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Uttarakhand Tragedy: A Veteran IAS Officer’s Take On ‘Development’

(Retd) IAS officer Amitabha Pande explains why Chamoli district is disaster-prone, and what needs to be done ASAP.

10 min read
Hindi Female

Déjà vu. When disaster struck Uttarakhand in 2013 in the same district, I had sent a note to the then PMO outlining a long term strategy for tackling the complex range of issues relating to the Himalayas. My attempts to activate the Manmohan Singh government failed. Months passed and my lobbying with many important people in that government yielded nothing more than faint praise for my efforts.

Disappointed, I sent the same note to Dr MM Joshi who was then drafting the BJP manifesto for the 2014 elections and was hoping to play a major role in the government if BJP won. I was pleasantly surprised when some of the suggestions were given prominence in the manifesto.


On the very day that Modi was sworn in, he came to seek the ‘aashirvaad’ of Dr Joshi at his residence, and the two of them were engaged for an hour or so in a private conversation. I happened to be visiting MMJ that afternoon, and as soon as he emerged from his meeting with Modi he looked for me, beamed and said that he had spent most of his time talking to Modi about establishing a Himalayan Council along the lines I had proposed.

I was thrilled and convinced that something concrete would emerge from that.

Nothing ever did.

My letters to Nripen Misra seeking follow-up action got no response — ever.

The proposals made then remain as relevant today as they were then. But now I am persona non grata for this government and I have every desire to remain so. But just for the record, I am sharing this note again, so that its relevance can be underscored once again:


The Nexus Which Has a Vice-Like Grip On Himalayan Economy

The calamity that has struck Uttarakhand and other parts of the Himalayas has brought in its wake destruction and misery on a scale which is unprecedented. While the causes of such extreme weather events may be natural, the severity of the impact of such events in terms of loss of life and property is entirely the outcome of ecologically and environmentally destructive activities promoted and justified in the name of ‘development’.

From the manic frenzy of construction activity, be it dams or roads or houses or urban complexes or tourism infrastructure, to the wanton cutting down of forests, to unregulated mining and quarrying, the depletion and pollution of rivers, lakes and natural wellsprings, the unchecked motorisation of transport — this perverse ‘growth’ model has been fuelled by a nexus between governments, political parties, and the contracting mafias which control forests, lands, mineral resources, hydropower resources and the construction businesses.

It is this nexus which in many ways controls the levers of political power in the entire Himalayan region and therefore has a vice-like grip on its political economy.

The Himalayas are not just an important part of the ecosystem, but THE most important ecological asset and resource on which the survival of the entire Indian subcontinent, its economy and its sustenance is critically dependent. The Himalayas provide us:

  • our rainfall
  • most of our freshwater resources
  • our soil
  • our food and agriculture
  • our climate

Why Conservation of the Himalayas is of Paramount Importance

In the complex web of interrelationships which our natural systems have, any damage to any one part of the system has consequences for the entire system — consequences which may at times be irreparable. Conservation of the Himalayas, its protection as the single-most precious economic asset that we have, is a task of such overwhelming primacy that all other developmental concerns have to be seen as secondary.

A degraded Himalayas would degrade the quality of life not just in the Himalayan region but throughout the subcontinent, and impact all other ecosystems on the planet. The concern for the conservation of Himalayas is, therefore, a global concern.

It is natural that the immediate concern of the governments concerned will be to save lives, evacuate stranded pilgrims and visitors and those rendered homeless, to areas of relative safety, and then start the arduous task of repairing the damage. Going by past experience, it will be safe to assume that this tragedy too will be ascribed to the category of ‘natural disaster’ and the response of the state and central governments will be to argue for ‘better disaster preparedness and management’. While this may be important, it is far more important to critically review human activities and interventions undertaken in the name of development, which on the one hand damage and degrade the fragile Himalayan ecosystem and thereby aggravate vulnerability and risk, and on the other lead to an exponential increase in the loss of life and property whenever calamity strikes.


