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Uttarakhand disaster exacerbated by illegal construction: Nitya Jacob


Updated: June 24, 2013, 6:12 PM IST
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Uttarakhand disaster exacerbated by illegal construction: Nitya Jacob
Is rampant infrastructure development responsible for the Uttarakhand calamity?

Is rampant construction of dams, roads, power stations, coupled with deforestation and soil erosion responsible for the Uttarakhand tragedy? CSE's programme director Nitya Jacob joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on the issue.

Q. Water water everywhere - Not a drop of potable one anywhere. Ironical to pay Rs.200 for a Mineral water Bottle in plastic at Uttarkashi. Why is there no water purification facility in the hills? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. People in the hills have used spring water for drinking. In most cases, can be consumed directly. Mineral water bottles are a recent and unnecessary import to the hills. It is more useful to have a filtration system as system as a sari folded 8 times and then disinfection using chlorine. Water in the hills does not need more purification.

Q. I don't think rampant infrastructure development was the reason for calamity. The main culprit was too much rain at one point of time. Infact more better infrastructure would have lead to lesser casualties. Do you agree with my statement? Asked by: Sachin

A. The main culprit was heavy rain but road building, illegal construction and intensive development of hydropower have worsened the situation. Blasting the hills to build diversion tunnels for dams has weakened them. Rampant illegal construction of buildings by locals had also contributed to the problems and made a bad situation worse. On top of it all, traffic in the hills has increased hugely, with the number of vehicles registered in the hills going up sharply. Remember the hills are delicate and unstable, so it takes little to set off landslides. More infrastructure has in fact worsened the situation since much of it is poorly made and constructed by people who have no idea of building in the hills.

Q. Roads, power and tourism related infrastructure can not be created without disturbing the eco-system? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. Unfortunately, roads and power disrupt the eco-system. To make a hill road, you have cut through the hill, unless you adopt a radically different approach where the road is constructed entirely on stilts. When you cut through an unstable hills, you are creating conditions for more landslides that are a natural and frequent phenomenon. The way Uttarakhand has gone about power generation is unregulated and destructive - imagine 80 km of the Alakananda river has been diverted into tunnels for power projects. These tunnels are made by inexperienced engineers by blasting through the hills. It this will not make the situation worse, what will. It is possible however to promote tourism without disturbing the ecosystem. Instead of building hotels, promote homestays that benefit village people and not people from UP and Delhi, and do no need construction of large hotels.

Q. One is reminded of the CHIPKO movement of Mr.Bahuguna. Why was the movement not given it's due? Such Warnings given long ago are conveniently forgotten and a conservationist is ridiculed as an anti-development person working at behest of vested interest. Will the attitude of government now change ?? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. The government's attitude towards environmentalists will not change as they will continue to perceive them as blocking what bureaucrats and politicians consider development. Development for the government means infrastructure - roads, dams, bridges, buildings. Sure people need better infrastructure, but make what is necessary, not extra. You do not need a 4 lane highway along the Alaknanda to connect to Badrinath. This sort of development is a blind invitation to religious tourism that is quickly destroying the fragile ecology of the region. Chipko was and is still recognised as a path breaking movement but its proponents have moved on. None has made a statement about this incident.

Q. What were the areas in which the authorities knowingly compromised for sake of development? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. Illegal construction- of buildings and dams. Take a look at a picture of Kedarnath shrine some decades ago and now. Old pictures show a beautiful stone temple, while in the new ones you cannot make out the temple as it is surrounded by buildings. Same with Badrinath. Authorities have allowed locals and outsiders to construct multi-storeyed buildings next to the river, an invitation to disaster. The government has sanctioned an absurd number of hydro electric power projects that actually overlap with each other.

Q. Is subversion of Nature in Himalayas which was bountiful even before 60 Years responsible for this Calamity inUttarakhand and Himachal. Asked by: raghavaraokaravadi

A. No, the Himalayas have always been flood and landslide prone. This time, the incident happened much earlier than normal. In the past, heavy rainfall events (more than 200 mm in 24 hours) have taken place in July or September, after the Char Dham yatra is over. This year, it happened in middle of the Yatra. The number of 'pilgrims' has been steadily increasing, with people from the plains interested in a quick guided tour of the hills in a vehicle than a real pilgrimage. The local authorities have ignored the carrying capacity and cumulative impact of dams and illegal construction on the fragile Himalayas.

Q. Was the water that drowned people only the result of a sudden cloudburst or was it also because of the dam water being released? Asked by: gm

A. It was because of an extreme rainfall event, where more than 200 mm of rain falls in less than 24 hours (for the Himalayas). Place this in perspective where the region gets 1000 - 2500 mm of rain a year, largely concentrated in the altitude of 1000 - 2500 metres. Both Kedarnath and Badrinath are above 3000 metres. Heavy rain at more than 3000 metres where there are no trees can quickly loosen earth and rocks and cause a landslide. What probably happened is, these debris blocked a stream above Badrinath creating a temporary lake that burst causing the flood.

Q. The developments had taken place with the approval of Various authorities.are they not enlightened? is their knowledge insufficient? How can the state and Centre disown responsibilities with so many of their departments having umpteen processes to be cleared before putting up a structure, be it anywhere in the country? Asked by: sundar1950in

A. I can understand your angst. The authorities are fully enlightened, but politicians are only interested in making money and not protecting the environment. That is why the state government wants dams built so close to each other that the downstream one overlaps with the one upstream. You can liken this to rats eating through a wall - they make so many holes close together that the wall is weakened and collapses. The state government says it wants power, but at what cost? Local people need livelihoods, but must they get it by building illegal hotels and buildings? The greed of politicians and blind faith of 'pilgrims' have made the situation worse than it could have been.

Q. Who will find out whether the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made or not? Even if its found that Govts. are responsible, the present govt. might blame it on the previous govt. and vice-versa. Who will compensate for the lives lost? Asked by: Birabrata De

A. The disaster is natural, exacerbated by massive and mostly illegal construction. I am calling the construction of dams on the Alaknanda also illegal since they are being done on the basis of false claims and flawed environment impact assessments, without judging the carrying capacity of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The state and central governments are both to blame for the situation since they have both allowed the dams. Local people, politicians and bureaucrats are also responsible for illegal construction of buildings and hotels. The government, both centre and state, have to pay compensation.

Q. It is reported that CAG had, before three years, warned the Uttarakhand government against the against the use of detonators etc. for rampant infrastructure development.Don't you think that the then CM, concerned Minister and the govt.officers who did not pay any heed to CAG's warning should be held responsible for the disaster in which thousands have lost their lives? Asked by: Shyam Vadalker

A. Absolutely. They should be held responsible. There should be criminal proceedings against the former and present government.

Q. That means the cause is not infrastructure but building infrastructure in improper way. Am I right ? Asked by: Sachin

A. Too much infrastructure, poorly built. Also natural causes.

First Published: June 24, 2013, 6:12 PM IST
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