After the deluge

Life is yet to return to normal in Uttarakhand, a month after it was hit by extreme rains, floods and landslides. The events of last month raise a number of questions that must be answered to ensure that such destruction is not repeated. It is not just Uttarakhand that needs to learn its lessons, but all states spanning the entire length of the Himalayas.

India needs to have a separate disaster management and mitigation strategy for the Himalayan region. The world's youngest mountain range is distinct in its character and chemistry, and a business as usual approach can only lead to more disasters. Down To Earth takes a critical look at the deluge and the lessons it offers

The flood

Heaven's rage

At 7.18 pm on June 16, Ram Singh heard the loudest crack in 45 years of his life. It was the deafening roar of a disaster. “I felt as if the sky had been torn asunder. Within seconds, a massive wall of water gushed towards Kedarnath Temple. Huge boulders flung into the sky like an explosion. In less than 15 minutes, thousands of people were swept away,” he recalls lying at the Rudraprayag district hospital. Singh was on the Char Dham yatra with 17 people from his hometown Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He is returning with only five. The rest are missing. The group had gone to see aarti at the temple. Singh says his daughter, brother, sister-in-law and 70-year-old uncle must have been ambling around the market after the aarti when disaster struck. “My son wanted to see the hills, so I took him along. My wife followed us,” he says. “That is how we survived. I have no clue where the rest are.”


Six kilometres below, Rambara village is a resting point for devotees going to Kedarnath Temple. Its 43-year-old resident Sankar Gosai shudders to recount the sight of the enormous amount of water gushing down the mountain. In no time, long stretches of a road and houses were swept away. “It had been raining nonstop since June 14. Fearing flood, we had climbed up the hill. But we never imagined that such a huge amount of water could swoop down all so suddenly,” he says. Gosai walked down the precarious mountain for two full days till he reached Rudraprayag town.

Rakesh Singh, 36, had a miraculous escape because he clim bed the temple roof. He came to Kedarnath with 12 family members. He does not know where the others are. 

It all started at Chorabari glacier, say people who have managed to return. The glacier lies on the slope of the 6,940- metre Kedarnath peak of the Himalaya. The glacier is 7 km in length, its basin area is 38 sq km and the ice cover is 5.9 sq km. It has two snouts—one is the source of the Mandakini (at 3,865 metres) and the other becomes the Chorabari Lake (at 3,835 metres). People recall that on June 16 the lake exploded when clouds burst over it. The lake is 6 km from the temple upstream the Alaknanda. Ensuing rains cut off the hilly districts of Uttar kashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pith oragarh from the mainland and battered the land till it crumbled.

Pithoragarh faced the disaster twice—on June 16 and on June 22, says Naresh Ram, resident of Kholi village.

Only broken houses, bodies and boulders can be seen in Kedarnath

“I have never seen anything like this. It was as if someone was throwing water from under the ground,” says Vivek Rawat, 27, who worked at a hotel in Gaurikund, about 15 km from Kedarnath. Almost everything in Gaurikund is demolished, he says. Eyewitnesses have similar stories from Kedarnath Temple and Hemkunt Sahib. Nobody is yet sure of the reason.

On June 18, Sushil Singh, resident of Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, ran down from Gaurikund to Gaurigaon to save his life. There is no trace of the 14 people he came with, he says. Around 5,000 people like him reached the village. But most were ill. They had swallowed mud that had flowed with the water. Many died of it at Gaurigaon. The rest waited beside the bodies, to be rescued.

On June 19, as the army was battling against time to rescue people, there was utter chaos in the administration. Bureaucrats, sitting inside expensive hotels, were screaming on their mobile phones. At the Rudraprayag police control room, no one knew what action to take. It took Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to come down to Uttarakhand to admit that there was no coordination among government agencies, which was hampering rescue operations. The only piece of information that seemed to make sense was an 11-page report that the district information officer was quoting to journalists. The report, prepared by the State Disaster Management Control Room in Dehradun, gave an assessment of the scale of the disaster.


At 5 pm, Rudraprayag town welcomed the first batch of people from Badrinath, Govindghat, Pandukeshwar and Gaurikund who came in 11 vehicles. The Army and the state government had managed to link the upper hills to the town. As the buses and private taxis stopped, people ran towards water, food stalls and the medical desk where the Rudraprayag Vyapar Mandal had organised free service for victims.

Akhilesh Srivastava of Jhansi wept on seeing food. His family was stranded at Hemkunt Sahib near the Valley of Flowers. Army personnel helped them walk down to Govindghat in Chamoli district, from where they were taken to Joshimath. They trekked till Rudraprayag because they had run out of money. “Private taxis were charging double the fare and the private helicopters were demanding Rs50,000 per person to reach us to safety,” he says.

During the trek, they sucked their wet clothes when thirsty. His six-year-old son chewed grass in the night when he could not withstand hunger pangs.

On June 20, when Down To Earth reached Kedarnath, it was clear that the State Disaster Management Control Room had presented only 10 per cent of the real picture. The temple town was stinking of rotting bodies. The ground level had risen by about two metres and bodies could be seen stuck in the debris at about every 10 metres. The lanes were strewn with crumbled tin sheets and broken pieces of wood. “Kedarnath is now haunted,” says Rakesh Singh, waiting at Rudraprayag to be airlifted by an Army sortie.

Colossal loss
Every year, Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region receives pilgrims in thousands for Chhota Char Dham yatra—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. It also receives heavy rains and suffers floods. But the loss the region has suffered this time is horrifying.

According to the Char Dham control room records, there were 26,000 people in Kedar Valley on June 16. This is where the temple is located. Records also show that 39,000 people had left the valley that day for Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Hemkunt Sahib. The government’s figure of about 800 total deaths is too conservative. The number, clearly, is in many thousands.

Landslide in lower Rudraprayag destroyed a road, making relief work difficult ( Photo: SOUMIK MUKHERJEE / CSE)

The raging Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini have swollen like never before and swept away whatever came in their way. As many as 2,052 houses have been wiped out, 147 bridges have collapsed and 1,307 roads destroyed, says Rakesh Sharma, state infrastructure development commissioner. The upper reaches of Uttarakhand look as if the region has travelled a hundred years back in time.

The Gangotri and Yamunotri highways are damaged at several places. The rivers have damaged the 36-km stretch from Uttarkashi to Bhatwari at six places. Higher up, roads are damaged due to landslides. “The stretch of road between Matli to Maneri in Uttarkashi is so badly damaged that one cannot tell when it can be repaired,” says Sharma. Three drinking water projects have got washed away in Garur block, while 71 streams and 40 canals have been damaged. As per preliminary estimates, says Sharma, the disaster has cost Uttarakhand Rs50,000 crore in infrastructural loss. Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited has suffered loss of Rs77 crore apart from the Rs50 crore lost in power generation.

Kedarnath is now haunted, say people. A picture of the temple’s doorstep shows why ( Photo: ROHIT DIMRI )

Who’s the culprit?
Residents now wonder how it all happened. “The river has come down to cleanse Uttarakhand of its greed,” says Ram Chandra, a driver at Dehradun whose family is in Pauri. Thousands paid with their lives for the ablution. The 62-year-old, once a panchayat pradhan, maneuvers his vehicle through the hydropower projects and mutters, “These are the real culprits. Look at them. They ruined us all.”

The mountain was never so fragile, says Harish Rawat, a BSc student in Bhatwari region. Heavy machines plying every day on kuchcha roads have weakened it, he says. “Now we suffer landslides more often.” Rawat lost his home to a landslide in 2010, which wiped out 25 houses and 28 shops.

Ram Prasad Tomar, a driver at Uttarkashi, agrees. “Contractors come from urban areas and do not understand the mountain. They cut it open, which causes landslides. Then, they go bankrupt clearing the debris.”

Near Silli village, 17 km from Rudraprayag, the Mandakini has shifted course and washed away all the structures along its banks, says Prakash Thapliyal, who lost his house. “The river shifted course because of Larsen and Toubro’s Singholi-Bhatwari hydropower project. All the debris was dumped on the riverbed,” he says.

In Srinagar, the training centre of Sashastra Seema Bal was damaged apart from several houses in low-lying areas. “The deluge was the result of the dam at Srinagar. Its floodgates were opened without warning. The water carried all the debris at the dam site and brought it here,” says resident Arun Negi.

In August 2012, when flash floods occurred in Uttarkashi, the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre had recommended strict regulation of developmental initiatives near streams and rivers. No heed was paid to it.

In Rudraprayag, no structure is allowed within 100 metres from the river’s banks. The flood widened the river’s course by 15 metres and caused damage worth crores of rupees.

