Environment Ministry - Must Act and revamp its policy now

Dr VK Bahuguna

February 21, 2021, 08:45:42   

The untimely flash flood in the Rishiganga river a tributary of Alaknanda in the 'Raini' village in Chamoli districts of Uttarakhand on 7th morning had brought untold misery to the families who lost their near and dears in this tragedy. Normally such incidents of flash floods occur during Monsoon seasons only. This is for the first time that such magnitude's natural disaster of breaking down of Himalayan glacier has taken place in the winter months. The Uttarakhand and the Central government's National Disaster Management Apparatus had quickly swung into action and controlled the damage to life and property in other areas. So far till 13th February more than 46 bodies of people have been recovered and around 150 are missing and 36 workers trapped in the tunnels at Tapovan's NTPC 520 Mega watt Hydro project. The rescue team after it failed to reach the trapped people in tunnel for last 6 to 7 days as more and more sludge is coming out  even after clearing the muck over 100 meters in the sludge choked tunnel . After failing to do this the rescue team decided to drill a hole and find the survivors. Five bodies were recovered from the intake tunnel so far. It is feared that no survivors will be there. In the meanwhile, the satellite images are confirming that yet another lake has formed which is growing in size in the Rishiganga area and signalling yet another flash flood in near future.

Uttarakhand situated in western Himalayas which is geologically of recent origin and is an unstable mountain zone due to gradual tectonic shift in the Himalayan plate to further north every year. This makes it vulnerable to earthquakes and underneath geological changes which suddenly releases the energy and causes natural upheavals of gigantic proportion disturbing the ecological foundation of the region and damaging the human life beyond repairs. The glaciers are ice sheets which are accumulation of snow and keep growing due to more and more snow. It is natural for the glaciers to break due to underneath geological changes and melting down of glaciers due to climatic factors. However, this natural factor becomes a manmade disaster due to the activities of the people who live in this area and the lopsided government policy and planning which ignores the prudence of science and common sense for the short term benefits. This happens due to the 'ostrich mentality' in the decision making when the people avoid the negative information which results in potentially destructive decisions.

The poor decision making is happening not only in Uttarakhand but all over India for past many years. The Planning of roads and buildings in vulnerable slopes by the local people and the government without assessments of pros and cons and construction of dams and small hydro electric projects all over along the rivers in Uttarakhand is the root cause of this misery we face time and again. The Tapovan 520 Megawatt and Rishiganga 13 Megawatt projects have been completely washed away in this flood killing several poor workers and local residents. It is surprising that more than 50 hydroelectric projects are either sanctioned or are running in Uttarakhand and these were sanctioned inspite of the expert opinion against them and even today the cases are pending in Supreme Court. Most of these small projects were sanctioned in the name of 'run of the river system' but if we cover the major stretch of the river with these projects the potential threat is even higher than the big dams. So the greed to generate power by hook or crook like make roads and buildings are constructed even if the drainages are choked what else we can expect except disasters and agonies to people and huge loss of property.

We know had these two dams were not under progress even if the glaciers had broken due to natural reasons the loss of life could have been avoided. It is also argued that the geological movements of the glaciers might have been triggered slowly by the blasting of hills. For such recurrent tragedies the governance structures are to be blamed. The Environment, Forest and Climate Change Ministry has over for the past several years had adopted an expediency dominated approach and has to share the blame for approving several hydro electric projects and other developmental projects without proper scrutiny and even completely ignoring the conditions of the approvals. Be it mining or any other developmental projects the compliance of conditions is never monitored in a systematic manner. In Uttarakhand in most of these hydro projects the disposal of muck and sludge is totally unscientific and is one of the causes of this damage. The Uttarakhand government had to listen to the experts who had been advising it to change its development focus. It must act on priority to avoid further disasters in these projects

A time has come when the political leadership of all hues must decide how we want our country to progress now and this should start with Environment Ministry. The Ministry does not need to do anything except to balance out the needs of development with its rule book by using robust common sense. There is no denying the fact that we need electricity, coal as well as iron for our industrial growth and there is ample scope is achieve if we use our expertise and resources carefully. The management of our ecology must be given equal importance if not precedence in the decision making process over expediency dominated approach in resources management. It is quite clear to the people that though we have several thousand crore budgets this year for infrastructure but over the years environment budget is in a net minus and is a pittance considering the magnitude of integration needed in holistic management of natural resources and to tackle climate change in the varied situations in the country. It is worth remembering an old saying "Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." Mandarins in the Central and State governments must adhere to this advice. We have been blaming the bureaucracy for several ills but in the field of Environment our political masters must accept the responsibility for the poor governance. 

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