Modi’s ‘Development’ Plans for Uttarakhand Can Wreck Its Ecology

The cable car plan announced by the PM and the ongoing Char Dham road project don’t align with the state’s ecology.

5 min read
Modi’s ‘Development’ Plans for Uttarakhand Can Wreck Its Ecology

After the Kedarnath disaster of 2013, when the reconstruction of the shrine situated at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet started, eminent geologist Dr Naveen Juyal had warned that heavy construction and uncontrolled use of cement or iron could in future lead to further disasters in this sensitive area. Juyal, explaining the scientific basis of his statement, said that in areas with heavy snowfall, there is a risk of the topsoil slipping when the snow melts in summer. But when a race is on to win elections, instead of paying heed to environmental concerns and scientific arguments, politicians are more interested in grand proclamations about ‘development’.


A New Set of Disasters

When Dr Juyal and other experts had given such a warning, Narendra Modi had not come to power at the Centre. But the reconstruction had started in Kedarnath. The fact that a brutal series of natural disasters around the hills of Kedarnath and Uttarakhand have increased along with the construction and ‘development’ cannot be written off as a mere coincidence. The calamity in Chamoli in February this year, followed by several incidents in the monsoon and then the recent devastation of Kumaon, are testimonies to this. In this year alone, more than 250 people in Uttarakhand have lost their lives in natural disasters. There also has been a huge economic loss.

Although the history of disasters in the Himalayas is very old and long, ever since the 2013 Kedarnath floods, the script of destruction in the area is being written in a very deliberate manner. Every development project is being linked to national security and religious sentiments, and environmental concerns are pushed to the margins. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was in Kedarnath earlier this month, used the old adage of "pahar ka pani and pahar ki jawaani" (mountain’s water and youth) in his speech and claimed that his government was trying to save these two (water and youth) through “development schemes”. But the truth is that instead of being life-sustaining, the water of the mountain is either imprisoned in haphazardly built dams or is causing repeated disasters in the form of floods.

Development Schemes Abound Before Elections

Announcing development plans worth Rs 225 crore in the state, the Prime Minister also said that the third decade of this century will belong to Uttarakhand and it will see more tourists here in the next 10 years than it has in the last 100 years. There is no doubt that linking development and tourism with employment is a very noble idea. Just like the rest of the country, effective plans are necessary to fight unemployment and poverty in Uttarakhand. It is also true that religious and nature tourism is the only source of livelihood for many people in the state. But on a closer look, the kind of development and planning being promoted in Uttarakhand will mostly benefit some contractors and companies. The general public is not getting anything special from it, and it also goes against the ecology of the area.

Similar ‘development and prosperity’ schemes were handed out in 2016, just before the last Assembly election. Then, the Prime Minister had announced the Char Dham Yatra route worth Rs 12,000 crore. The construction of this yatra route has been in the news due to the neglect of environmental rules and the indiscriminate cutting of forests. Many experts have expressed their opposition to it.

The Char Dham Yatra route was promoted as an all-weather road, but instead of being durable, it has withered even more than before.

The crisis on Himalayan glaciers is deepening as we are continuously cutting down their only shield – forests – and the streams coming out of these forests (which power rivers originating from glaciers like Ganga and Yamuna) are drying up. How many policymakers care that rivers like Ramganga, Kosi, Saryu, Gagas and Gaula originate from these forests and feed into rivers like Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini?


The Govt Doesn't Want to Learn Any Lessons

These disasters are man-made, not natural.

Often, disasters are dismissed as being caused by climate change, but the truth is that except for a few incidents, most of the disasters are man-made. The occupation of river beds, illegal construction and poor city management are behind this. Floods in cities are not due to climate change but because of failure to clean drains, improper waste management and construction of buildings over ponds. Similarly, the destruction of forests and mountains in the Himalayas and working against sustainable development are the major causes of disasters.

The plan to build a road such as the Delhi-Meerut Highway or the Mumbai-Pune Highway in Uttarakhand, which was promoted as an all-weather road, doesn’t actually align with the geography of the mountain. This is the reason that every year, these roads get washed away, and along with the waste of public money, there is an irreparable loss to the environment.

The border areas need durable roads, not wide roads, which can be built only if forests and slopes are protected. But the government is not ready to learn any lessons. Rather, its intentions now are not just to build roads in many sensitive areas but dig tunnels as well. Many scientific warnings have been given against these plans.

The 'Development' Helps Only a Few

Prime Minister Modi’s idea of reaching Kedarnath directly by cable cars does not just sidestep environmental concerns, but it is also not in sync with the philosophy of the religious journey. Those trekking through stunning natural beauty to reach the Kedarnath Marg know the heady sense of achievement invoked upon completing the hard trail, going through spirituality and natural beauty. But the once-quite-serene Kedarnath is now filled with the roaring of helicopters. These helicopters openly flout the rules laid down by courts and their constant noise is threatening the existence of birds and animals in the protected Kedar Valley.

If the yatra goes on slowly, then travellers will stay and spend more time in these areas, i.e., local shopkeepers, dhaba owners, tea vendors, traders and goods-carrying people and many others will benefit. In contrast, helicopters and the highway benefit only select companies and travel agents, as travellers start from Dehradun in the morning and head back at night.

Religion and Nature

Well-known travel writer Bill Atkin has underlined the futility of building in sensitive areas with the power of money and resources alone. Atkin writes that the Sikhs replaced the ancient Hemkund Sahib gurdwara – which was of a much smaller size – with a larger gurdwara that did not match the geography and ecology of the place, while the Hindus recognised the importance of not tinkering with their shrines too much.

But given the continuous construction going on in Kedarnath, it is difficult to say whether the Hindu understanding of sustainable and inclusive growth and balance is still intact.

After the emptying of the Chorabari Lake in Kedarnath, it is not possible for it to be refilled for many centuries. But the government has erected a magnificent wall behind it in the name of preventing the Kedarnath temple from any floods in the future. When I visited Chaurabri Lake in 2018 with glaciologist DP Doval, he called this wall an unnecessary expense.

The Prime Minister gave his speech in Uttarakhand at a time when the COP26 climate summit was ongoing in Glasgow. Modi had himself just returned from this conference, where he had promoted the slogan of “Lifestyle for Environment”. But nature has repeatedly illustrated that it does not live by empty slogans. Every bit of tampering with it has to be accounted for by the present or future generations.

(Hridayesh Joshi is a journalist and author and can be reached @hridayeshjoshi. This article has been translated from Hindi by Mariam Shaheen. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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