“I think we should not mince any words. This is a man-made disaster. We cannot call this an act of God,” said renowned environmental journalist Bahar Dutt as she reflected upon the tragedy that struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district on 7 February leaving at least 28 people dead and 200 others missing.
The flash flood, triggered by what’s believed to be a glacier burst, wreaked havoc in the region and also damaged two hydel power projects, bringing the developmental work being undertaken in the Himalayas into the spotlight once again.
“Everybody is saying that we should leave the fragile ecology of the Himalayas alone. We need to have another model of development for the Himalayas,” she said.
‘Leave the Fragile Ecology of the Himalayas Alone’
Dutt, who has observed and covered the region extensively, said that the cascade of dams and developmental projects are the cause of the frequent disasters in the Himalayas.
“I have travelled through that area extensively, I have followed the river Ganga from source to sea over six to seven months. Even in 2012, when I was doing this, there was destruction in that area. The destruction is coming from the mega dams, cascade of hydro power dams, almost 70 of them that have been planned across river Ganga and its tributaries,” she said.
“It happened in 2013, it’s now happened again in 2021. Basically you construct tunnels, there’s a lot of debris that is created and what happened yesterday afternoon is what I consider as Himalayan Tsunami 2021. Even when there was heavy snowfall, what happened was that the river came with such full force that the two dams that were in the course of the river basically broke,” she said.
“I have been speaking to a number of scientists, ecologists, policy makers, geologists, everybody is saying that we should leave the fragile ecology of the Himalayas alone. We need to have another model of development for the Himalayas,” Dutt said.
‘Contractor Lobby Taking Decisions, Not Scientists’
Reflecting on the decisions for the projects to be undertaken, Dutt said that it is the contractors who are calling the shots and not scientists or ecologists.
“If it was the scientific lobby that was deciding the projects that should come up in the Himalayas, things would be different. It is the contractor lobby which takes these decisions,” she said.
“Our policymakers want to follow the contractor lobby, they don’t want to listen to scientists, and it’s very obvious. And you don’t need a scientist. You go and speak to the local people there, everybody has been saying that they don’t need this kind of development,” Dutt said.
“It can take one dam, it can take two dams, but 70 dams, a cascade of dams, the tunnelling, it’s actually a conglomeration of issues. It’s also the widening of roads for the Char Dham tourism. Why can’t we have tourism which is not high volume? Why can’t we have it on a smaller scale?” she argued.
“Let's respect the mountain ecology, let's respect the mountain culture, and let's respect nature,” she said.
‘Where Does the Buck Stop?’
Demanding accountability, Dutt said that if the idea of development for the Himalayas does not change, disasters will keep occurring in the region.
“All of us as environmentalists are told that you are anti-development. No, we are pro-development, we are pro-people's rights, we are pro-locals being given access to natural resources, but that's not what is happening. The rivers and the water is coming to us in the cities. I think we need to change our view on development,” she said.
“Some heads need to roll, someone needs to be held accountable for what happened. You can't just say this is climate change, act of God. I mean, yes, to some extent it may be climate change and scientists are not disputing that, but even climate change is now attributed to human-induced causes. So ultimately, it is we who are responsible. So let’s not keep calling these as natural disasters. Let’s start by honestly admitting that this is a man-made disaster and we as human beings can fix it,” she said.