First, a word for the rescue teams out there who have put their own lives in jeopardy to pull hundreds of people out of danger, even as the Himalayan Tsunami Part II unfolds in Uttarakhand. Without the support of the NDRF, ITBP and army columns on the ground, this tragedy would have seen a much higher death toll.
And yet there is a sense of déjà vu as we watch the horrific images play out on our screens on the afternoon of 8 February 2021. This has happened before. The Himalayan Tsunami of 2013 seems to have returned in 2021.
For years environmentalists have been crying themselves hoarse about the model of development being followed in these fragile mountainscapes, and yet the advice has fallen on deaf years. In 2012, I was following the river Ganga for a journalism project, documenting the threats the river was facing from source to sea. Every village I visited in the Himalayas, locals warned that the ‘mountain gods were angry’. Village after village, women were organising a second Chipko, this time in favour of Ma Ganga. Their river had been imprisoned and they wanted her to flow unfettered else they predicted many disasters would unfold.
At Chamoli, the epicentre of today’s crisis, I had met Chandi Prasad Bhatt, one of the founders of India’s first environmental movement, who echoed the warnings of the women of Mandakini Valley. “We were ready to give up our lives for these mountains and our forests and rivers and will do it again if we have to,” cried a now hoarse Chandi Prasad Bhatt who had sent several petitions to the government urging them to stop the massive tunnel and hydroprojects on the Ganga. And yet, eight years on, hydro projects continue to be cleared.
Just 24 hours before the February 2021 tragedy unfolded, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change cleared the Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) on the Yamuna near Lohari village in the district of Dehradun in Uttarakhand. As of today, more than 70 big and small projects are slated on different sections of the Ganga and its tributaries, and thousands of labourers who worked on these infrastructure projects are bound to die a nameless, faceless death.
If you are a reporter on the ground covering this disaster, some tough questions must be asked:
The answers to these questions will unravel the contractor-based model of development we have been pursuing in the mountains. It would be easy to blame this tragedy on ‘heavy snowfall’ or ‘an act of god’. But this absolves perhaps the most pertinent question that must be asked now: is this tragedy man-made, or is it a natural disaster?
Mallika Bhanot, who works for Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO for the protection of the river Ganga, says:
Bhanot argues that while the government has been arguing in favour of constructing more roads to facilitate easy movement of traffic, the one bridge that connected this area to the border has been washed away, making rescue efforts tough.
Himanshu Thakkar, from the South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), who has closely studied the Himalayan rivers, rightly asks:
Praising the teams out there involved with rescue operations, Thakkar argues: “Of course, our rescue teams are doing a brave job but we could have saved (more) lives if we had issued a warning at the right time.”
Geologist Dr Navin Juyal, who was incidentally at the site as early as last week, had this to say:
Dr Juyal is a scientist who has retired from the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad and was also part of a committee that was formed by the government to make suggestions on how to minimise the negative impacts of the hydro dams in the region in 2014.
Dr Roxy Mathew Koll a climate scientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune states-
Dr Ravi Chopra, based in Dehradun, who headed a committee set up by the Supreme Court had clearly recommended in 2014 that there should be no hydro projects in the para-glacial regions of the Himalayas. And yet the projects continue with impunity. The author makes it clear:
As the post-mortem of the tragedy is undertaken, we could start by acknowledging our role as human beings in this disaster. We cannot mince our words. This is a man-made tragedy.
(Bahar Dutt is an award-winning environmental journalist in search of a greener world. She is also the author of two books. She tweets @bahardutt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)