the existing projects and of projected environmental impacts is carried out by an impartial agency. Similarly the use of explosives in construction projects must be stopped, and laws enacted and implemented to regulate constructions in ecologically sensitive areas. The local people must be consulted and their approval taken before initiating any new development project. The only true homage we can pay to the countless people who lost their lives in this tragedy can be to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated again, and that the right lessons are taken from it.

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