Uttarakhand Glacier Burst A Man-Made Disaster


On 7 February 2021, a chunk of Nanda Devi glacier broke off into the Dhauliganga, a tributary of the Ganga river near Raini village in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand triggering an avalanche and deluge and flooding the Dhauliganga, Rishiganga and Alaknanda rivers, the major headstreams of the Ganges. Torrential force of the river flow washed away the 13.2 MW Rishiganga hydropower project near Joshimath and also caused considerable damage to state run NTPC  520MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project. The burst glacier also swept away roads and five bridges which connected adjacent thirteen villages. Although exact number of casualties have not yet been known, as per media, at least 36 people have died and many more injured. Over 200 are missing, suspected to be stranded inside a 200 metres long tunnel or washed away.  Most of the victims are believed to be migrant workers of two hydropower plants. A few have been rescued so far. Initial estimates put the cost of the dam and the office that were washed away at Rs. 450 crore.Value of other losses have not yet been assessed. The glacier disaster is a grim horrific reminder of the monsoon floods in Kedarnath in Uttarakhand in 2013, known as Himalayan Tsunami which killed about 6,000 people with unaccounted huge property losses.

The causes of this disaster

Obvious question is whether this has been just a natural calamity or there are other definite reasons behind such repeated instances of horrific disasters in the region.  Some pertinent facts need to be referred to for that. Uttarakhand, situated on the southern slope of the Himalayan range, is one of the most disaster-prone states in India.  Due toitstypical geological  pattern, the state is always at a risk of calamitousevents like flash floods, cloudburst, avalanches, landslides, mudflows, and earthquakes, among others.Geological Survey of India said the current deluge appears to have been caused by “glacial calving”. Geologists also say that increasing climate change and global warming have accelerated glacial reduction. Himalayan glaciers are retreating faster than  anywhere else in the world since the 1990s. Some are of the opinion that it is a landslide not glacial outburst. 

Whatever may be the immediate cause but the real cause is the rapid pace of much clamoureddevelopment constructing hundreds of power projects, dams, buildings and widening of roads in the area that is playing havoc with this ecologically fragile earthquake-prone region. For years, environmentalists have been crying hoarse about the model of development being followed in these fragile mountains capes, and yet advices have fallen on deaf ears. The environmentalists, scientists, experts and researchers have repeatedly been warning the government that such reckless constructions on the embankment of the rivers and adjacent hill plateaus without caring for ecological disbalance and drastic environmental changes would only increase chances of such type of calamities causing immense loss of life and property. But the bourgeois governments, both at the Centre and in the state,  wedded to the task of buttressing commercial interest of big contractors and private houses simply ignored such warnings and went on violating the scientific principles of construction.

Governments are responsible for such man-made disaster

In view of this, theenvironmentalists, researchersand experts in this field are of the opinion that it is evidently a man-made disaster since paying due heed to their repeated warnings and advices could have averted such type of periodic disasters. For example, Rajendra Singh, conservationist and Magsaysay award winner water activist, also known as the ‘waterman of India’ for his indefatigable efforts for water conservation in drought-prone regions of the country, claimed that he and other environmentalists had been warning of such disasters in Uttarakhand region for decades but the government authorities remained apathetic. As a result, five such calamities have wreaked havoc in the region since 1992.  The new construction does not make any economic, cultural or spiritual benefits to the people in that region but leads to the problem of soil erosion and silting which block the river ways that eventually end up such natural calamities, he pointed out.

“The common cause behind the 2013 floods and present disaster was the construction done at these three rivers. If this advice is still not taken seriously more such glacier outbreaks or other catastrophes will occur,” the waterman  warned long back. He also advised that in order to avoid future calamities no new construction should be done and the region around three Himalayan rivers in Uttarakhand should be declared as eco-sensitive.In 2018, renowned Ganga activist Prof. GD Agarwal had sat on fast unto death against the construction of dams in north India and sacrificed his life after 111 days. But the state BJP government took no cognizance of that. K.S. Valdiya, Padma Shree  awardee geologist  and an honorary professor at Bangalore’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, who studied Uttarakhand region for close to 50 years, felt no qualm in telling themedia that heavy rain and cloudbursts were naturalbut this tragicincident was entirely man-made. Huge loss of life and property in the deluge was a result of “criminal oversight” over the decades of thestate’s geological features and water channels by various authorities. “These features are well-mapped and documented. But engineers and builders choose to overlook them,”he said.  Healso pointed out four major ways in which the constructions had flouted scientific norms.

Elaborating further,  he said that first of all, the seismic fault lines of this earthquake-prone state were not keptin mind while building roads. These tectonic fault lines, which are active and see back-and-forth movements,have been cut in many places. As a result, tiny seismic movements weaken the rocks at the base of the roads, making these stretches susceptible to cave-ins and slides. Secondly, rampant neglect of drainage provision could have possibly allowed accumulated rainwater to enter the stretch. Where one to two metre bridges were required, small culverts were built as quick-fix solutions. Even where drains were made, those were usually filled with debris.Thirdly,buildings have been constructed over old drains and streams, blocking the natural pathways of rainwater or on the lower terraces which were part of the flood way. Sooner or later, when the rivers would have returned to their old courses or water level risen, the construction in these areas would be washed away.  Kedarnath deluge in 2013 was a classic example of that.

