The glacier burst in Chamoli District of Uttrakhand on February 7, 2021, is a national tragedy of monumental proportions. Eight persons are reported dead and some 170 are missing with little hope of survivors. The 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydropower project has been completely washed away. In addition, the 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad NTPC hydropower project too is badly damaged. About 200 MW supply to the national grid has been cut off due to the damage caused to these power projects. Notably, Raini Village where the disaster first struck was the centre of the ‘Chipko’ movement since 1970s to save trees. Raini Village has been partially washed away, as are five bridges on the river cutting access to various villages and remote areas.
Preliminary reports on the 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad NTPC hydropower project on the Dhauliganga River (tributary of Alaknanda River) assess that about 60-70 percent of the completed construction work on the office and dam costing Rs 450 crore has been washed away in the flash floods. This is the second time this Rs 13, 500 crore NTPC project has been damaged, first one being in flashfloods during 2013 of what was termed as the ‘Kedarnath Floods’ caused by a cloud burst. Revenue, time and labour loss apart, the maximum number of personnel missing in flashfloods on February 7 are the persons working on the NTPC project.
The usual blame is on the villain of ‘global warming’. Cloud burst is discounted since weather reports for Chamoli region till February 7 showed sunny weather with no record of precipitation. According to an assistant professor of IIT Indore, the glacial burst possibly could have happened because of water pockets in the region which may have erupted. He however, has qualified this by stating that this is a very rare phenomenon and it needs further analysis in the instant case. But significantly, conservationist Rajendra Singh, also known as the ‘Waterman of India’, has called the tragedy a man-made disaster squarely blaming it on the Uttranchal urban development and rampant riverbed construction.
A recipient of the Ramon Magasaysay Award and Stockholm Water Prize, Rajendra Singh had predicted the 2013 Kedarnath Floods a fortnight before it happened. In 2017, he had predicted that a similar tragedy was waiting to happen; which eventually occurred on February 7, 2021. He has now stated, “We had informed authorities that no dams should be constructed on rivers Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Mandakini as they have very steep slopes in the area and it is an extremely eco-sensitive zone. However, the rampant construction continues due to which the recent disaster was inevitable. In fact, it was not a natural disaster, but man-made one.” He rues that no lessons have been learnt and warns that urban development and rampant construction of river beds and banks still continue which can trigger another tragedy of similar scale.
There is no doubt that urban development and hydropower projects are necessary for the nation’s progress but can we really afford to ignore eco-sensitive regions inviting periodic man-made disasters in the name of development? Ironically, the report on what Rajendra Singh has stated is buried inside national dailies rather than being front-page news. His warnings and the ‘Chipko’ movement of yesteryears are simply ignored. Similar public outcry in Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh too may be given the short-shrift.
The Himachal Pradesh government has signed MoUs with SJVNL and NTPC for some 16 mega-hydel projects for the Chenab basin for a combined power generation of over 5,000 MW. The issue that should concern authorities is that the Chenab basin has a highly fragile eco-system in Lahual and Pangi valleys. According to media, Lahaul residents are opposing these projects and do not want SJVNL and NTPC to commence construction. They are worried that construction activity and building of reservoirs will not only destroy the glaciers but put human lives at risk. They are opposed to any trees being cut. Lahaul region has over 100 glaciers including Bada Shigri which is the largest in Himachal Pradesh.
As a nation we need to get rid of our ‘chalta hai’ attitude. Not only the Centre and the governments of Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand but all states along the Himalayas must review their ongoing and future urban development and riverbed projects keeping in mind fragility of the eco-sensitive regions and conservation of the environment. Without this the calls for ‘Vikas’ and international applause for achieving or exceeding ‘Climate Targets’ would sound somewhat hollow.