Thursday, 26 June 2014

LESSONS LEARNT IN THE HIMALAYAS AFTER A YEAR





One year has passed since the catastrophic “natural” disaster in the Himalayas shook the world. The unfateful tragedy was basically the result of excessive commercialization and man-made activities. Man’s ignorance in developing a sustainable environment led to this catastrophe which took a huge toll of lives; buildings and homes on the riverbed collapsed like a pack of cards. Men, vehicles and animals swayed along with intense flood streams. The memories are still afresh.

In my opinion, the reason for this widespread devastation could be attributed to rapid urbanization which was the result of increasing population and commercialization of pilgrimage tourism. People from all over the world thronged to two most famous pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath Temple and HEmkund Sahib. Consequently, deforestation was recklessly pursued to create massive infrastructure like house construction, building of roadways, guest houses et cetra. The presence of heavy pilgrim population led to coming of many new hotel clusters, resorts and commercial complexes on river boundaries leaving little or no buffer zone between human settlements and riverbed.  Roads were built haphazardly by blasting the vulnerable Himalayas which are still young and rising, destabilizing them and loosening up boulders, soil and plantations. Builders dump vast mound of debris into rivers causing their path of flow to change. Large scale hydropower and allied construction activities were pursued in the name of “development”. Therefore, these became the potential sources of slope weakening and destabilization. Hydel projects are still being constructed on the seismic zone. Dam operators release more water during rains than their carrying capacity of downstream areas causing floods. Environmental norms were continually flouted in the name of development.  

To prevent Uttarakhand kind of disaster from recurrence, all stakeholders including both union and state governments should work in cohesion. There should be an integrated policy on the Himalayan environment and development. Himalayan state governments need to consider imposing high environmental tax on visitors and regulate the influx of tourists. Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) should redefine the term “sensitive zones” after taking inputs from National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES). There should be a clear policy on river beds and flood plains and reform land use policy. Prior warning systems should be installed by Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and proper follow up at ground level needs to be ensured. As Himalayas are earthquake prone due to its several thrusts and faults, any kind of major mining, construction or blasting activity would further weaken the hills and therefore should be avoided. Roads and other critical infrastructure should be built according to the hill construction norms. Small hydel projects should replace large dams.

Though states have the sovereignty to build structures but these need to be done within a sustainable and clear framework. Thus construction activity in the hill states should not be confused with development. Instead it should be people oriented. In the hills, rural and cottage industry must be promoted apart fro agro-forestry, hill agriculture, animal husbandry and technology to reduce drudgery for women besides enhancing literacy. Laws like Forest Rights act and Panchayats (extension to Scheduled Areas) act should be implemented in letter and spirit in tribal areas. A massive plantation drive should be put in place to restore the ecosystem.

What India really lacks is a NATGRID for disaster management to help integrate different wings of government Centre, states and districts. The need is for different agencies working together. An action plan for India to mitigate such dangers should include resilience building by spreading disaster awareness, protecting the environment by reducing Carbon footprint.


One year has passed since the catastrophic “natural” disaster in the Himalayas shook the world. The unfateful tragedy was basically the result of excessive commercialization and man-made activities. Man’s ignorance in developing a sustainable environment led to this catastrophe which took a huge toll of lives; buildings and homes on the riverbed collapsed like a pack of cards. Men, vehicles and animals swayed along with intense flood streams. The memories are still afresh.

In my opinion, the reason for this widespread devastation could be attributed to rapid urbanization which was the result of increasing population and commercialization of pilgrimage tourism. People from all over the world thronged to two most famous pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath Temple and HEmkund Sahib. Consequently, deforestation was recklessly pursued to create massive infrastructure like house construction, building of roadways, guest houses et cetra. The presence of heavy pilgrim population led to coming of many new hotel clusters, resorts and commercial complexes on river boundaries leaving little or no buffer zone between human settlements and riverbed.  Roads were built haphazardly by blasting the vulnerable Himalayas which are still young and rising, destabilizing them and loosening up boulders, soil and plantations. Builders dump vast mound of debris into rivers causing their path of flow to change. Large scale hydropower and allied construction activities were pursued in the name of “development”. Therefore, these became the potential sources of slope weakening and destabilization. Hydel projects are still being constructed on the seismic zone. Dam operators release more water during rains than their carrying capacity of downstream areas causing floods. Environmental norms were continually flouted in the name of development.  

To prevent Uttarakhand kind of disaster from recurrence, all stakeholders including both union and state governments should work in cohesion. There should be an integrated policy on the Himalayan environment and development. Himalayan state governments need to consider imposing high environmental tax on visitors and regulate the influx of tourists. Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) should redefine the term “sensitive zones” after taking inputs from National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES). There should be a clear policy on river beds and flood plains and reform land use policy. Prior warning systems should be installed by Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and proper follow up at ground level needs to be ensured. As Himalayas are earthquake prone due to its several thrusts and faults, any kind of major mining, construction or blasting activity would further weaken the hills and therefore should be avoided. Roads and other critical infrastructure should be built according to the hill construction norms. Small hydel projects should replace large dams.

Though states have the sovereignty to build structures but these need to be done within a sustainable and clear framework. Thus construction activity in the hill states should not be confused with development. Instead it should be people oriented. In the hills, rural and cottage industry must be promoted apart fro agro-forestry, hill agriculture, animal husbandry and technology to reduce drudgery for women besides enhancing literacy. Laws like Forest Rights act and Panchayats (extension to Scheduled Areas) act should be implemented in letter and spirit in tribal areas. A massive plantation drive should be put in place to restore the ecosystem.

What India really lacks is a NATGRID for disaster management to help integrate different wings of government Centre, states and districts. The need is for different agencies working together. An action plan for India to mitigate such dangers should include resilience building by spreading disaster awareness, protecting the environment by reducing Carbon footprint.
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