“What else does one expect from the mountain if there is heavy tourist rush at vulnerable areas. The Himalaya is a young mountain and you dynamite it to build roads. Landslides are bound to happen,” says Anand Sharma, executive director of Dehradun Meteorological Centre.

In the wake of the disaster, Jayanthi Natarajan, minister of environment and forests, issued a statement that the National Ganga River Basin Authority had notified 130 km stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an ecosensitive zone on December 18, 2012. The notification, thus, prohibits activities such as setting up of hydroelectric power plants of more than 25 MW, extraction of river water for new industrial purposes, mining except for domestic needs, stone quarrying, deforestation, burning of solid waste. Natarajan, however, did not mention that the area near the Alaknanda and the Mandakini has not been notified. This is where stone quarrying is done most.

“Tell me one place in the Himalaya that is not ecosensitive,” says Anil Prakash Joshi, former teacher and founder of non-profit Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation. “Till when will we play with nature?”

With inputs from photographer Soumik Mukherjee


The Response

Poor coordination between disaster management agencies amplified the impact

Who is to be blamed for the burgeoning number of deaths in Uttarakhand? The prognosis may still take some time, but as the tragedy unfolded, it was clear that different state government agencies have a lot of blood on their cuffs.

imageArmy creates a bridge on the Pindar to rescue people

Despite warnings from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the state machinery could not crank itself up to meet the challenge. On June 13, IMD’s Delhi centre, which serves weather-related needs of seven north Indian states, issued a warning that the state would receive “rather heavy rainfall”. The term denotes precipitation between 35.6 millimetres (mm) and 65.4 mm within 24 hours. The forecast was elevated to “heavy rainfall” (64.5 mm to 124.4 mm) on June 15. On June 16 and 17, IMD warned of “extremely heavy rainfall” (244.5 mm and above). But the state government found its feet stuck in the mud even before the rains had arrived.

At 9 a.m. on June 15, IMD’s Dehradun centre issued a bulletin to the state government that five places in the state—Joshimath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri— would receive “rather heavy” to “extremely heavy rainfall” in the next 72 hours. The forecast was sent to executive director of the state management and mitigation centre, inspector general of police (intelligence), inspector general of Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Doordarshan and local media. IMD advised pilgrims to cancel their travel up the hills. The State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) was also intimated but did not know what to do.

The state is among five in the country to have Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC), an autonomous body for disaster management. Once SDMA and DMMC receive the warning, they should relay it to district magistrates. Every district should have a district disaster management authority (DDMA), which should comprise people who can interpret IMD data.

On June 16, state government officials did nothing more than issue an advisory about open and blocked roads. Soon, heavy downpour caused floods and landslides. Mud and debris from hill slopes cut off vital road linkages within the state. Twelve bridges crumbled. On June 17, the state government finally shook off its inertia. The chief secretary held a meeting with the state disaster management team and issued an alert that rescue operations should begin on June 18. But by this time most of the damage had been done.


Paper tigers
The shoddy relief and rescue work was because the authorities have nothing to guide them. The Disaster Management Act of 2005, under which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the SDMAs were set up, gives broad guidelines for disaster management. Every state has to frame its own disaster management Act keeping local conditions and dangers in mind. The Uttarakhand government failed to do so. Since there is no such Act, district magistrates do not know the standard operating procedure, say senior SDMA officials.

“There are limited number of roads that connect villages in Uttarkashi and Chamoli,” says NDMA member Jyoti Kumar Sinha. “We had suggested to the state authorities that they identify locations on roads where food stock and supplies could be stored for trekkers. At least the food shortage that many pilgrims faced in disconnected areas could have been averted to an extent,” he says.

SDMA was formed in 2007. But five years later, it is yet to frame a disaster management plan, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, which audited SDMA, stated in its report. CAG also pointed out that only 66 of the 117 sanctioned posts in the state authority have been filled up.

In May and June 2011, NDMA had conducted mock drills in Dehradun, Haridwar and Tehri Garhwal to test disaster preparedness in Uttarakhand. The result of the drill was not made public, but it was clear that there were communication gaps between government agencies. It also noted that coordination between agencies at state and district levels was better than at the local level. This, in effect, meant that practical implementation of disaster management would have gaping holes.

NDMA indicted

NDMA was constituted in 2006 to lay down policies and guidelines for effective management, risk mitigation and prevention of disasters in the country. It is headed by the prime minister. Its performance in the last seven years has been anything but sterling.

The authority is accused of taking up projects and leaving them incomplete. In 2008, NDMA initiated a nationwide project on floods and landslide mitigation. These projects have either been junked or have gone back to the drawing board midway. Similarly, a project to prepare a vulnerability atlas of landslides, floods and earthquakes started five years ago. It is still incomplete.

In April 2013, CAG placed a report in Parliament pointing out that NDMA is not properly informed about the disaster management work in states. Projects that were initiated for disaster preparedness and mitigation have not been properly implemented, it states. Worse, since 2010 the authority has been functioning without a core advisory committee of experts that advises it on different aspects of disaster management.

According to the Disaster Management Act of 2004, NDMA should have an advisory committee of experts for disaster management at the national, state and district levels. In 2007, it constituted its first advisory committee for two years. The committee’s term was extended for a year. After its end, setting up of a new committee was delayed because many ministries failed to nominate experts, say NDMA officials. At present, the names are being reviewed by the Prime Minister’s Office, they say.

The CAG report states that NDMA has not performed the functions as prescribed in the Disaster Management Act. These include recommending provision of funds for the purpose of mitigation and recommending relief in repayment of loans or for grant of fresh loans. Besides, several critical posts in NDMA are vacant and consultants were used for day-to-day working.


Poor Planning

Rampant mining on the riverbanks and indiscriminate construction of hydropower projects forbode disaster in Uttarakhand

Floodgates of the 330-MW Srinagar Dam in Pauri were opened on the night of June 16, which inundated many areas

Ever since Uttarakhand was created in 2000, the state government, be it of the Congress or the BJP, has been working with one agenda-exploit natural resources of water, forests and minerals to develop infrastructure, without caring for its consequences on nature.

The development is triggered mostly by the deluge of pilgrims who visit the holy places in the state annually. In the past decade, the number of tourists has risen by 155 per cent, the state’s tourism department data shows. Last year, 28.4 million tourists visited the state between May and November. The state’s population is 14 million. There is hardly any place to accommodate the visitors. A survey done by the Indian Council for Research on Inter national Economic Relations in 2006 states that there are an average of 102.5 hotels per million tourists in the state. Shortage of dwelling units has led to mushrooming of illegal structures, some right on the riverbanks. The state government’s 2000 notification to prohibit construction within 200 metres from the riverbanks was not adhered to. In 2011, Dinesh Bhardwaj, a resident of Roorkee, filed a public interest petition in the Uttarakhand High Court and identified several illegal structures along the banks of the Ganga, Song, Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and the Mandakini. The Bench comprising Chief Justice Barin Ghose and Justice Alok Singh ordered the state government to demolish all structures along the banks. But the state government did not act, says Bhardwaj. Floods have brought down hundreds of small hotels on the riverbanks.

The main indicator of a thriving real estate business are the Himalaya itself, hollowed down for boulders, pebbles, sand and gravel. Statistics of the forest department show that between 2000 and 2010, as many as 3,903.24 hectares (ha) forestland was diverted for mining projects (see infograph on p30, 31).


To protest indiscriminate mining on the Ganga by a local quarrying and sand mining company, Swami Nigamanand fasted for 68 days and finally died on June 13, 2011. The then environment minister Jairam Ramesh wrote to the then chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal demanding an end to illegal mining. No action was taken. 

What the state government did was form a new mining policy which facilitates auctioning of sites identified by the department of mining and geology. Forest officials favoured passage of the policy and stated that it would help the state government realise a profit of Rs300-Rs350 crore. When Vijay Bahug una became the chief minister in 2012, tenders were floated for mining, diverting additional 1,608 ha for mining.

Unscientific mining helped rivers increase their width and change course this time. As per mining guidelines, not more than 0.9 metre should be dug, but private mining companies go as far down as 9 metres. Y P Sundriyal, professor of geology at Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Srinagar, Uttarakhand, explains the aftermath. During monsoon, when the river swells, it tilts towards the dug up area, not only changing its course but also putting roads and houses along the riverbank at a high risk, he says. In the last decade, the state government has diverted 15,072 ha forestland for roads, irrigation, power transmission and hydel projects.

