Hopefully, both people and government will take heed of Uttarakhand tragedy

Dehra Dun : Public memory is short, but is it short enough that the people, politicians and babudom of Uttarakhand, will not take heed of the macabre tragedy that has hit this small mountain state. It is true that the state has been hit by tragedies, albeit not of this magnitude, in the past also, and no lessons were learnt, but hopefully this tragedy should have shaken the very conscience.

Though denied by certain sections, there is almost unanimity in the view that the present tragedy is more of a man-made disaster than a natural disaster. There have been heavy rains and cloudbursts in the earlier decades also, but the loss, both of lives and property has never been to the present tunes. It is an open issue for debate between environmentalists and pro-development activists.

Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna was more than right that he could not push the state back by stopping the process of development, but perhaps the planners will now give more importance to what environmentalists have been saying all these years. Development has to take place for the benefit of the state and its people, but cautiously with the fragile ecology and environment in mind.

The previous state governments and its planners cannot justify how free use of hundreds of kilograms of dynamite, which was used in the construction of roads and hydro-electric projects, shock waves from which further loosened the fragile mountain slopes, which have resulted in land slides and land slips during even moderate rains.

How can the state governments and its planners, including the ‘babudom’ explain why no body was made to ensure that the thousands of tones of debris that was excavated during the construction of the roads and hydro-electric projects was dumped in dumping sites and not into the rivers, raising their beds, which has caused the waters to rise to the alarmingly high levels.

Who will answer, why the offices of such a body were not opened in the hill districts of Uttarkashi, Chaoli, Rudraprayag, Pauri and Tehri, where a network of roads was being made and a number of hydro-electric projects coming up on the rivers flowing through to ensure that the muck is not dumped into the river beds. It was this thousands of tons of muck that has raised the river beds and are responsible for the floods.

However, while the state governments may be responsible to a great extent for the neglects, which have resulted in the tragedy, the role of the central government has also left much to be desired. There has been a clamour for a Himalayan policy and that there be a separate department in the centre for the Himalayan states, but the centre has preferred to look the other way in the matter.

Magsaysay Award winner and renowned environmentalist, Chandi Prasad Bhatt recalls that there have been heavy down pours in the past, like the one in Oct 1956, when it poured for five days. There were landslips and landslide, but the loss to life and property was very little. The reason was that the people of the hills gave due thought to the constructions that they did.

But as the state opened up, a large number of people came in to encash the popularity of the char dhaam yatra and the scenic beauty of the state. Constructions galore came up, most of them along the rivers beds, with a number of them encroaching not only on the hill slopes but also the river beds. No consideration was given to the fact that rivers change their course, which was witnessed in this year’s tragedy as the Mandakini changed course, which it did for all to see.

Another renowned environmentalist of the region, Dr Anil Joshi said that all the state governments did was to see how the natural sources of this small mountain state, including its rivers could be encashed, but no one bothered to understand its fragile and sensitive ecology. It is for this that it is not only the local people or the state government who have to understand the Himalayas, but the entire country and the central government also, he maintained.

Incidentally, in a survey conducted by a regional daily 92 per cent of the respondents felt that the Uttarakhand tragedy was due to man’s interference in the Himalayas and 53 per cent were of the view that such was the magnitude of the tragedy that both the society and the governments will take heed from them for the better.

A journalist with over 40 years of experience, Jagdish Bhatt is Editor Hill Post (Uttarakhand). Jagdish has worked with India's leading English dailies, which include Times of India, Indian Express, Pioneer and several other reputed publications. A highly acclaimed journalist, Jagdish is a recipient of many awards, latest being the 2011 Development Journalism Award. He lives in Dehra Dun.

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