Development Must Be Sustainable and Suitable to Needs of Local Communities

It is no one's case that there should be no ‘development’, but it is critical that such development be sustainable and in response to the needs of the communities living there rather than in reckless pursuit of collusive exploitative greed. This needs a radical reform of policies and the policy framework within which ‘development’ activities are taken up:

  • designing appropriate incentives for sustainable and responsible interventions which enhance the value of the ecosystem resources and disincentives for activities which degrade that ecosystem
  • harnessing the remarkable developments that have taken place in science and technology to make all interventions ‘green’ and ’smart’
  • changing the decision-making structures, systems and processes in a way that communities and local governments participate directly in all ‘developmental’ decisions which have a bearing on their habitat and their environment, to be able to break the stranglehold of the vested interests in unsustainable development.

Unless this opportunity is seized for such comprehensive reform we shall yet again pave the way for the next, bigger, more severe disaster with consequences which can be unimaginably horrifying — not just for the Himalayas but for the subcontinent as a whole.


Policies Required to Maintain Health of the Himalayan Ecosystem

The following are the key areas which require attention at the policy/strategy level:

  • Introduction of a system of resource transfers based on the principle of Payments for Ecosystem Services. The ecosystem services provided by the Himalayas are unique and of extraordinary ‘economic’ importance. A comprehensive economic valuation would lead to a recognition of its importance in financial terms and a means by which individuals, communities and governments are compensated as custodians and stewards of the ecosystem in a way that they have an incentive to forego unsustainable and destructive ‘development’. The right policies and programmatic interventions can play a vital role in bringing about such a shift.
  • Policies which focus on maintaining the health of the ecosystem as a whole in terms of the interrelatedness of different parts of an ecosystem rather than on a trade-off between environmental costs and the benefits of economic growth of a particular sector, for example, hydroelectric power. Maintaining and improving the health of an ecosystem is not just a social, environmental benefit but an ‘economic’ benefit. This can radically improve the way in which economic choices are posed to decision-makers and other stakeholders.

Building on Local Traditions of Self-Governing Communities & Identifying Livelihood Opportunities

  • On the basis of a carefully-formulated ecosystem, health indicators proactively design programmatic interventions which create massive economic/ income generation opportunities in managing the health of the ecosystem — restoration and repair of the ecosystem, conservation of natural resources- biodiversity, water sources, forests, soil and cultural heritage. Appropriately designed with innovations in existing programmes like NREGA, a substantial part of the population living in the mountains, especially women, can be productively employed in a task which has enormous economic spin offs.
  • Identification of entrepreneurial and livelihood opportunities which are either neutral to the health of the ecosystem or contribute to its resilience and sustainability (high value organic horticulture, particularly unique Himalayan herbs, grasses, flowers and fruit, essential oils, eco tourism, hand-based crafts, hand woven woollen textiles, oak silk, for example) and devise policy instruments which improve access to these opportunities. Make appropriate end-to-end infrastructural interventions to stimulate local enterprise in these areas.
  • Building on the very old traditions of self-governing communities across the Himalayas, in particular, the traditions of managing natural resources, devise policy instruments and institutional mechanisms which devolve effective decision-making powers to communities and local governments with regard to adaptation to climate change, monitoring of ecosystem health, master planning, disaster preparedness, and any external intervention having an impact on the health of the ecosystem.

Need For a Himalaya-Specific Building Code & Architectural Control Regulations

  • Develop a framework and an enabling mechanism for master plans to be prepared with the active participation of local communities and local governments (Panchayats and Municipalities) for each micro watershed including both urban and rural areas, in a way that all stakeholders have a sense of ownership of the plans. Master plans will clearly designate ‘no go’ areas, sanctuaries ( including water sanctuaries) eco-sensitive zones and the areas where construction activity in conformity with planned land use is to be permitted. The consolidation, regeneration and reconstruction of existing urban settlements will be a part of such participative master plans.
  • Develop a mechanism for the preparation of a Himalaya-specific Building Code and Architectural Control Regulations which provide room for local modifications and which are capable being enforced by local governments. Help local government institutions to develop capacity and acquire technical expertise and skills to be an effective monitor and enforcer.
  • Integrate scientific observational infrastructure (automatic weather stations, doppler radars, seismic sensors, flood monitoring systems etc) with regard to climate change, disaster forecasting, extreme weather events, sustainable farming, biodiversity conservation, etc into a seamless, interoperable data infrastructure and actively promote the development of scientific modelling tools which can enable communities and local governments to make their own plans for all kinds of situations. With careful standardisation, data collection can itself become a very participative exercise and enhance local capacity to deal with various problems.
  • Undertake immediate measures for the regulation of the pilgrimage industry and other forms of mass commercial tourism, both by introducing checks and controls on the pilgrim traffic (numbers, flow), restricting periods of time when pilgrimages can be undertaken, making secluded sacred spots into sanctuaries with tightly controlled access and simultaneously develop standards and ratings based on best practices with innovatively-designed accreditation processes for tour organisers and operators.