Destruction by dams 
The website of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL) shows that 45 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 3,164 MW are operational in Uttarakhand. The state plans to build 199 big and small projects. In the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin alone, 69 hydropower projects are built or proposed, states a report prepared in April 2013 by the environment ministry’s Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) formed to consider environmental flows and hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries.

Dams, no doubt, are essential for meeting energy requirements. But it is equally essential that the state government assesses how much hydropower it actually needs. Dam construction involves blasting, excavation, debris dumping, movement of heavy machinery, diversion of forests and rivers. This has a huge cumulative impact on Himalayan ecology. The need is to make sustainable use of resources with minimal disturbance to ecology. “The way projects are being executed is disastrous,” says Vimal Bhai of Haridwar-based non-profit Matu Jan Sangathan.

The 69 projects, when implemented, would affect 81 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda. Most of these are small projects which would reroute rivers’ water through tunnels cut through the mountain, leaving long stretches of the rivers dry. Worse, the project proponents do not leave enough space between two projects for the river to regenerate. Two projects should be at least 3-5 km from each other, Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has submitted in the IMG report.

The problem aggravates because small projects do not require environment impact assessment (EIA). The cumulative impact of so many dams on a river can be horrendous. But there is no legal requirement to cumulatively assess the impact of a series of dams on a river during the EIA process.

In view of a Central Water Commission report that reservoirs on some rivers like the Ramganga are overflowing with water 440 per cent above the normal mark, scientists say there is a need to review dam building concepts such as Design Flood. This ensures that the dam can hold enough water to avert even a disastrous flood that may occur once in a hundred years. But the Indian standard for fixing criteria for design flood for safety of dams does not directly incorporate the concept of hazard, states a study by N K Mathur and Bhopal Singh of Central Water Commission in 2012.

imageFloods destroyed many illegal houses constructed on the riverbanks in Uttarkashi (Photo: PUSHKAR RAWAT)

G P Patel, managing director of UJVNL, believes there is no link between dams and the recent floods. “Had dams like Tehri not been there, devastation would have been manifold. The entire western Uttar Pradesh would have been washed out,” he says. On June 16, when the Bha girathi was swelling, the water level in the Tehri reservoir reached 775 metres from 750 metres. The reservoir can accommodate water up to 830 metres from the mean sea level. An engineer at Tehri Hydropower Developme nt Corpor ation, who did not wish to be named, says the dam was able to avert the disaster because rains came in June, when the water level was low. Had a similar situation occurred in Oct ober, devastation would have been greater, he says. Officials fear if there is more rainfall in the coming days, Tehri’s floodgates may have to be opened.

The situation aggravated this time because of indiscriminate dumping of debris and muck along the riverbanks. “This increases the erosive capacity of the river, which increases the river’s water level,” says Sundriyal. “This causes extensive destruction in the downstream,” he adds. Environment ministry’s guidelines say sites to dispose of debris should be identified in advance.

Unplanned construction of hydropower projects also affects river’s ecological flow, or the minimum water a river requires for its ecosystem and human needs. IMG recommended that between November and April, at least 30 per cent water of the river’s flow should be maintained. Between May and October, the monsoon season, the ecological flow should be 20 per cent.

As many environmentalists submitted a dissent note to this, CSE gave an alternative after studying hydrological data of 24 hydropower projects. It found that in winters, river’s flow was less than 10 per cent of the high monsoon flow in almost all 24 projects. If less than 50 per cent water is left in the river, it will be reduced to a trickle in these months. CSE suggested 50 per cent flow for six months during winters and 30 per cent flow in the remaining six months. Based on this analysis, it stated that it is possible to build hydropower projects on a river and still allow ecological flow.

The Himalayas are the world’s youngest mountain range. They are prone to erosion and landslides. Seismic activity and rainstorms lash the region. Mindless development on this ecologically fragile mountain is one of the biggest reasons the floods have been so devastating in Uttarakhand this time. “Nature has spoken, and more loudly this time,” says Joshi. “We cannot afford not to listen to it any longer.”


Human induced

Expansion of hydel projects, roads and tourism is making the Himalaya in Uttarakhand crumble

Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, two hill states in the Himalayan range, are so far the worst hit by the extreme rains that struck northern India in the wake of monsoons that set in early this year. Heavy rainfall has wreaked havoc on the region because of the fragile nature of the Himalayan range and poor soil stability in its steep slopes. But it is man-made factors that have compounded the scale of the disaster. Unabated expansion of hydro-power projects and construction of roads to accommodate ever-increasing tourism, especially religious tourism, are also major causes for the unprecedented scale of devastation, say experts.

Hydero projects
The under-construction hydropower project at Shrinagar along the Alaknanda (Photo by Abhishek)

"The valleys of the Yamuna, the Ganga and the Alaknanda witness heavy traffic of tourists. For this, the government has to construct new roads and widen the existing ones," says Maharaj Pandit, professor with the Department of Environmental Sciences in Delhi University. He says that a study should be conducted to assess the carrying capacity of the Himalaya and development should be planned accordingly.

Roads destabilising mountains
"A new (mountain) range like the Himalaya will remain steady if not tampered with much. But the huge expansion of roads and transport is bringing the mountains in Uttarakhand down," says Pandit. Road, he says, is a major destabilising factor for a mountain and it is a new phenomenon for the Himalaya.

Pandit, who is in Uttarakhand for a research project, recounts an observation. "I was sitting at the Prayag bridge for tea and started counting the number of buses crossing it. Withing seven to eight minutes, 117 buses crossed," he says. Data with the Uttarakhand State Transport Department confirms this. In 2005-06, 83,000-odd vehicles were registered in the state. The figure rose to nearly 180,000 in 2012-13. Out of this, proportion of cars, jeeps and taxis, which are the most preferred means of transport for tourists landing in the state, increased the most. In 2005-06, 4,000 such vehicles were registered, which jumped to 40,000 in 2012-13. It is an established fact that there is a straight co-relation between tourism increase and higher incidence of landslides.

Threat from dams
The Ganga in the upper reaches has been an engineer’s playground. The Central Electricity Authority and the Uttarakhand power department have estimated the river’s hydroelectric potential at some 9,000 MW and have planned 70-odd projects on its tributaries. In building these projects the key tributaries would be modified—through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs—to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”. As much as 90 per cent of the other smaller tributaries could be “affected” the same way.

Pandit says that rampant construction, be it of roads, or dams, has led to land use change and the cumulative effect is getting reflected in the extent of damage rains have caused.

Landslides more frequent now
“Our mountains were never so fragile. But these heavy machines plying everyday on the kutcha roads have weakened it, and now we suffer landslides more often,” says Harish Rawat, a BSc student in Uttarakhand’s Bhatwari region that suffered a major landslide in 2010.

Rawat lost his home to the landslide when a major part of the main market and 28 shops were wiped out by the landslide. About 25 other houses were destroyed completely.

Another local resident, Ram Prasad Tomar, a driver by profession in Uttarkashi town, says it is road cutting that has made the mountains so weak. He says the way mountains are cut to make roads has rendered the mountains unstable. “Road contractors, who come from outside, do not understand the mountains. Most of the expressways that are being constructed now are tangled in legal cases. After cutting of mountains, landslides continue for up to four years, and contractors go bankrupt clearing the debris,” he says.

Environment engineer and Ganga crusader, G D Agarwal, says that construction along the Ganga has certainly cost a lot more if one includes the cost of damage to environment. People have completely destroyed the ecology of the mountains. “We see more landslides nowadays because of unplanned development in the hills,” he says.

Experts say promotion of the state as a tourist destination is coming in way of sustainable development.


Nature's Wrath

The extreme rains of June 16 this year lead to a disaster of unprecedented proportions in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Many theories and explanations for the disaster have surfaced in the aftermath of the floods in the state. Now clearer satellite images of the upstream and downstream areas of the Kedar valley that have emerged are enabling a clearer understanding of the scientific and environmental reasons for the tragedy in the state.

A powerful landslide
It is believed that a massive landslide occurred upstream in the north-east region of the Kedar valley. Heavy rainfall occurred at the same time formed a small lake in the north-west of the valley. The debris from the landslide and water from the lake travelled down the slope, channelled into the glacier, and came down to Kedarnath town. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is yet to come up with a detailed analysis but agrees with this possiblity.


The theory has been proposed by Dave Petley, professor, Department of Geography at Durham University, United Kingdom, and reported on his blog. According to Petley, high resolution images from ISRO's geographic information system (GIS) platform, Bhuvan, show that the flow of the landslide eroded a large amount of material. He has estimated rough parameters using images of the landslide retrieved from Google Earth.

