Rains that lashed the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, especially the famed hill town of Nainital and the surrounding areas, for 72 hours recently, breaking a 124-year-old record for rain in any 24-hour period, which left devastation in their wake, may be attributed to government policy, government inaction, and government encouragement to the infrastructure lobby in the private sector at various levels. Aerial surveys by chief ministers and Union ministers are plain political gimmicks when what is needed is resolve to preserve fragile ecological structures.
Like the Himalayan belt in the north, Kerala, too, has seen violent post-monsoon rainfall and has witnessed disruption of life and flooding caused by the eroding of the earth’s surface, causing landslides. In north India as well as the Western Ghats region comprising states of the west and the south, plundering of the nature’s surface by profit-making entities is affecting geomorphology. In turn, lives and livelihoods are being lost year after year. Floods and landslides have become nature’s habit in recent times and this is entirely due to plain disregard of recommendations of a series of expert committees set up by the government itself or by the Supreme-Court, typically after a disaster has struck.
Weighed down by greedy lobbies, the government system refuses to cultivate an institutional memory. In the name of development, clearances are routinely given for mining, highway construction and hydroelectric projects, with zero premium on accountability. It is often the case that the government evades the responsibility of environmental impact assessment before project implementation commences. Ordinary people do not connect the dots. They take the hit as in Kumaon and Kerala — and life carries on as before, buoyed by carefully tailored propaganda.
If western and central Himalayas have been lashed by rains in the past week, there are signs that violent rains could disrupt the rhythm of life in the eastern Himalayas as well, affecting life in internationally known places such as the Darjeeling hills and neighbouring Sikkim. Peninsular India, too, could take a hit if weather predictions hold. Our coastal and mountain areas are a large part of our land mass and are bearers of immense natural resources that grant potential stability to climate and weather patterns. If human activity in the name of economic development were to place this in jeopardy, the consequences can be dire. Experts calculate that 70-99 per cent of our Himalayan glaciers could be lost by 2100 if we do not stop shaking the foundations of the geological structure of the Himalayan region.
Kedarnath floods killed more than 5,000 people in Uttarakhand in 2013. Following this, the Supreme Court halted the construction of 24 proposed hydroelectric projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, basing itself on expert committee reports. But the government did not rest until it established yet another committee — following pressure by private lobbies, which cleared seven projects on plainly questionable grounds. The environmental ministry made the announcement in August this year. The recommendation of committees that assessed that “irreversible” damage could result from such projects was placed in the bin.
In December 2016, the Prime Minister inaugurated the Char Dham National Highway to connect ancient holy sites in the Himalayas. This is to complement the Char Dham Railway. The eight-lane highway covering 900 kilometres will likely turn an environmental nightmare, damaging weather patterns, bringing heavy and rain and snow, and earthquakes, not just landslides, as we saw when the Raunthi Glacier broke in Uttarakhand in February this year, leading to extensive damage to life and property.
The Draft Environment Assessment Report, 2020, seems an anathema to policy-makers, for it exempts coal-mining, sand-mining, chemical factories in fragile zones. Where we might be headed is anybody’s guess.