Above: Kedarnath was devastated by flash floods in 2013/Photo: Rajeev Tyagi
~By Inderjit Badhwar
As this week’s cover story demonstrates, India has an abysmal record of paying heed to warnings of impending doom even when they are backed by scientific evidence. This attitude is a toxic mixture of governmental lethargy, callousness, fatalism and denial. In a microcosm, the flooding of Kerala, displacing more than a million people, is one of the worst natural disasters in this century. It is India’s New Orleans moment when Hurricane Katrina rendered homeless some 4,00,000 residents in the south-eastern part of the US.
The hurricane arrived in August 2015 with winds raging at up to 127 mph killing about 1,500 people. Government sources then averred that the tragedy was unavoidable because Katrina was just too big for the levees that were built to protect the city. But investigators were later to discover that this was just not so. Important levees, including canals in the city, one report said, “failed with water levels well below levels they were designed to withstand”.
As we face the impending horrors of global warming which are causing floods, unprecedented storms and droughts and every conceivable pattern of changes in the weather, there is no escaping the fact—no matter how strong your fatalism—that many of the weather disasters we now suffer, as we are doing in Kerala—are not only “natural” but also man-made. “Man-made” because warnings by climatologists, engineers, environmentalists, architects, hydrologists, went unheeded by apathetic governments.
But the Kerala ecological disaster was just waiting to happen, writes Papia Samajdar. The ecosystem of India’s Western Ghats is under severe stress and several committees had warned that if untrammeled development and the felling of trees, erosion of hills continue in this fragile region, catastrophe would follow. “Roughly 30 percent of Western Ghats is under forests (before 2010) and this is a stabilising effect on the climate and rainfall on the western and eastern sides. It has also played a vital role in carbon sequestration and reduction of global warming. However, the Ghats are under serious threat,” Samajdar says.
In order to start preventive measures, Jairam Ramesh, the then Union environment minister, set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel under Professor Madhav Gadgil in 2010. The Gadgil panel found that mining, industries, real estate and hydro-power were resulting in pollution and depletion of groundwater, siltation of water bodies, increased frequency of floods, loss of fertile agricultural land and deforestation.
In what amounts to a malafide action, the government under pressure from industrial and mining lobbies junked Gadgil’s report and appointed yet another group to go into the subject. This new committee of sarkari experts reduced the ecologically sensitive area to 60,000 hectares, a stupendous 43 percent decrease from that recommended by the Gadgil report. “The committee excluded the area already under private control from protective regime to avoid unnecessary conflict,’’ a member admitted.
There is a pattern to this criminal negligence and the examples abound. For several decades, Uttarakhand (then Garhwal) environmentalist Sundarlal Bahuguna, the founder of the Chipko Movement (hugging trees to save them), has been shouting himself hoarse, warning against impending disaster from construction of large dams and destruction of mountains and forests. He virtually predicted the devastation of Kedarnath— the holy Hindu shrine that was swept away by one of the deadliest floods in that area.
By axing trees and blasting mountains to build dams and roads, the mountains are being weakened, he said. “This in turn is paving the way for natural calamities and compelling the people to run for shelter. By tampering with the fragile ecology of the Himalayan state, we are inviting large scale destruction like the Kedarnath flash flood disaster in 2013.”
Another committee followed. This time it was an Expert Body (EB) constituted on the directions issued by the Supreme Court in a judgment dated 13.08.2013 (Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd. versus Anuj Joshi & others). In a report submitted in April 2014 to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the EB recommended that strategic environmental assessment (SEA) be carried out in other major river basins of Uttarakhand such as the Yamuna and Kali.
“Scientific studies should be conducted for establishing baseline data on river parameters, diversity and populations of floral and faunal species in different rivers of Uttarakhand at different elevation zones. Such studies should be used for deciding upon the minimum distances between two consecutive hydro-electric projects (HEPs). Until such scientific studies are completed, no new HEPs should be cleared on the rivers of Uttarakhand within a distance that may later be revoked,” the EB recommended.
Even as this new report gathers dust, preparations are under way for clearance to build the Sharda dam in areas bordering Nepal. The ecological havoc will be gargantuan, according to environmentalists. Additionally, in adjoining Himachal Pradesh, four-laning of roads with entire mountains being levelled and hundreds of thousands of trees still being felled in the lower Himalayas from Kalka to Shimla is already causing landslides and unprecedented rises in temperature in this fragile zone.
The Expert Body of 2014 also highlighted serious concern about the Indian deltas, which are shrinking due to changes in river courses: “The Ganga-Brahmaputra delta is also noted in this category. This seems to be a major issue in near future therefore we recommend that the studies should be carried out regarding the impacts on sediment transportation due to projects existing on the way of Himalayan rivers of heavy silt load.”
We have long known about the unique characteristics of floodplains, such as low relief terrain, proximity to waterways and nutrient rich soil, which have enabled rural and urban development to thrive. Yet, right in the middle of the nation’s capital, the Yamuna’s floodplain was dealt a mortal blow by spiritualist Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) jamboree in March 2016, attended by over 35 lakh people, including central government ministers.
“The flood plains are not and cannot be equated to waste lands. They should not be treated as lands lying fallow and utilized in the manner which is unacceptable and would have adverse impacts. It is the duty of the statutory authority, Government and the people at large to protect and preserve the flood plains or river Yamuna,” the National Green Tribunal noted in a judgment. It held AOL “responsible” for “causing damage and environmental degradation” to the Yamuna floodplains. But the Tribunal which had asked AOL to pay Rs 5 crore as compensation chose not to punish the perpetrators any farther. Earlier this year, an NGT-appointed expert committee had noted that the rehabilitation of the floodplains would cost over Rs 42.02 crore and may take up to ten years.
Committees come and go, the National Green Tribunal tries its best but there is no end in sight to the mindless destruction of the environment. The Kerala tragedy will play itself out on national TV, politicians will make political points, one-upmanship will be the name of the game in the courts and, ultimately, as historical experience shows, all lessons learned, warnings given, the tragedy of lives lost and livelihoods shattered, will be swept under the rug as we plunge headlong into greed-driven environmental self-destruction.