The difference in height between the crown of the landslide and the channel below was about 500 metres, and the length was about 1,200 metres. Petley puts the scar width at about 75 metres, considered a large landslide. As the downside of the landslide was active and prone to erosions, it created a further accumulation of debris downstream. The amount and flow of debris was so high, that the boulders did not stop at Kedarnath and were carried to Rambara village and beyond.

Heavy rainfall that occurred in the area at the same time formed a small lake in the north-west of the valley. Under normal circumstances, the water would have flowed away. But a block formed by debris led to the accumulation of water. When extreme pressure caused a breach in the boundary of the lake, a large amount of water gushed out, forcing another rock to flow away. This created a new stream, in addition to the two streams that existed already. The amount of water, moraines and debris was high enough to increase the level of the biggest stream in the west, create a new stream in between, and increase water level substantially in the eastern stream.

Theories abound in India
Eyewitness accounts report the appearance of ‘a wall of water’. It was rumoured that a glacial lake had burst because of the rains ¬¬¬– a phenomenon called glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). However, it is now confirmed that the disaster was not caused by GLOF, but indeed by a combination of factors,namely early rainfall, movement of southwest monsoon winds, and the formation of a temporary lake.

Early rains and glacial melt
Uttarakhand received rain early this year. The monsoon reached the state almost two weeks in advance. These early rains coupled with other factors were responsible for the disaster that ensued. Rivers in the region already have heavier flow in June than at other times of the year because of the seasonal melting of glaciers. When water falls on ice, it melts faster; and as it rained on the glaciers of the state, the massive run-off began to swell the rivers.

An analysis of rainfall data for the past five years, available on the website of the India Meteorological Department, points to changes in rainfall trends in India, with a greater number of incidents of excess rain in Uttarakhand in June. The trends in rainfall do not indicate the kind of disastrous rainfall the state received this year, but it does point to the necessity for a robust disaster management programme, which as of now does not exist in the state.<

The areas of Uttarakhand affected by the recent floods, particularly Uttarkashi, have experienced excess rains in June for the past several years. Last year, there was a rainfall deficit in the same month across the state. But data for the preceding five years indicates a trend towards excess rainfall in June.

In 2011, Uttarkashi received 146 per cent excess rainfall compared to the long period average (LPA). The corresponding figures for 2010, 2009 and 2008 are 26 per cent, 31 per cent and 98 per cent. Chamoli received 57 per cent excess rainfall in June in 2011, 18 per cent in 2010 and 59 per cent in 2008.Rudraprayag also received a deficit rainfall in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, but the year 2011 witnessed excess rainfall of 70 per cent.

Movement of monsoon winds
The monsoon winds arrived early in India, and were another factor in the events that led to the Uttarakhand floods. "Monsoon has hit the entire nation early by one month. It is by July 15 that all parts of India receive rains. This year that day came as early as June 15," said Shailesh Nayak, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences. He said multiplicity of conditions have together created such a situation. "This year several things synchronised to lead to early monsoons," he said.

In the initial phase, called the onset phase, monsoon hit Andaman and Kerala following the normal time and trend. "However, after that the combination of lower pressure in north-western region and movement of three types of winds led to monsoons hitting other parts of the country way before their normal time," said an official in the Met department. Usually, monsoon sets in by June 1, while this time it arrived in the last week of May. It moved fast towards the north, without taking its characteristic break before hitting one region after the other.

Low pressure over east Rajasthan attracted south-westerly winds from the Arabian sea, laden with moisture. At the same time, easterly winds from Bay of Bengal came along the foothills of Himalayas. The westerlies also crossed Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, creating a trough. The mountains of the north createdorographic effect (it occurs when an air mass approaches a mountain range and is rapidly forced upward, causing any moisture to cool and fall as rains).

The officials said that once the monsoon has set in, it will continue for the entire season, which normally ends in late September.

A temporary lake
Eyewitnesses describe how a sudden gush of water engulfed the centuries-old Kedarnath temple, and washed away everything in its vicinity in a matter of minutes. Down to Earth spoke to Anil Kulkarni, glaciologist and distinguished visiting scientist, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, about the events that unfolded. In his initial analysis, Kulkarni found that a small lake formed briefly during the rains, eventually releasing a huge amount of water.  Excerpts from an interview:

What exactly took place on the night of June 16?
There was rainfall of 120 mm in 24 hours before the flash flood of June 16 at Kedarnath. The town and the glacier above are 3 km apart. As there is no automatic weather station there, the data has been collected from satellite. There is evidence that a small lake was formed during the rains above Kedarnath town. The lake must have lasted for a short duration. It was a 100 square hectare lake which contained 10 million litre of water. The water that collected in the lake came down along with the water from the glacier. The lake burst due to a breach in the blockade that formed its boundary. Coupled with heavy rain in the area, this caused flash floods. It is because of the lake that there was excessive stream run-off and a third channel was formed.

How did you come to this conclusion?
Water bodies have their own geomorphological features – a typical shape and texture. Water leaves specific marks behind. We interpreted these features of the area from satellite images and concluded that there was a lake. I examined satellite images of the area before the event. Recent images as well as those as old as 2007 do not show the lake. But if the data shows the presence of the lake in the post-event scenario, we can conclude it was created during the rain and all the water was finished in the same event. We do not have continuous images; this is the best we can do.

How did the Chorabari automatic weather station work?
Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology at Dehradun monitors the automatic weather station (AWS) at Chorabari. The last information it received from the station was at 8 pm on June 15. It seems the instrument got washed away after this. This indicates there was heavy rainfall in the glacier region on the evening of June 15.

We can say there were three reasons that led to the devastating flash floods: one, heavy rain, even though it is not unusual; two, rain on the glacier; and three, snow and glacier run-off along with the newly formed lake. Snow and ice melt faster when they come in contact with water. Rains on the glacier increased the melting rate of glacier above the Kedarnath temple.


Environment Link

There is a link between the disaster and the manner in which development has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region

We might never know how many people were trapped under the rubble in Uttarakhand; cut off by landslides and desperate for food and water. The human cost of this calamity will be horrendous, it is feared.

(Courtesy Indian Army)

But even as governments and the army work on rescue and relief work, we must ask the question if this is only a natural disaster or has human action and inaction exacerbated the scale and magnitude of the tragedy?

Himalaya are the world’s youngest mountain range; they are prone to erosion, landslides and seismic activity and brutal rainstorms lash the region. Therefore, this region is vulnerable and fragile. But two human-induced factors make it even more risk-prone today.

Risk multipliers
First, there is a clear link between climate change and changing rainfall patterns in the Himalaya. Scientists are now, more than ever, certain that rainfall in India will become more extreme – in other words, there will be more rain but it will come in smaller number of rainy days. The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, which has extensively studied the trends in monsoons in the country, finds that “moderate” rain events are on the decline and intense rain events are increasing. This is bad news for the Himalaya, as it means that there are higher possibilities of cloudbursts and “unprecedented” high rainfall over the region – as it happened on June 15 when in just 24 hours, over 240 mm lashed parts of Uttaranchal and Himachal.

Even though it cannot be said that this particular Himalayan tsunami is caused by climate change, the link to this event and the growing trend of intense and extreme rain events is clear and undisputable. Climate change is caused by fossil fuel use and emissions, needed for economic growth. So, this tragedy is human-induced.

Second, there is a link between the disaster and the manner in which “development” has been carried out in this ecologically fragile region. Over the past few years, particularly since the creation of the new state of Uttarakhand, the state government – be it Congress or BJP – has had only one interest – to exploit natural resources of water, forests or minerals without any care of the consequences. What is clear is that this kind of development has come at the cost of the environment.

Why do I say this? Take hydropower projects, as an example. There is no doubt that generation of energy is an important economic activity for the region – water is its natural wealth. But the question is if the Central or state government ever considered the cumulative impact of the hydropower projects on the rivers and the mountains. Currently, there are roughly 70 projects built or proposed on the Ganga, all to generate some 10,000 mw of power. The projects are being built bumper to bumper – where one project ends, another begins. In this way, the river would be modified—through diversion to tunnels or reservoirs — to such an extent that 80 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda could be “affected”.

The projects do not plan to release water in the river during the lean months. As a result, large stretches of the river would be completely dry. The construction itself, at this scale, would have devastating impacts on the mountains – because of blasting to build tunnels and barrages. Worse, invariably, construction is carried out without the necessary precautions so that the risk of landslides is minimised.

