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The Himalayan Fury - Causes and Remedies

Utrakhand, is the 27th state of India carved out of the Himalayan region and adjoining north-western districts of Uttar Pradesh in the year 2000. It's a sacred place for the Hindus, as two of the most sacred rivers, the Ganga at Gangotri and the Yamuna at Yamunotri originate from Utrakhand. Along with it, temples like Badrinath and Kedarnath form the Chota Char Dham, for Hindu pilgrims to Utrakhand.

In June 2013, the Himalayan region witnessed heavy rainfall that triggered devastating floods and landslides in Utrakhand. The floods left a trail of destruction, over 70,000 pilgrims and tourists were trapped in various places who were rescued. There was huge damage to the infrastructure and urban construction in the state. Various reasons are attributed to the tragedy. Some blame it on nature, other call it a manmade calamity waiting in the wings. Various suggestions are made to avoid such large scale destruction and to be better prepared for such eventuality next time.

Reasons for Calamity
The forests of the region are an important reservoir of biodiversity; as they provide protection against soil erosion and increased flooding in the plains. One of the reasons for the Utrakhand tragedy is attributed to the extraction of forests resources of the region. The huge deforestation led to increased vulnerability to the floods and landslides that got exposed in the recent floods. The region's other key resource is the water that flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains. Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region to generate hydro power. While dams are needed to meet energy requirements, building them is a construction-intensive activity. It involves blasting, excavation, debris dumping, movement of heavy machinery, diversion of forests and rivers.

It was seen that poorly planned dams in Utrakhand which were constructed without paying heed to their environmental impact was one of the reasons why floods turned so devastating in the state. Since Utrakhand holds special place for the Hindus, a large number of the pilgrims make a beeline to the state. The monsoon season also coincides with the peak pilgrim season and people in large numbers from across the nation come to visit Hindu holy sites in the state. These places become overcrowded and their cumulative impact poses a threat to the environment of the region.

It's said that recent Utrakhand calamity was a classical case of how commercial interests can open the gates to disaster. Road construction activity to cater to the pilgrims and tourists went on unchecked. Apart from convenience and comfort, ever increasing economic opportunities in the vicinity of the roads encouraged people to settle down in the proximity of the roads, even if it implies being exposed to disaster risk. Increasing tourist and pilgrim traffic further exacerbated this tendency. The huge deluge of urban settlement in Utrakhand was because it was located in the disaster risk zone.

The huge amount of urbanization going on in the fragile mountainous area without any consideration of the environmental impact aggravated the problem. The hotels and lodges in most of the cases come up in the most fragile areas of the state. The unplanned urban growth in Utrakhand is considered to be the key factors for magnifying the human tragedy in the state. The recent Utrakhand floods suggest that due to the given reasons, the risk-prone and ecologically fragile region of the state became vulnerable to the nature's fury.

Now, in its aftermath its required to build a strategy to prevent such disaster in the future. This strategy has to take into account the vulnerability of the region and the ways to protect its environment. First of all, the Himalayan states like Utrakhand should build a viable and sustainable forest-based economy. A common policy should be evolved to value the forests better for better use. This policy should include the voices and concerns of local communities, dependent on forests for their agriculture and basic needs. A comprehensive planning should be made centring on forests be used for building local economies.

Then the strategy for water development must balance the opportunity for energy and threat to livelihood, particularly in the age of changing climate and hydrology. It is feared that the hydrology will be impacted because of climate change—and extreme events. In such case the hydro projects in Utrakhand should be reviewed and if needed even scrapped. The ecosystem-based tourism should be developed with safeguards and local benefits. There is need to promote homestead tourism, instead of hotel tourism, based on policy incentives. These incentives would include fiscal benefits provided to house-owners for providing tourist related facilities.

There is need for an inventory of key pilgrimage sites in Utrakhand, with an understanding of its ecological capacity based on location and fragility. Then there is need to control the number of visitors to the important pilgrimage sites based on the carrying capacity estimates. There should be a ban on construction of roads for the movement of people within 10 km of the high-altitude pilgrimage areas. There should be areas marked as special zones, which are to be maintained with minimal human interference. There is need to build policies for sustainable urbanisation in the state. The towns need to be planned, particularly keeping in mind the rush of summer tourists.

The Utrakhand flood teaches us that we must learn to build sustainable models for pilgrim-based tourism in the fragile regions of the country. There is a problem of pollution, litter and solid waste disposal in all the tourist sites. To control this, a tourism tax for entry into fragile ecosystems should be charged exponentially. An action plan to create facilities for tourists, particular facilities for sanitation and for garbage disposal should be made out of such revenue. There should be high parking charges in fragile areas of hill towns to restrict the number of vehicles and reduce pollution and congestion.

Finally, in order to build local interest in these areas, rules to give communities living in the area advantage of the pilgrimage activities are framed and implemented vigorously. The recent Utrakhand foods bear resemblance to 2004 Tsunami the coastal regions of the east coast of India. In its wake a costal disaster management plan that was formulated for better preparedness in future. A similar proposal can be made for the preparation of disaster management plan for the hill regions particularly the Himalayan region of the country. These suggestions and more can come handy in checking the calamities like Utrakhand that has occurred due to cloud burst, heavy rains and causing unprecedented floods.

--Syed Ali Mujtaba

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