Could Modi Govt Have ‘Prevented’ 2021 Uttarakhand Disaster?

In 2020, the Centre for Glaciology, the only centre to study Himalayan glaciers, was shut down by the Modi govt.

4 min read

On 7 February 2021, in a case of déjà vu, flash floods in Uttarakhand destroyed more than 10 villages. Rapid flow of water brought debris with it and washed away people working at various project sites.

Unfortunately, many people, mostly workers, have lost their lives, and even after a week since the tragedy, over 150 persons are still missing.

This bursting of a glacial lake was apparently triggered by a landslide. Geologically, the Himalayas are young and unstable mountains. The Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), based in Dehradun, is the nodal institute to study and conduct research on the geology of the Himalayan mountain range. In 2017, scientists from this institute had submitted a report which suggested that the central and the state governments should stop indiscriminate power and infrastructure projects in the Himalayan region.


A Mission — Under Manmohan Singh Govt — to Protect Himalayan Ecology

In 2002, the Planning Commission had constituted a sub-committee on Himalayan glaciers. This sub-committee recommended the setting up of a Glaciology Centre in the then Uttaranchal, which would become a hub for glaciological research. The Centre was expected to conduct research in the areas of glacial hydrology, mass balance, glacial dynamics, glacial hazards along with integrated modelling of glacial processes. The Committee also recommended the establishment of glaciological field observation stations for high quality standardised data collection. At that time there was no dedicated centre for glaciology in the country. Unfortunately, this plan did not materialise.

In June 2008, the Manmohan Singh government launched the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC).

The Plan was aimed at reducing the emission intensity of the economy and to mitigate and adapt to the adverse impact of climate change. The Plan consisted of eight missions.

One of the eight missions was the National Mission for Sustainable Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE). The complete focus of the NMSHE was on the Himalayan ecosystem.

Out of the eight missions, this was the only geography-specific mission. As a part of the NAPCC Plan and taking forward the recommendations by the Planning Commission, we in the Department of Science & Technology (DST) decided to establish the Centre for Glaciology (CFG) in the Dehradun-Mussoorie area of Uttarakhand. Initially the WIHG, Dehradun was to mentor the new centre, which would eventually become the National Centre for Himalayan Glaciology.

Importance of the Erstwhile Centre for Glaciology

In fact, in my capacity as the Minister of Science and Technology in the Manmohan Singh government, I inaugurated the Centre for Glaciology in Dehradun on 4 July 2009 in the presence of the Director of WIHG and the Secretary, Department of Science and Technology. A dedicated team of scientists was deployed to document, study and understand the glaciers in the Himalayan mountain range. This Centre was to conduct research in mountain hazards with a particular focus on glacial hazards, Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) and Landslide Lake Outburst Flood (LLOF).

On 28 February 2014, the Cabinet approved the Mission on Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem. A sum of Rs. 550 crore for the XII Five Year Plan was sanctioned.

The Department of Science and Technology was given the responsibility to coordinate the implementation of NMSHE. Also a 50 acre plot of land belonging to the Survey of India in Mussoorie was carved out to develop a full-fledged autonomous centre.


An ‘Anti-Science’ Move by the Govt

In 2017, scientists at the Centre for Glaciology submitted a detailed report on floods in the Himalayas. Researchers also raised concerns over the manner in which permission was granted to new power projects along glacial-fed rivers in the Himalaya region. However, in July 2020, the Centre for Glaciology was abruptly closed down by the Modi government. A letter by the then Secretary, DST to the effect, was sent on 25 June 2020. Later the Glaciology activity in the WIHG seems to have been completely shut down.

Was it simply a cost cutting exercise or scientific reports vexed the political bosses in Delhi?

This move is not just anti-science but could possibly put millions of lives at risk. There are over 9500 glaciers varying in size, from small, niche glaciers to a large 74 km long Siachen glacier. These glaciers spread across the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The Ganga basin has 1578 glaciers with a total covered area of 3.78 lakh sq km. The remaining nearly 8000 glaciers are part of the Indus basin covering a total area of 36,431 sq km. According to the Geological Survey of India (GSI) most glaciers are retreating or showing degenerative conditions along the glacier front.


Indifference Towards Science & Environment

According to a discussion paper by the Ministry of Environment and Forest published in 2010, the average annual retreat is around 5m. But a few glaciers such as the Pindar glacier have shown a higher rate of annual retreat up to 8-10 meters. The situation is alarming and should concern us all.

But instead, the Modi government chose to shut down the only centre which had a mandate to study the Himalayan glaciers.

The government appears indifferent to the reports submitted by the scientists. Optics, sloganeering and emotional speeches define the prime minister’s approach towards science in general and climate change in particular. It is a moot question whether the Centre for Glaciology could have predicted the Tapovan tragedy. But the indifference and lackadaisical attitude of the present central government — towards basic science research — may cost the country dearly.

(Prithviraj Chavan is a former chief minister of Maharashtra. He tweets @prithvrj. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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