Why build 70 projects? Why build without consideration for ecology? The fact is that these projects are lucrative for developers – the incentives and tariffs provided for hydropower is a sweet deal. So, the interests are high; the stakes are high. And in all this, what is forgotten is the cost of these projects on the fragile ecology of the region. This is not to say that the state does not need energy or that hydropower projects should not be built at all. The question is what and how much should be built. The question also is how the projects should be constructed so that impacts can be minimised. The bottom line is to ensure that this development does not lead to destruction and increase vulnerability of this already fragile region.

The situation is the same when it comes to the building of roads, buildings or mining for minerals. Everywhere development has been done without a care for regulations – cases of illegal mining and construction are well known. But everywhere the vested interests behind these activities have been powerful. Everywhere development has led to havoc and destruction.

Himalayan way of economic growth
Clearly, the need is to do things differently. The region needs development – people who live there need basic amenities like roads, electricity, health care and education. They need employment and livelihood options. But equally it is clear that the economic future of the Himalaya and its people can never be secured or safeguarded if the already vulnerable region is made more hazard-prone and more deadly. Development cannot come as the cost of the environment, not in any region of the country; but particularly not in the Himalaya. What we need is a new way – the Himalayan way of economic growth that is sustainable. Without this, there can be no future for the region or its people.

The result otherwise is dire and deadly. Something we just cannot afford.


Hydro Projects

Projects under way do not take into account ecological impact on the Himalayas and the rivers

Poorly planned dams in Uttarakhand which were constructed without paying heed to their environmental impact is seen as one of the reasons why floods turned so devastating in the state this June. Experts say there is an urgency to reassess the need of hydropower in the state and make hydro energy sustainable.

Hydero projects
The 330 MW Shrinagar hydropower project on Alkananda river in Pauri district of Uttarakhand. Around 3.30 am on June 17, Shrinagar dam authorities opened the flood gates without warning, which caused huge damage to the houses downstream (Photo Credit: Soumik Mukherjee)

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. This can cumulatively impact Himalayan ecology.

According to the website of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, 45 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 3,164 MW are operational in Uttarakhand, and around 199 big and small projects are proposed or under way in the state. In the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi (tributaries of the Ganga) basin alone, which is said to be most impacted, 69 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 9,000 MW are under way, according to the high level Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) formed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to consider matters relating to environmental flows and hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries. The report was prepared in April 2013. These projects would modify the key tributaries through diversions to tunnels or reservoirs. As per the report, implementation of all 69 projects would affect 81 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of River Alaknanda

Damage from run-of-the-river projects
Most of the 69 projects are lesser than 25 MW. But even small run-of-the river projects can cause severe damage to the rivers. They re-route water through tunnels, cutting through mountains to increase the pressure, leaving long stretches of river dry—for instance, the 10 MW Madhya Maheshwar SHP plant in Uttarakhand uses a 4 km-long tunnel to divert water. What's more, a large number of these projects are at very short distances from each other, leaving little space for rivers to regenerate and revive. “A lot of wrongdoing happens in small plants because no environment impact assessment is required,” said Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangathan, a non-profit in Haridwar.

In Kedarnath where maximum disaster impact was seen, Larsen and Tuobro is building a tunnel for a 99 MW hydro power project. “Since 2007 when the work started, cracks have formed in the houses in adjoining villages like Mekhanda and Phata,” said Shalini Dhyani, scientist at G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. The entire ecology of the area has changed since the construction of the dam has started there. The water bodies have dried up in lower areas and the region has been experiencing lesser rainfall since past four to five years, she added.

Maintain ecological flow
One big consequence of poorly planned construction of hydro power projects is reduced ecological flow of rivers. Ecological flow or e-flow is the water that should be left in the river for ecosystem protection and livelihood purposes at all times. IMG recommended 30 per cent ecological flow in lean season (November to April) and 20 per cent ecological flow from May to October. To this, many environmentalists submitted a dissent note. Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), after an extensive analysis of hydrological data of 24 hydropower projects, provided an alternative view to IMG. It found that winter (lean) flow is less than 10 per cent of the high monsoon flow in almost all 24 projects. And, if less than 50 per cent water is left in the river, it will be reduced to a trickle in these months. Therefore, CSE suggested for 50 per cent ecological flow for six months in lean season and 30 per cent flow in remaining six months. Based on its analysis, it said that it is possible to build hydropower projects on a river and still allow this flow. The energy generation would also not be impacted substantially. CSE also suggested minimum distance between two projects as three to five kilometres.

It is worth noting that way back in the 1980s when Central Electricity Authority estimated hydropower potential, it did not take into account ecological flow, competing needs of society for water or indeed anything else.

Cumulative impact not assessed As cumulative impact study is not mandatory in the existing Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process, the project proponents and the government hardly take it into consideration. Cumulative assessment becomes even more important in case of hydropower projects on a river system to understand the impact of the existing projects on the ecology and how feasible is it to build new projects in the same basin. “There are environment protection guidelines for development of hydropower projects but they have largely remained on paper,” said a senior faculty member of civil engineering department of IIT-Kanpur, requesting anonymity. Guidelines also say that suitable dumping sites for disposal of debris and waste generated during construction should be identified well in advance. “But no proper muck disposal mechanism is followed. The deposition of muck and debris of a dam located upstream on the river banks downstream is a common practice,” said Anil Joshi, director, Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, a Dehradun based non-profit. “ Indiscriminate dumping of muck increases erosive capacity of a river manifold during monsoon. It causes extensive destruction downstream,” said Y P Sundriyal, professor of geology at Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Shrinagar, Uttarakhand. Experts also say that the government should invest more in increasing the efficiency of the existing projects so that fewer projects are needed. This includes minimising transmission and distribution losses which are to the tune of 30 to 40 per cent.

Review reservoir limits In view of the recent news reports that reservoirs of certain dams like Ramganga are overflowing 440 per cent above normal, scientists say there is a need to review certain criteria like “design flood”, which accounts for a probability of a disastrous flood, experienced once in hundred years. “This estimation helps in reviewing the reservoir storage capacity of dams so that they are better equipped to deal with the increasing precipitation variability,” said A K Gosain, professor with civil engineering department at IIT-Delhi. However, the Indian standard for fixing the criteria for design flood for safety of dams has not been directly incorporated the concept of hazard. Engineers seldom take it seriously, says a 2012 study titled Hydrological Safety of Dams in India, by N K Mathur and Bhopal Singh of Central Water Commission. Thus, there is a need to take up the task of hazard assessment seriously and modifying the design criteria accordingly, adds the paper. It also highlights that the India Meteorological Department, which is required to undertake storm studies for projects, is incapable of doing so because of manpower shortage and other constraints.

However, G P Patel, managing director of water utility UJVNL, insisted that dams have no connection with the floods. “Had dams like Tehri not been there, devastation could have been manifold. If it had not been for the dam, entire Rishikesh and western Uttar Pradesh would have been washed out,” he added. On June 16, when the Bhagirathi was swelling, the water level in Tehri dam reservoir reached 775 metre from 750 metre. The reservoir can accommodate water up to 830 metre from the mean sea level. “The current water level in Tehri dam is 778 meter which is abnormal. The highest so far has been 763 metre in 2008. Had it been October, the devastation would have been much more,” said an engineer of Tehri Hydropower Development Corporation, seeking anonymity. More rains could spell disaster.



Experts say deforestation aggravated floods in Uttarakhand; only 12 per cent compensatory afforestation achieved

While extreme weather and unregulated planning are being blamed for the devastation caused by the Uttarakhand floods, deforestation is regarded as another factor. This aspect of the Uttarakhand disaster, however, is more complex than it appears. The worst affected districts of Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi are the areas where maximum forestland has been diverted for development activities.

Since 1980, 44,868 ha of forestland in Uttarakhand have been diverted to non-forest use (Courtesy: Raju Kasambe)

Statistics from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) show there has hardly been any forest loss in Uttarakhand for the past 10 years. The forest cover in the state has, in fact, increased from 23,938 square kilometre in 2001 to 24,496 sq km in 2011. This data is used by governments, both state and Central, to deny allegations of mismanagement of forests in the state. Official figures, however, fail to quantify the damage forest eco-systems might have suffered in the state due to development projects.

As per data from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), 44,868 ha of forestland have been diverted to non-forest use in Uttarakhand since 1980. Of this, a m

The maximum number of development projects that required forest diversion have been approved in Chamoli district, one of the districts worst affected by the recent flash floods. A total of 1,767 ha forestland has been cleared in the district, second only to Haridwar where most of the forest has been cleared for rehabilitation projects. Interestingly, the maximum forest area that has been cleared for hydel projects, roads and transmission lines is in Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag and Pithoragarh.

