Need for a Climate Resilient Development Administration

VK Bahuguna

January 24, 2023, 05:26:27   

Need for a Climate Resilient Development Administration

The Joshimath land subsidence is a grim warning to our political leaders and development administrators and also for the local people living in ecologically fragile Himalayan mountain system. Several concerned citizens as also many phony experts and social crusaders have jumped the queue for raising this issue in social media. The agitation of the local people had made an impact as the Prime Minister’s office has taken up the issue and the fire fighting is under way by the State government. The Himalayas are geologically young folding mountains with rough ranges and ecologically fragile extending over2400 sq km west to east. Source of major river systems Himalayas and their combined drainage basin is home to some 650 million people; 60 million people live in the Himalayas. The rapid unscientific development and increase in population had accentuated the occurrence of natural disasters in the Himalayan region. The situation is getting further complicated by the climate change which has affected severely the water cycles and water channels. 
Coming back to the present crisis of sinking Joshimath, this town is situated on the debris of  landslide at  a height of 6150 meters with a population now in 2022 is of more than 61,000 people. Joshimath is a gate way to many tourist places, trekking expeditions and Badrinath Temple and Hemkund sahib. It is here that the Jyotirmath peeth one of the four cardinal Hindu top religious institutions was established by the Adi Shankaracharya.  The population of this town in 2011 was only slightly above 16,500 and only around 3900 families were living there. In 1975 a committee of state government of Uttar Pradesh has warned about the geological instability of Joshimath and recommended several steps and stressed that the undercutting by river currents of Alaknanada and Dhauliganga are bringing in erosion and landslides. It has been witnessed with ferocity on 7th February 2021 when a massive flash flood of a devastating fury in Dhauliganga River. The Dhauliganga is a source streams tributary of the Ganga River and merges with the Alaknanada River at Vishnuprayag at the base of Joshimath. The cause of the flood on initial speculation is attributed to the breakdown of a Glacier in ‘Rainee’ village around 25 km from the Joshimath. Such disasters are happening regularly in almost all the districts of Uttarakhand and reminding the people and the administration to take pro-active steps to prevent further damage to the fragile ecosystem especially after the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013. 
I have first studied the situation during 1998 when I led a Central inter-ministerial team after the 1998 Rudraprayag and other Garhwal region flash floods during monsoon. In interaction with the state officers’ team led by Commissioner Garhwal on 24th October 1998 I had stated that the main cause of the natural disasters is unplanned, uncontrolled and unscientific development specially construction of buildings, homes and roads on vulnerable slopes, un controlled minor mineral mining and choking of natural drainage. Our team had recommended identification of geologically sensitive and vulnerable spots and villages and rehabilitation of these villages to other areas with maximum focus on ensuring that water channels, drainages and sub-surface water channels are maintained throughout the year. But no action was taken either by the state or the central government with the result that some of these villages were washed away during 15th June 2013 Kedarnath flash floods causing huge damage to life and property.
After the Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2001, a mad rush began to plunder the resources by the unimaginative and corrupt political leaderships. Those who were moving in cycles and scooters are now having several luxury cars, houses and investments with a ring of aspiring hanger on surrounding and helping them and waiting to be powerful and rich, the fate of hill ecology and the people was sealed. The bureaucracy was no different with honest one cooling their heels in corner, the unabated invasion of hills by outsiders continued as proved by the Ankita murder case. The loose sub surface water bodies created collapsed during heavy rains due to climate change; seepage of sewerage and choking of drainage and soil erosion by river water currents coupled with indiscriminate blasting of hills for road widening and hydro power tunnelling is responsible for Joshimath subsidence and disasters elsewhere. It is also happening in other areas also and the danger is looming large over the Tehri Dam too if immediate steps are not taken to study the geology of the entire mountain system. The Char Dham roads were supposed to be constructed on pillars like in China but the way it was constructed caused severe damage. The Karanprayag Railway line also caused lot of blasting in the hills and the energy underground blasts generated must travel through the faults to create further instability. I am of the firm opinion that there was no need for this 125 km Railways line for two reasons. First is ecological reason; and second economical reason because traditionally in the absence of industrial base in the region a large number of people are dependent on transport business. For security reasons in border areas other modern ways to reach the frontiers can be ensured. In the whole gamut of problems the local people ignored the messages of environmental stability and unscientific tourism further damaged the ecology.  In nutshell, the society and the government both are editing the face of Himalayas which is also the face of India. 
Now the question is where do we go from here? As for short term action the government should restrict the population in Joshimath to only 25,000 and rehabilitate others apart from taking strict action for construction of six story hotels without permission. The army, ITBP and other govt organization need to ensure foolproof sewerage system and maintain the hydrology of the area. The hydro power policy must be reviewed and more focus should b eon solar powers in the hills. Climate crisis calls for rapid transformation of societies and a change of attitude by the developed world and action by developing countries. Resilience is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult situations in life. The locals now agitating must realize their mistake too as without their help things would not have reached this stage.
On the long term, to ensure climate resilience at landscape level in all our development planning and execution in the districts, blocks and village panchayats levels, climate resilience must be the core of development regime with essential focus on convergence between different departments. The District Magistrate must act as leaders of sectoral leaders in ensuring climate resilient development rather than merely acting only as a coordinating agency for the government and other department officers should also ensure to come out of working in silos and act as a team. There is a strong link between sustainable economic development, climate change and vulnerability and coordinated cross-sectoral policies and planning can play a role to catalyze synergies to improve life not only in Himalayas but in the entire country as well.
(The writer is former Director-General Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education and Chancellor of FRI University, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change)
   (Tripurainfo)