Himachal – Development Or Delusion

Unprecedented, devastating floods in Himachal Pradesh calls for some soul searching and that too on an urgent basis. We have had floods in the past but going by the media reports and visuals this one seems to be the deadliest so far. Bridges, roads, buildings, vehicles, any structure that came in the way of raging waters had to succumb to the fury of its intensity. River Beas seemed as if on a mission to rid its banks and flood plains of human presence. We have been spending huge amounts of resources, despite scientific evidence requiring us to exercise restraint, on all kinds of so called developmental works i.e. four-laning our national highways, building more hydro power project, making more tunnels in to the fragile mountains and expanding tourism facilities much beyond the carrying capacity of the area. All or most of it is happening in total disregard of “precautionary principle” which is one of the basic tenets of environmental jurisprudence in the country. Every few years nature decides to take the matters in her hands and we watch helplessly our roads, bridges and buildings getting washed away.

A fierce debate has already started, like always in the aftermath of any disaster, as to what led to this mass scale destruction in Himachal Pradesh. Was it a deadly cocktail of unprecedented rains, cloud bursts aggravated by the fact that the path of gushing river was obstructed by man-made structures? It is imperative that once we deal with the immediate needs of the affected people, manage the consequences of the disaster, the government carries out an audit to find out reasons of humungous loss that the state has incurred in these floods. It would be a good exercise to carry out by the state authorities, in an objective manner, to ascertain whether the loss and damage could entirely be attributed to the natural disaster only or there were circumstances that led to the amplification of the damage and loss that the state incurred. It could put to rest all debates and doubts once and for all and give us good insights, some of which could be used for regulating our future actions.

We have plethora of laws, rules and regulations for protection and management of environment, for country and town planning, for ascertaining the environment impact assessment of all big projects, for determining the carrying capacity of an area. We have laws that regulate development around river banks, on either side of a National Highway or a State Highway, on dam safety etc. it’s time we audit whether the mandate of all these laws is being respected and followed in the state. It is time we know how many of these structures, bridges, buildings and roads had followed all laws, rules and regulations. It is time we know how much scientific evidence had warned us against the model of development that we are pursuing in the mountains. Well the intent of this exercise should not be to find scapegoats but only for the purpose of learning some lessons, if there are any, which could help us decide our future course of action.

We still have time when we can stop and have a relook at the way we are destroying our environment in the name of development. We need to understand that any development today at the cost of environment shall be short-lived and we will have to pay a bigger price in future.

It is time we recalibrate our strategy, pay heed to what science says. From National Environment Policy (NEP) to Governance for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (G-SHE) under National Mission for Sustaining Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) in National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) to state action plans on climate change, all these government programmes and missions understand the needs of a mountain ecosystem. There are detailed scientific studies carried out and guidelines in place for managing every aspect of development in the mountains which is in keeping with its environment. We have information that extreme weather conditions like cloud bursts, flooding and landslides/subsidence will be on a rise in future in the mountains given their fragility and vulnerability. How can we not pay attention to this knowledge that exists in the system and adapt to pursue a model of development that agrees with the needs of our young, still growing, fragile mountains.

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