The maximum forest area diverted for hydel projects, roads and transmission lines has been in districts Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh – the most badly affected by the floods The maximum forest area diverted for hydel projects, roads and transmission lines has been in districts Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh – the most badly affected by the floods

Compensatory afforestation ineffective
Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, a project developer is supposed to plant trees in a non forest area equal to the forest area it is clearing, or on degraded forest land which is double the project area, to compensate for forest loss. However, compensatory afforestation seems to be ineffective in the state. In lieu of all the forest cleared in the state so far, compensatory afforestation in 32,174 ha land has been stipulated. Only 12 per cent of this has been achieved so far. The plantation is done at a different location, sometime even in a different state (Uttar Pradesh in case of Uttarakhand), which hardly makes up for the ecological disturbances at the place from where vegetation has been removed.

Worse, the state has a poor record of plantation under catchment area treatment plan. For instance, in the case of the Shrinagar Hydro-Electric Project by Alaknanda Hydro Power Co Ltd in Shrinagar, the project proponent, GVK, had to carry out the plantation for catchment area treatment simultaneously with the construction of the project. While the project is almost complete, the catchment area treatment might take another eight years to complete, as per a recent environment ministry report.

Native vegetation loss not accounted for
The extensive plantation outside the compensatory afforestation schemes and the natural regeneration of forests might have kept state’s area under forest cover constant. But it would not compensate for the removal of vegetation from eco-fragile patches. “At the macro level there might not be any change in the forest cover, but one can’t deny this at the micro level. The forest area has increased at some places and decreased at several other places,” says an FSI official.

Shalini Dhyani, project scientist with the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, who has extensively worked on forest ecology of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, explains this phenomenon. “The forest has regenerated manifold in the state because of great community conservation work. In valleys like Pauri and Shrinagar, regeneration has improved as people have migrated from these areas. However, in the upper reaches, huge chunks of forest have been sacrificed for roads and dams,” she says.

This has disturbed the ecological balance of the hills, say experts. “Forests that have been removed from these districts have native Himalayan vegetation. With deforestation, there is a huge loss of top soil. The soil erosion and resultant rise in temperature further affect the health of the nearby forests. This must have made the already fragile eco-system of Himalaya even more unstable,” says A S Rawat, a Nainital-based forest historian.

Such deforestation has aggravated the impact of floods in the state, says Dhyani. “Wherever there has been intact forest, the damage from floods has been much less than where it has been diverted to non-forest use. For instance, in Kedar Valley there have been very few landslides as the native oak forests of the region have great soil-binding capacity and water retention power. The damage here has been only due to the cloudburst, unlike in the Valley of Flowers, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and regions around Joshimath where the villages have been devastated by to landslides along with the cloudburst. The forests in these regions have suffered great loss in the past seven to eight years because of development projects,” she says.

PART 3 - Reclaiming The Himalayas

Agenda for Development

The recent events in Uttarakhand have shown, more than ever, that we need a development strategy for the Himalayas that takes into account the vulnerability of the region and the need for environment protection. There is no doubt that the region needs economic growth. But this development cannot come at the cost of the environment. It will only make the already risk-prone and ecologically fragile region more vulnerable and development more “deadly”. We also know that climate change will exacerbate the vulnerability of this already fragile ecosystem.

The question is what should be the development strategy for this region? Most importantly, we need to think about a pan-Himalayan strategy so that states can evolve common policies and not follow the race to the bottom. It is also clear that these strategies will have to be based on the region’s natural resources—forests, water, biodiversity, organic and speciality foods, nature tourism—but will need to address the specific threats so that growth does not come at the cost of the environment. Let's explore the different sectors and the questions that need to be discussed and resolved.

1. The Himalayan states must build a viable and sustainable forest-based economy. Can they use forests for development? Can they value ecosystem services of forests so that protection is valued?
The Himalayas have seen two distinct phases of its rich forest resources. The first phase was the extraction of forests for “development”, which led to widespread deforestation in the region and increased vulnerability to landslides as well as deprivation among people dependent on forests for their basic survival. These concerns led to the first directive against green felling—the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in the 1980s and the subsequent directives of the Supreme Court to check forest-based industry in the Himalayan states, particularly the Northeast. But these actions, however important, have not considered how forests can be used to contribute to the economy of the region. State revenue from forests has declined. Local anger against forest departments has increased. Clearly, we need a different development strategy, which is based on the use of the region’s important resource for development and local livelihood security.

Instead, what we are seeing is that large tracts of forests are being diverted for hydropower and road projects, without focus on compensatory afforestation.


Tourism that is not destructive
  1. Build an inventory of key pilgrimage sites in the state, with an understanding of its ecological capacity based on location and fragility
  2. Immediately control the number of visitors to important pilgrimage sites. These restrictions on the key and most important pilgrimage sites can be done immediately and can be further revised based on the carrying capacity estimates
  3. Ban construction of roads for the movement of pilgrims and tourists to within 10 km of the high-altitude pilgrimage areas in order to create an ecological and spiritual buffer. These areas, like national parks and sanctuaries, should be maintained as special areas, which are maintained with minimal human interference to help us connect with nature
  4. Similar to sanctuaries and national parks, create a provision of buffer areas, surrounding the pilgrimage sites, where development is restricted. To build local interest in these areas, strictly enforce rules to give communities living in the area advantage of the pilgrimage activities
  5. Use the carrying capacity action plan to create facilities for tourists, particular facilities for sanitation and for garbage disposal
  6. Make it mandatory for expeditions to remove and take back all non-degradable items. This can be enabled through a security deposit and check on the items being carried for the expedition. Create local community interest in management of these sites.
Related agenda
  1. Promote homestead tourism, instead of five-star tourism, based on policy incentives. These incentives would include fiscal benefits provided to house-owners for providing tourist related facilities
  2. Regulate homestead tourism through a third-party audit and certification programme, which would promote good practices in the tourist complexes
  3. Use the certification programme to include rating of key environmental sustainability guidelines – like reuse and recycling of waste and energy efficiency and renewables. This will involve tourists also in understanding the special needs of the Himalayas and their role in protecting its beauty
  4. Increase the rate of entry tax charged by all hill towns. This tourism tax for entry into fragile ecosystems should be increased substantially and across the board in all towns of the Himalayas. The fund created from this tax should be used for a dedicated purpose of increasing facilities for tourists. (For instance, Costa Rica has a tourist surcharge, charged from every hotel based on its occupancy for eco-development).
  5. Impose high charges for parking of private vehicles in markets and fragile areas of hill towns, which will also restrict the number of vehicles being allowed into the areas and reduce pollution and congestion

The standing forests of the region are an important reservoir of biodiversity; these provide protection against soil erosion and increased flooding in the plains and are sinks for carbon. One way ahead would be to develop a strategy to “pay” for these ecosystem services of the standing forests of the region and to ensure that the proceeds are shared with local communities. The 12th and 13th Finance Commissions have included the concept of compensating states for standing forests in its report. Unfortunately, the funds provided for these services are meagre. More importantly, no money has been given to states as yet. The Himachal Pradesh government is currently working on assessing the ecosystem and carbon sequestration services of its standing forests. This issue should be discussed and a common policy evolved so that Himalayan states can “value” their forests better.

This policy must also include the voices and concerns of local communities, dependent on forests for their agriculture and basic needs. All studies in the high Himalayan villages show the role of forests—most crucially as fodder and water sources for sustaining agriculture in this region. How can forests be used to build local economies has to be the big question.

2 The strategy for water development must balance the opportunity for energy and threat to livelihood, particularly in the age of changing climate and hydrology
The region’s other key resource is the water that flows from high glaciers and mountains to the plains. This resource has to be discussed, both in terms of its opportunity and as a threat to its ecology and economy. Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region. All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a breakneck speed—Uttarakhand on the Ganga basin alone has identified projects adding up to nearly 10,000 mw of power and plans for 70-odd projects.

The development of hydroelectricity is important as it provides the country with a renewable source of energy and is a revenue source for the state. It can be argued that the development of its water resources is a revenue trade-off, which will take the pressure off its forests.

We need to understand the impact of this development on the ecology and hydrology of the region. It is feared that the hydrology will be impacted because of climate change—and extreme events. This flood in Uttarakhand has seen hydropower projects badly affected. It is also clear that the impact of the flood was exacerbated because of the number and poor construction of the hydropower projects. These projects must be reviewed and many scrapped.

The policy for water-based energy in the region needs to be carefully balanced to take these concerns into account. The policy should lay down mandatory ecological flow provisions (at least 50 per cent in lean season); a distance criterion (5 km) and tough enforcement measures and penalties for ensuring that construction of the project does not harm the mountain stability or local water systems. It must be noted that while rivers cannot and must not be re-engineered, dams can be re-engineered to optimize on available water for energy generation.

