Often enough has India’s chest thumping of an emerging power been shown up for what it is — bravado. This has happened yet again. Uttarakhand didn’t know what hit it when the Nature decided to push back just a little after decades of being pushed.
In 1982 when I first went to Kedarnath-Badrinath, in May, the banks of the rivers right from Rishikesh onwards were open, without the odd construction here and there. The entire area was green and it was quite chilly, though even then the locals were complaining of warmer winters and their late setting.
In 1998, on the second trip, quite a few buildings had come up on river banks. Indeed, our group was accommodated in one such building just outside Chamoli, with the Alakananda running in the basement. It was like a private bathing ghat, with steps and safety chains. The murmurs on how buildings could be so built and their safety were lost in the experience and the convenience of a bathing ghat downstairs. Brown was making inroads into the green.
In 2003, the last trip to the abode of Gods, the banks were overrun with constructions and some looked to be hanging merely on a prayer and the goodwill of the rivers. This time there were outbursts of helpless outrage. Brown had become the dominant colour.
All this appear to have been lost on successive governments in Uttarakhand and before 1999 of Uttar Pradesh; Uttarakhand was carved out of UP. And, by the year pressure has been mounting on the ecology especially from end-April to mid-September the time the Char Dham — Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — yatra lasts. And year after year the number of pilgrims has been growing, hitting a million this year.
Last year, Uttarakhand did decide to do some thing, by adopting the Bill for Flood Plain Zoning that essentially aims at ensuring no dwellings are built in vulnerable areas and houses in low-lying areas are turned into public utilities like parks and playgrounds so that there is minimal loss of life in the even of a disaster. But it tweaked the law to suit local requirements which perhaps meant constructions went on though not merrily. Things were made worse by the hydel projects on the Alakananda and the Bhagirathi.
As for other preparedness, the less said the better. True to Indian style, nothing is done before a disaster and after that it is all blame game. Now every one — the Met Department, the CAG and the numerous NGOs — and his aunt claims to have warned the State government about the coming disaster. The State appears deaf too.
Can, or will, it open its eyes and ears? The State no doubt needs the money from the pilgrims and tourists as also the power it can generate and sell. But if safety becomes an issue, the effect can be just the opposite. Already, the authorities are saying Kedarnath may remain out of bounds for a couple of years.
Uttarakhand administration must get serious about clearing illegal structures and tightening up the building clearance process. It must must re-green the hillslopes as fast as it can.
Then, perhaps, it create an elite rescue force; but for the men of the Army, the Border Roads Organisation and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the death toll would have been several fold.
It must chalk out Plans B, C, D… But, most importantly, it should not take Nature for granted.
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