Lastly, roads had been built on the debris of previous landslides as constructing roads at a height where the rock is firmer would have entailed higher cost. Valdiya lamented for government’s apathy towards paying attention to basic principles of scientific engineering, the consequence however, people pays with human lives and huge property losses.Similar have been the views of Environmental journalist Bahar Dutt,  Mallika Bhanot and Geologist Dr Navin Juyal, a retired scientist of Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad. Dr Juyal was also a member of thegovernment committee to give suggestions for minimising the negative impacts of the hydro dams in the region. A good number of noted scientists, ecologists, policy makers, geologists also endorsed the view and said that when there was heavy snowfall, the river water came with such force that the two dams that were in the course of the river just broke.  Deforestation  has been another  major cause of landslides, they observed.The Supreme Court appointed committee after 2013 Kedarnath tragedy had also pointed out in 2014 that dams had a big role to play in aggravating a disaster like flash floods and hence advised against building up any hydropower project in the paraglacial regions of the state. So, they all suggested that a better scientific model is  warranted to avoid such man-made massacres.

Devastating consequence of anti-environmental development

Raini village in Chamoli district, the epicentre of the latest disaster, crisis, is the cradle of the Chipko Movement, India’s first environmental movement initiated by the villagers in  Uttarakhand in the 1973  to save forestry. Women organised a second Chipko, in early last decade to save the Ganges which was being obstructed from flowing through its normal course. Villagers say the Rishiganga hydropower plant built in the area was in contravention of all environmental norms and had been flagged by villagers as an ‘impending disaster’. A founder organizer of Chipko Movement had sent several petitions to the government urging them to stop the massive tunnel and hydro projects on the Ganga and alleging the private firms were using explosive and blasting the mountains  for mining.All concerned demanded that no dams  should be constructed on rivers Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Mandakini as there are very steep slopes in the area. And yet, government authorities went ahead with the hydro projects. Just 24 hours before the February 2021 tragedy unfolded, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, Uttarakhand,  cleared the Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) on the Yamuna near Lohari village in the district of Dehradun in Uttarakhand. As of today, more than 70 big and small projects are slated on different sections of the Ganga and its tributaries, and thousands of labourers who work on these infrastructure projects are bound to die a nameless, faceless death because of this contractor-based model of development being pursued in the mountains.

Mindless construction spree has endangered life and livelihood of common people

Since the formation of Uttarakhand as a separate mountain state, successive state governments have neglected Uttarakhand’s predominately mountain character and adopted  the conventional model of development followed in the rest of India.The neglect of Uttarakhand’s mountain character has doubly jeopardized its mountain communities. Agriculture is their main livelihood of the people here. But mindless destruction of arable lands has been blocking cultivation and increasing hardship of the locals surviving on agriculture. Instead the Uttarakhand government pushed by an assortment of special interest, have promoted an economic growth model that totally disregards the state’s mountain character and the associated environmental fragilities. The rapid growth of hydroelectric projects (HEP) and tourism created a need for more and wider roads for big machines required at dam sites and tourist traffic. They have doggedly promoted deforestation, dams on large and small rivers, lengthy tunnels inside fragile mountain slopes, widening of roads, constructions of illegal buildings, hotels and resorts by riverside and massive sand mining of riverbeds. The government has been more concerned on promoting tourism and other constructions endangering ecological sustainability  than the life, livelihood and safety of the poor toiling local people. Hence, it is clear that the periodic disasters including the current one is man-made. The sheer scale of Kedarnath deluge and the several big and small disasters in the past two decades in Uttarakhand after it was carved out of Uttar Pradesh as a separate state have taken away around  6000 lives.Yet, the BJP-led state government went ahead with big and aggressive projects, citing the need for ‘development’ in the hills. Does development mean undertaking projects which would make people’s safety and livelihood in jeopardy. So called development that disregards people’s economic-social-cultural benefits is actually a bunkum purported to swell coffers of the corporates, private contractors and other agencies. It is the savage appetite of greed of the ruling monopolists and their subservient governments that has been stripped naked in shameless barbarity unfolded in the Uttarakhand tragedy.

Warning of great Engels

Long back, great Engels has sounded a caution: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first… at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws…The individual capitalists, who dominate production and exchange, are able to concern themselves only with the most immediate useful effect of their actions. Indeed, even this useful effect… retreats far into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling…In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions… are mostly quite the opposite in character.” (The Part Played by Labour in Transition from the Ape to Man)

Alongside referring to these causes of this man-made disaster, the Uttarakhand State SUCI(C), in its statement issued on 7 February on the disaster, demanded :

*    a respectful humane monetary compensation of Rs 10 lac for those innocent mostly migrants labourers who lost their lives in this tragedy.

*    Relief and rescue operations which have already started should be on war footing as workers still trapped inside the tunnels of on power project.

*    Strictly implement the recommendation of various scientific and environmentalist committee who had caution time and again about fragile Himalayas Eco System.

SUCI(C) appeals to all members of civil society, activists, environment loving citizens  to come forward and raise the voice to save our environment and society.

(Sources: The Hindu, Times of India, Indian Express, NDTV all dated 8 and 9 February2021, indiatimes.com dated 26 June 2013, the Quint dated 8 and 9 February 2021, Uttarakhand Development and Ecological Sustainability by Ravi Chopra)

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