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.
--Syed Ali Mujtaba
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