Fury Of Nature That Exposed Human Frailty And Follies
Ages have gone by since man first made himself quite distinct from other animals inhabiting this earth. With the discovery of “fire” and “wheel”, he succeeded in understanding the meaning of knowledge and set off on an unending journey of skill-acquisition for the betterment of his species. Over die past millions of years, man’s quest for enlightenment and material advancement has only made him all the more resdess and egged him on to take everything in his stride. So much so that, at times, he forgets that his journey cannot be perfect, unless he takes every step keeping in mind nature, the most important factor for determining the existence and sustenance of every species. Realising the importance of nature, scientists and intellectuals have started calling it “Mother Nature”. Though man had explored the bounties of nature ages ago, he had not been able to assess the damage made to the very source of those bounties while making unscrupulous use of them. In the name of development, he indulged in all sorts of unplanned exercises which were sure to wreak havoc some day. Until not very long time ago, scientists had been ignorant of the severity of the devastation caused by the furious mother nature. Sometimes scientists call a catastrophe a result of global warming or climate change, and sometimes they are nonplussed to such an extent that they maintain a disconcerting mum. On a number of occasions, they cannot reach any definite conclusion and refer to a major catastrophe very vaguely.
Media, all over the country, flashed the news of heavy downpour causing several roadblocks that left thousands of pilgrims stranded at various places in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi and Chamoli districts on June 15, 2013. The “Char-Dham” pilgrims were on the annual four-pronged journey to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. The road to Badrinath was blocked following a landslip due to heavy rainfall for over 20 hours—around 12 km from Joshimath in Chamoli district. On the following days, i.e. June 16 and 17, 2013 cloudbursts over mountain called Kedar Dome, north-west of Kedarnath temple, wreaked havoc as huge boulders broke away from Kedar Dome, that ruptured Charbari lake reservoir about 6 km from the temple. As a result, torrential waters gushed down with
Uttarakhand Met Department Director Mr. Anand Sharma said on June 30, 2013, “From 14th, we had started giving the heavy rainfall warning….For 15th we had issued warning for very heavy rains … and we also said if you could postpone, the yatra for 4-5 days…. And for 16th, we said heavy to very heavy rainfall and specifically highlighted the regions….”.
Uttarakhand Disaster Management Minister Mr. Yashpal Arya admitted that the Met Department had issued the warning but said there was little the authorities could do tons of debris and slush. Several boulders hurtled towards the shrine. Heavy rains lashed the Kedarnath temple complex and surrounding areas throughout the day and at night, the downpour got fiercer. At around 8:15 p.m. on June 16, 2013 a loud bang was heard by the temple-dwellers which was followed by screams of terrified people. Angry gush of the swollen Mandakini river was also heard. It seemed as if the mountains around the temple had been falling apart. Outside the temple, people ran for their lives. The eighth century samadhi of Adiguru Shankaracharya, a sphatik linga and two statues of Shankaracharya along with a Hanuman statue were swept away. Several nearby ashrams were also washed away. The June 17, 2013 morning was far more terrible. A great number of people had lost their lives and their bodies were eaten by vultures and dogs. So far as the estimates regarding the death toll in the calamity is concerned, nobody is quite certain. The figures varied widely ranging from hundreds to thousands. According to the officers of the rescue teams, the figures could be “shockingly huge.”
We should, however, analyse the nature and escalation of devastation in the light of facts regarding the affected area. The Himalayas were formed when the Indian landmass collided with the Eurasian landmass 55 million years ago. The collision has not come to an end and still continues. This collision is constantly making the Himalayas rise and triggers earthquakes. Immense fracturing and shearing of rocks take place and slopes are rendered unstable. Mountain formation process leads to huge silt deposits, as rivers cut gorges through rising mountains. This has made Himalayan mountains fragile and vulnerable to human intervention and climate change. Some facts have been cited as the factors responsible for the worsening of the situation which are as follows: the construction of hydro-electric projects recently, of which 37 are situated in high-landslide- susceptibility zone. They increased the instability of slopes. The risks were increased manifold due to the commercialisation of pilgrimage routes with encroachment on the riverbanks, forests and dangerous slopes. In fact, Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) had alerted the Centre and Uttarakhand government that mushrooming hydel power projects on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers were damaging hills and increasing the possibility of flashfloods. Besides, indiscriminate encroachment, according to environmentalists, has added to the severity of devastation. Mr. Satyabrata Dam, an adventure consultant and an extreme mountaineer, who is accustomed to watching the rapid downfall of the hilly region as he frequently visits the State, is opposed to the idea of allowing a great number of tourists to this State as pilgrims. He says that it is to accommodate very large numbers of pilgrims season after season that so many hotels, restaurants and other structures were allowed to come up in Uttarakhand.
What took place this time was actually a tragedy waiting to happen.
Ecologically, he opined, it is nature’s balancing act. He is convinced that the tragedy could have been avoided to a great extent, if so many people had not been allowed to go at the same time.
Rescuing would have been faster, fewer lives would have been lost and the road to recovery would have been automatically faster. He sounds very reasonable in his assessment. Unrestricted entry, faulty architecture, local corruption and administrative indifference—all cumulatively accounted for the scale of the Uttarakhand disaster. In other words, we can say that a mixture of many lapses led to the tragedy.
Now, it is for everybody to think over the disaster and express his/her opinion regarding the whole state of affairs. If one seeks answer to the question—could the Uttarakhand tragedy have been averted or at least minimised, one would certainly know that several environmentalists have described the deaths and damage as a man-made disaster. On the other hand, geologists are of the opinion that the extent of devastation could have been far less, if stricter regulations had been put in place and the authorities had been duly equipped to deal with the situation. As of now, what has taken place compels one to focus one’s attention on the debate that concluded on the December 18, 2012 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The notification clearly declares the entire area around the 135 km stretch between Gomukh and Uttarkashi along the Bhagirathi river as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Naturally, in practice, it bans all construction activity in the area. The notification, if implemented, would result in closure of hydropower projects of 1,743 MW capacity along the Bhagirathi and a ban on mining and construction, especially of hotels and resorts and land use conversion. Environmentalists think that power projects and mining activities are the main culprit behind preventable environmental degradation. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed a resolution against it. Chief Minister Mr. Vijay Bahuguna is opposed to the notification, because he believes that it would rob the local people of much-needed
infrastructure development and deal a blow to the State’s tourism industry. While environmental activists maintain that the flood was a man-made disaster waiting to happen, the State has tried to present the incident as a natural calamity. Mr. Bahuguna has sought to describe the flash flood an “unprecedented” event caused by a Himalayan tsunami. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party had backed Mr. Bahuguna’s opinion on the issue. The former Chief Minister, Mr. Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”, had written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests expressing his opposition to