Revamping Our Approach to the Himalayas & Idea Of Development

We are aware that many of these issues had been succinctly addressed in the Mission Document (June 2010) of the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem set up as a part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Yet, as has happened with most well-intentioned government initiatives, the Mission has remained largely a paper exercise with fragmented recommendations being sporadically and indifferently implemented. There are inherent flaws in the organisational design of the Mission which make it an ineffective proposition.

We believe it is time to seize the opportunity to comprehensively revamp our approach to the Himalayas and see it not in terms of disaster management, climate change, biodiversity management, river basin and watershed management, economic development etc as compartments, but as being inseparably and integrally interrelated. To this end we seek the following:

  • Relaunch a reformulated National Mission on Himalayas as a unique programme of intergovernmental partnership and federal cooperation between the Union Government and the governments of the Himalayan states in coordinated policy making and capacity-building across sectors and domains.
  • Broaden the terms of reference of the Mission to include a comprehensive and critical review of all major projects which may have an adverse impact on the ecosystem health; formulation of policy frameworks including framework legislation, establishing standards for policy/programme/project design, formulation of codes and norms and establishing mechanisms for the preparation of area specific master plans by communities and local governments which form the basis for a masterplan for the entire Himalayan region and which factor in disaster preparedness in the planning process.
  • Have the Mission manned by full time members/ directors drawn from different fields — ecology, economics and public finance, energy/environment/ climate change, public policy and public administration, and infrastructure development. The members should be persons of eminence in their respective domains and be given a rank and pay commensurate with their status.

Full Participation Of Stakeholder States In Development

  • Locate the Mission in the Inter-State Council so that it maintains a federal character in its working and secures the full participation of the stakeholder states at all stages and at all times.
  • The Mission should report directly to a Himalayan Council (a subset of the Inter-State Council) chaired by the prime minister with the chief ministers of the Himalayan states and the Union ministers of home affairs, finance, environment and forests, power, water resources as members.
  • The Mission should have a second tier Empowered Committee of the full time Members of the Mission, the Cabinet Secretary, the Chief Secretaries of the concerned states and selected Union Secretaries as ex officio members.
  • The Inter-State Council Secretariat should provide administrative and secretarial support and a designated research institute with inter-disciplinary capabilities provide technical and professional support.
  • The Mission’s terms of reference should spell out clear, time bound deliverables and desired outcomes and its continuation linked to these deliverables.
  • The Mission should work in tandem with the Finance Commission to recommend means of assessing the value of the Himalayas in terms of the ecosystem services they provide and a means of compensating the states as well as the communities living in the Himalayas as custodians and the stewards of the health of the ecosystem, by preventing its degradation.
  • Simultaneous with the creation of a Mission, there should be created a Himalayan Sustainability Fund which could operate a kind of internal ‘green credits’ trade to support sustainable, green initiatives which lead to better conservation of the ecosystem.

National Level Dialogue & Involvement of All Stakeholders Needed

The above proposals represent a positive, non-partisan approach to an urgent national concern. They are do-able, realistic and capable of quick implementation. However, before such an initiative is concretised, we suggest that a national dialogue be conducted at multiple levels — by the prime minister with the chief ministers of the Himalayan states, in the Parliament across political parties, with civil society organisations/ environmental groups and activists, with local communities, especially women, and with knowledge institutions which have been working on problems and issues concerning the Himalayas.

The initiative should emerge as a consensus proposal from such a national level dialogue, so that all stakeholders have a sense of ownership in the initiative.

We, the signatories to this note, are prepared to assist the PMO in taking the initiative forward.

(Disclaimer: This post originally appeared on the author’s Facebook page, and has been republished with permission. The original post can be accessed here.)

(The author is a retired IAS officer. He tweets This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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