3 The need for energy in remote villages must be secured first, before export to regions outside
Given the cost of reaching conventional energy to the remote households of this region, there is an opportunity to develop an alternative model for energy use in this region. Today people in the region have no alternative but to use firewood for their cooking and scarcely available kerosene for their lighting needs. Small hydropower projects (below 25 MW) were conceived initially to provide a local energy source. However, over time, in the Ganga basin as with other key basins, this concept has been changed so that all projects now feed to the national/state grid, which may or may not reach local communities. The rationale provided is that the national grid is more reliable and so more efficient to distribute energy.

But given the lack of access of energy to households in these remote regions of the country, there is a need to rethink the objectives. It is also a fact that the losses in the current transmission and distribution system practically wipe out the gains made from such small projects. The purpose of building small projects must be to provide local energy supply through interactive grids (as being done in Nepal, for instance).

4 Promote local organic agriculture and its produce as speciality, high value premium produce of a fragile ecology
Every Himalayan state has tried to use the unique products of its region as its economic strength. The states also recognise the opportunity of keeping their agriculture organic—Meghalaya was the first to declare itself an organic state; Sikkim has followed and Uttarakhad has had a major programme to promote organic green agriculture in the state. But these states are finding it difficult to use their unique strength because of different barriers, like difficulties in certification and even forest laws. For instance, Sikkim has promoted organic cardamom crop, but finds that forest laws do not allow it to take benefit of cultivation on these lands, which is done without destroying forests.

This discussion must also involve a dialogue on the future of agriculture in this region. We must realise the role of women in sustaining agriculture on the fragile slopes of the Himalayas, where the soils are deficient in nutrients. Women farmers expend huge energy to manufacture manure—from backbreaking work of collecting fodder, feeding it to cattle, and then transporting dung. They apply over 20 tonnes per hectare on these nutritionally deficient terraced lands, all to get pitiable returns. In the uplands of the Northeast, where farmers practice shifting cultivation, also as a means to invest in soil fertility, their land and labour is completely discounted and undervalued.

5 Use ecosystem-based tourism for development but with safeguards and local benefits
High mountain, adventure, biodiversity and nature tourism is the most obvious route to economic development in the Himalayas. But this tourism is greatly dependent on the ecology of the region. If the environment degrades, tourism will also be impacted. On the other hand, tourism has impacts on the environment, if not carefully managed. The Uttarakhand flood teaches us that we must learn to build sustainable models for pilgrim-based tourism in the fragile hills. There is a problem of pollution, litter and solid waste disposal in most high Himalayan tourist sites. Construction activity is unchecked; in most cases hotels and lodges come up in the most fragile areas.

The move towards eco-tourism needs to be promoted carefully so that best practices can be learnt and disseminated. Most importantly, local people must benefit from the tourism economy. In Leh, for instance, where the government has consciously promoted homestead tourism, there is greater attention to fighting pollution in the town and protecting the ecology. We need policies to promote mountain tourism for local benefits (see box).

6. Build policies for sustainable urbanisation in the mountains
The cities of the Himalayas are growing and beginning to see the same rot of the cities of the plains – from mountains of garbage and plastic, untreated sewage, chronic water shortages, unplanned urban growth and even local air pollution because of vehicles. These towns need to be planned, particularly keeping in mind the rush of summer tourists and the fact that tourists do not pay for municipal services. Many states have experimented – from banning plastics, to taxing tourists – to better respond to these issues. But they need support and new thinking on everything – on traditional architecture practices, local water management through protection of lakes and different systems of sewage and garbage management.

It is important, given the ecological fragility of the mountain areas, that we plan carefully for urban growth and its spill over into newer settlements. It would be important to devise strategies for consolidation of urban settlements, which are governed through land-use planning incorporated in the municipal master plan and are provided all facilities, before further growth is permitted. In other words, unmanaged and unchecked urban growth should not be permitted. It is also important given that buildings in these towns are based on the local ecosystem, taking into account seismic fragility and the need for aesthetics. All this will require the creation of strong regulatory institutions in the towns.

The municipal byelaws must provide for construction activity to be banned in areas, which fall in hazard zones or areas close to rivers, springs and watersheds of the towns. In many cases these provisions exist in the byelaws, but have not been strictly enforced. There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy on these matters.

These issues are not new. But what is new is the need to respond more urgently to the changes that are beginning to be seen in this climate vulnerable region. It is also clear that development will be critical for the region to cope with climate change and its variability. This is the opportunity to use new models of development, based on the region's ecology and traditional knowledge and culture, to build an economy capable of withstanding these changes.



1.3 million pilgrims go for Char Dham Yatra in a month; no assessment of impact, carrying capacity

The Char Dham Yatra, a trail that leads to four holy shrines of Hindu pilgrimage in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, opened to pilgrims on May 13 this year. In a month, almost 1.3 million pilgrims completed the journey to the four shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – all located at altitudes above 3,000 metre from mean sea level. While such intensive tourism brings in huge revenue, the pressures of hosting such vast numbers of pilgrims are telling on the state, which finds itself ill-equipped.

Ghangharia is a base station for people heading to Hemkund Sahib and Valley of Flowers (Photographs: Vibha Varshney)

Booming business, big losses
Tourism in the state has increased by 168 per cent (213 per cent according to the Uttarakhand tourism department) over the past 12 years. According to Saurabh Sanyal, executive director of PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PHDCCI), a Delhi based body of industries, tourism contributes about 27 per cent or Rs 26,500 crore to Uttarakhand’s gross state domestic product (GSDP).

The consequences of unchecked tourism in the state was only too evident in recent days when tragedy struck. On June 16 cloudbursts and extreme rains caused massive flooding and devastation in the state. The temple town of Kedarnath, which according to Char Dham Yatra tour operators was hosting an estimated 34,000 pilgrims at the time, was destroyed when a torrent of mud, mountain debris and water hit the town. The yatra was interrupted in peak season with five more months to go before temple authorities closed the four shrines in November before the harsh winter months.

PHDCCI estimates Uttarakhand has incurred a loss of about Rs 12,000 crore, based on gross state domestic product (GSDP) figures from the state budget for 2013-14. “GSDP of Uttarakhand at factor cost at current prices stands at about Rs 1,07,548 crore in the year that came to an end on March 31, 2013. Eleven per cent of the GSDP has been washed away in terms of prospective tourism earnings due to floods that engulfed the state in the middle of this month,” says Sanyal in a statement issued on June 27.

The lodges around the Kedarnath temple were completely destroyed in the recent floods in Uttarakhand (Photograph: Sanjay Semwal)

The lodges around the Kedarnath temple were completely destroyed in the recent floods in Uttarakhand (Photograph: Sanjay Semwal)

Swathi Seshadri of Bangalore-based non-profit Equations, which works for equitable tourism, says tourism is unsustainable in Uttarakhand as ever-increasing pilgrimage puts immense pressure on resources. “While the state's town and country planning department is responsible for making master plans for key regions in the state, it is Uttarakhand's tourism department that has made the tourism development master plan for 2007 to 2022,” points out Seshadri. “The Union Ministry of Tourism has yet another plan for the Valley of Flowers, which suggested a carrying capacity for the region but did not formulate any regulations. However, there is no coordination between these government agencies when preparing these plans. There is confusion about who is planning for these regions. They seem to be open for all,” she adds.

The only tourism regulations or plans in use in the country are for the tourists to the Amarnath Yatra or to Manasarovar Lake in Tibet. The Amarnath Shrine Board issues warning notices as per the Amarnath Shrine Act, which includes marking points which are prone to landslides or avalanches.There are no such measures for pilgrimage trails like the Char Dham Yatra. The Uttarakhand Tourism Policy 2001 aims at establishing world class infrastructure, attracting more and more private players, and finding new tourism destinations. But so far, no assessment or impact of tourism or carrying capacity has been done, says Seshadri.

Tourist overkill
Almost 80 per cent of tourists to Uttarakhand arrive with the aim of completing the Char Dham Yatra. The heavy traffic on the routes to the shrines during tourist season from May to November cause a high number of road accidents, which a state police official from Dehradun blames on the greed of tour operators.

“The surge in the number of pilgrims visiting the temples in one month is mostly because of these tour operators. The tour operators are in a rush to make a quick buck and make five to six trips a month to the four temples. The drivers do not get rest and often end up in accidents,” says the police official. On the other hand, tour operators such as Sacred Yatra, a Rishikesh based travel operator, say that pilgrims want to spend less time at these altitudes because of the difficult terrain.

