Are the stakes high only for the people of Uttarakhand or for the nation? What did the devastating flood teach?
The recent Himalayan floods have led to death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. The concerned authorities have yet again been caught off-guard, and this has led to a post disaster blame game. Many were angry with nature itself as is often human and superficially justifiable – blame the esoteric when the obvious is inconvenient. The truth is that we have been playing with nature for a long time, especially in a fragile ecosystem such as the Himalayas. Sometimes, however, and increasingly regularly, we are reminded of the chaos we have sown and the devastation that can result.
Uttarakhand saw 330 millimetres of rain during the floods – truly a staggering number in its own right and a natural anomaly (whether this has connections to unsustainable development and global warming is of course, arguable). However, the magnitude of the disaster has certainly been exacerbated by human causes.
Since it became a state in 2000, Uttarakhand (formerly Uttaranchal) has portrayed itself as the ‘Land of the Gods’ due to the almost ethereal beauty of the Himalayas, and the many Hindu pilgrimage sites within the state such as Hrishikesh, Haridwar, Badrinath, Kedarnath etc. Uttarakhand also has colonial and post-colonial tourist towns such as Dehradun, Nainital and Mussourie and ecologically significant areas such as Corbett National Park. It is no surprise then, that Uttarakhand is a tourist magnet and the State government has been doing everything to cash in on this.
However, development has been embarrassingly unsustainable throughout the region. An increasing demand for infrastructure has led to ad hoc building of roads that have crisscrossed the area without any form of appraisal in terms of its sustainability or, for that matter, its effects on natural beauty. More inflow of tourists has generated a greater demand for accommodation, leading to a mushrooming of hotels, often on river banks, and often without adequate planning or permissions. Making room for the roads and the hotels has meant digging and blasting into the hills as well as cutting off forest covers. As a result, even before the floods, this region had seen an increase in landslides for the past few years.
Industrial development has added to this process of ecological decline. Given the complex river system in the area, at least 70 Hydro-electric projects have been planned. Tunnels and dams are already being built into the mountains, weakening its cores and, affecting and displacing river systems. Mining is also prevalent in the area.
It is not often one can associate the term ‘fragile’ with a mountain, but that is exactly what we have done to the great Himalayas.
However, the state has found itself in a catch-22 situation. Without the income generated by tourism it would be difficult to preserve the natural as well as manmade attractions. Yet, the forest covers and the Himalayan ecosystem are essential to the bigger picture, the network of co-dependent ecosystems found throughout the country. The Himalayas are often considered India’s lungs. In this regard, Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, had raised a valid point in an interview to a national newspaper, indicating that if Uttarakhand was to save its vast forest covers for the nation, thereby debilitating its potential for development, then the nation should compensate Uttarakhand.
The rest of the country does indeed owe an ecological and cultural debt to the region, and it is in our interest to help preserve it. Blaming a state government and (by implication) its people for looking out for itself, is hypocritical, if we, as national tourists are adding to the ecological burden and and not sharing in the sustainable development and rebuilding efforts of Uttarakhand even as we reap the benefits of stability in that region.
For this and for a general sense of national solidarity, the Uttarakhand disaster relief must be shared by the nation and must include future sustainable planning and investment for the sake of us all.