VIOLATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS: DON’T BLAME THE NATURE FOR THE UTTARAKHAND FLOODS
By:-Pooja Vohra, Symbiosis Law School, Noida
Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region receives thousands of pilgrims every year for Char Dham yatra—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Heavy rains and floods are not new to the region but the extreme rains of June 16 this year lead to a disaster of unprecedented proportions in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. While life is yet to return to normal in the said state, many questions regarding repeated violations of environmental norms that the disaster brought with it also need to be answered to ensure that such a calamity does not befall again.
The Down to Earth magazine in its feature on Uttarakhand disaster titled ‘Heaven’s Rage’ informs us that, “the raging Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini have swollen like never before and swept away whatever came in their way. As many as 2,052 houses have been wiped out, 147 bridges have collapsed and 1,307 roads destroyed, says Rakesh Sharma, state infrastructure development commissioner. The upper reaches of Uttarakhand look as if the region has travelled a hundred years back in time.”
The aforementioned statistics make one wonder whether this is only a natural disaster or has human action and inaction aggravated the magnitude of the catastrophe. It should be noted that there is a link between the disaster and unregulated development and tourism seen in the ecologically fragile region of the Himalayas. Ecologists have pointed out that the huge expansion of hydro-power projects and construction of roads to cope with the lakhs of tourists in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh has compounded the scale of the disaster.
Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment said, “This is very much a man-made disaster. There are of course links between climate change and extreme weather events as has happened with the torrential rain in Uttarakhand. But this has been exacerbated by the reckless construction of buildings, dams and roads in a fragile environment. Many of the settlements have been built right next to the rivers in blatant violation of environmental laws. There is a strong need to evolve a holistic Himalayan policy which will deal with all these issues.”
Prof. Maharaj Pandit, Professor with the department of environmental sciences at Delhi University has demanded a study be conducted to assess the carrying capacity of the Himalayas, which are a young mountain range. “The valleys of the Yamuna, the Ganga and the Alaknanda witness heavy traffic of tourists. For this, the government has to construct new roads and widen the existing ones,” he said.
The expansion of roads has proved a major destabilising factor combined with plans to construct hydropower projects in this sensitive eco-zone. While dams are needed to meet energy requirements, building them is a construction-intensive activity. It involves blasting, excavation, debris dumping, movement of heavy machinery, diversion of forests and rivers. The state government of Uttarakhand in past few years has been welcoming the construction of such projects without considering their cumulative impact on the rivers and the mountains. A string of reports by the Ministry of Environment and Forest show how one hydropower project after another were violating green rules and no action was taken either by the state or the Centre. It’s the flouting of these very norms that led to debris being dumped in river-beds causing flooding and instability on the mountain sides that were deforested. An example is that of the 330 MW Srinagar Hydel project being constructed by GVK.
Thus, poorly planned dams in Uttarakhand which were constructed without paying heed to their environmental impact is seen as one of the reasons why devastation from floods this June is horrifying.
Moreover, deforestation is yet another factor to be blamed for the devastation caused by the Uttarakhand floods. Districts where maximum forest area was diverted for hydel projects, roads etc. are the regions most badly affected by the floods. It worth to note that under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, a project developer is supposed to plant trees in a non forest area equal to the forest area it is clearing, or on degraded forest land which is double the project area, to compensate for forest loss. However, compensatory afforestation seems to be ineffective in the state.
Interestingly, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Vijay Bahuguna has time and again denied that the floods were a man-made disaster. He told the Times of India newspaper that the floods had set back the state by at least three years in terms of development.
It would not be wrong to state that had the government not turned a blind eye to the blatant violation of green laws in the state, much of this disaster and damage could have been minimized. The Himalayas are the biggest mountain range in the world but they are also extremely fragile. Development no doubt is crucial to a nation but we need to keep in mind the very delicate eco-system that one is working within. It is imperative that India has a separate disaster management and mitigation strategy for the Himalayan region.