In 2008 Uttarakhand Police made it mandatory for pilgrims to complete the trail within 10 days. However, none of the tour operators followed the police diktat in practice, as pilgrims were charged a hefty sum of money for a whirlwind tour of the four pilgrimage sites. Excluding hotel costs, a Char Dham Yatra, that could take five to seven days to complete, costs about Rs 9,000 for a vehicle that carries five or six people from Rishikesh.

Rooms run short
In spite of the mushrooming of hotels along river banks, triggered by the tourist boom, a shortage of accommodation persists. A working paper of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations published in 2008 on the economy of the state in 2006 illustrates this shortage. A survey conducted by the authors of the paper on development strategy for the hill districts of Uttarakhand stated that annually the state has only 8.4 tourist rent houses per million tourists, 102.5 hotels and guest houses per million tourists, and 337 beds available for every million tourists.

The shortage of dwelling units to meet the ever-increasing numbers of tourists visiting the state led to the mushrooming of illegal structures, some of which were constructed right on the riverbanks. According to estimates from the Uttarakhand Hotel and Restaurant Association, the recent floods washed away over 100 small hotels which had been constructed right on the riverbanks.

The Union Ministry of Tourism, however, seems slow to realise the need for better regulation and infrastructure in tourist areas. The first press release the ministry issued after the Uttarakhand floods was on June 19 to announce a new campaign—777 days of the Indian Himalayas—to promote the Himalayas as a tourism destination to the world. It was only much later, on June 24,that the ministry issued a statement saying that it would pledge Rs 1 crore to the flood victims of Uttarakhand. On June 26, the ministry sanctioned a special financial package of Rs 100 Crore to rebuild tourist infrastructure in Uttarakhand. The ministry of tourism is less concerned about the impact of the floods on life and property, but is more focussed on promoting tourism, says Seshadri.


Climate Change

Soon-to-be-finalized state action plan on climate change full of extreme events warnings

The cloudburst-induced flood in Uttarakhand was a disaster waiting to happen. The state’s draft action plan on climate change is full of such warnings. A prudent document, it captures vulnerability assessments on Uttarakhand, people’s perceptions of climate change and how they are getting affected by the change. The document is also a comment on the development model in the state and raises several points about how development should not be done in an ecologically fragile region. The draft plan also gives a long list of activities that the state has planned or is planning to make its people more resilient, but it is a case of too little, too late as far as the current floods are concerned.

The action plan says climate change will significantly alter hydrological systems, erosion and sedimentation in the region, besides causing more floods, landslides and damages to the landmass

Vulnerable state

Uttarakhand has been a story of droughts, landslides and floods. In 2008 and 2009, the state experienced severe drought conditions. In 2010, people had to grapple with floods, flash floods, landslides and cloud bursts. Little wonder that the draft plan says “Uttarakhand is most vulnerable to climate-mediated risks”. The document cites instances of receding glaciers, depleting natural resources and erratic rainfall to reinforce this point. These are accompanied by more indicators such as irregular winter rains, changes in flowering pattern and drying up of perennial streams that point to a change happening in the hill state, some that people have observed (see box: people’s perceptions). And these changes have large-scale impacts. People’s perceptions of climate change

People in the hill state consider onset of monsoon to be more uncertain compared to other phases of rainfall in Uttarakhand, reveals a study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and International Fund for Agricultural Development found. The study documented people’s perceptions of how climate change impacted their immediate surroundings and livelihoods. Some of their other findings were:

People’s perceptions of climate change


People in the hill state consider onset of monsoon to be more uncertain compared to other phases of rainfall in Uttarakhand, reveals a study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and International Fund for Agricultural Development found. The study documented people’s perceptions of how climate change impacted their immediate surroundings and livelihoods. Some of their other findings were:

• Overall less rainfall, and more erratic
• Overall decreased water availability
• Less or absent winter rains
• Increased frequency of intense rainfall events
• Increase in pests and disease
• Increasing temperatures
• Warmer and shorter winters with less snowfall
• Day-to-day and medium-term planning of farm operations more difficult
• Greater losses in Rabi as compared to Kharif season
• Increased pressure on forests resulting into decline of biodiversity
• Changes in phenology/composition of species
• Habitats of many species moving upward or pole ward
• Proliferation of invasive species
• Change of moisture regime in different forest types
• Increase in human-animal conflicts

For instance, changes in monsoon are a clear food security threat. Uttarakhand receives about 90 per cent of its annual rainfall during the monsoon season. Even a 20 to 30 per cent change in the monsoon pattern can significantly affect food productivity, says the draft plan. It further warns that climate change will “significantly alter” hydrological systems, erosion and sedimentation in the region, besides causing more floods, landslides and damages to the landmass. In fact, flooding will increase between 10 and over 30 per cent of the existing magnitudes, which will impact existing infrastructure. What the draft plan anticipates will happen in future is already happening—the 2013 floods have washed away 19 hydropower projects.

Wait, is it all just climate?
Unplanned development and tourism have caused their share of stress on the state. These stresses have resulted in deforestation, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, landslides and silt in rivers. Cumulative impact of 70-odd projects on the Ganga has also not been done. “The reason is straightforward. Politicians and bureaucracy are in a hurried mode, because of elections. You have laws, but everyone knows how they are implemented,” said a government official. Requesting anonymity, the official added, “The chief minister is not ready to admit that Uttarakhand situation is a man-made disaster. He is still referring to it as God’s curse. The fact is it isn’t. Every year we have major landslides, our mountains have become unstable.”

Another official, former chief secretary of Uttarakhand R S Tolia, agreed that the devastation in Uttarakhand can be attributed to man-made factors. “It is not restricted to the June 16 cloudburst. How you are building roads, matters. If it were just a natural calamity, you would not see so much damage,” said Tolia.

Road to development
Road construction in the state has caused deforestation and soil erosion, leading to uprooting of large trees; disturbance in geological strata, disturbances in water resources, impacted biodiversity, caused pollution and destroyed medicinal wealth, according to the draft state action plan on climate change. The document also claims that the public works department is aware of the implications of climate change and is committed to taking steps to minimize the environmental footprint of the roads sector. If the plan is cleared, new road construction may happen after an environmental impact assessment and geological investigations and without blasting operations. Or, so one hopes.

Jai Raj, additional principal chief conservator of forests and the nodal person in charge of the State Action Plan on Climate Change also emphasized that it is time to re-examine the development model. “Blasting to make roads, for instance, is a practice that needs to be stopped. We must employ environment friendly technology to build roads,” said Jai Raj. Roads, a symbol of development, have also caused the state more harm than good (see box).

Road to development
Road construction in the state has caused deforestation and soil erosion, leading to uprooting of large trees; disturbance in geological strata, disturbances in water resources, impacted biodiversity, caused pollution and destroyed medicinal wealth, according to the draft state action plan on climate change. The document also claims that the public works department is aware of the implications of climate change and is committed to taking steps to minimize the environmental footprint of the roads sector. If the plan is cleared, new road construction may happen after an environmental impact assessment and geological investigations and without blasting operations. Or, so one hopes.

To undo these damages and ensure they don’t recur, the future needs to be planned with caution and the draft plan lists several initiatives to ensure “resilience to extreme weather events”.

State’s wish list
Broadly, the initiatives the state government wants to undertake include a low carbon development strategy, integrate climate concerns in all aspects of development and build a climate resilient development model. How this will be achieved remains a big question. For instance, to increase resilience, the plan aligns itself with the National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem, which is one of the eight missions under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. The reality is the mission, despite being around for five years now, is focused only on capacity building without producing any results.

Besides, to implement the activities, where will the money come from? After a state action plan is finalized by the state government, it is sent to a national steering committee chaired by the secretary, ministry of environment and forests, for approval. The steering committee then “recommends” the plan to Planning Commission where costs and budgets for activities are allocated to the state government concerned. “Implementing the plan in spirit is difficult and requires huge effort and money, which is still a big question mark,” says Sunder Subrmanian, independent adviser to the government and a consultant with UNDP, who worked on Uttarakhand’s state action plan. He added that the state government would have to take recourse in its own budget to implement the activities. But Jai Raj is confident that the Centre will bear the additional component. “Any additional component will be borne by the Central government. Let the plan get approved first, and if there are any changes, at least we will have a guideline for revision,” said Jai Raj.

It is still not clear by when the plan will be approved (Jai Raj expects it to happen soon). What is clear is that if the state does not reexamine its model of development, stories of disasters in the hill state will become commonplace. For if the current flood situation does not act as a wake-up call to plan differently, nothing else will.