Uttarakhand may be staring at another disaster

To cater to the booming tourism economy, the government is giving way to unregulated infrastructure construction, environmental degradation and have no policy for proper land use
Kedarnath temple with destroyed houses during 2013 floods. Photo: Getty Images
Kedarnath temple with destroyed houses during 2013 floods. Photo: Getty Images

On June 7, Suraj left Delhi for Char Dham Yatra — the four holy shrines Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — in Uttarakhand. He decided to start his pilgrimage from Gangotri then continue to Yamunotri and from there take another route to Kedarnath and Badrinath.

While on his journey to Kedarnath, he reached Sitapur in the afternoon and had to stay there overnight — the reason being the local authority prohibited entry of tourists in Gaurikund, the base camp for trek to Kedarnath Temple, as hotels were filled up.

The next morning he looked for helicopter services from Sitapur-Kedarnath but realised the service operators are charging 4-5 times more than the mentioned rates. He got his biometric registration done from a local office and proceeded to GauriKund to start his trek to Kedarnath temple.

Post the 2013 floods, the state government began the registration process as thousands of dead bodies remained unidentified in the absence of record. He appreciated the step taken by the state government, but later realised that there are no checkpoints to monitor and restrict the entry of unregistered people on the trek.

He followed the path with local travellers, of which a few were witness to the calamity that happened on the fateful days of June 16-17 six years ago. The horrifying incident was still afresh in their memories; the usually calm Mandakini emanated crashing down from the mountains and destroyed everything in its path.

In June 2013, Kedarnath valley witnessed the most disastrous floods in the history of India. It caused massive loss of lives, habitat and livelihood and severe destruction to infrastructure and communication.

The tourism and hospitality sector, which adds close to 30-35 per cent of Uttarakhand's GDP, plummeted. For a state economy that is majorly dependent on subsistence agriculture and small and marginal service sector under tourism, the disaster had a significant adverse impact on crop production and other livelihood opportunities. Food crises occurred as a consequence of the breakdown of the transportation and marketing systems.

Uttarakhand is home to a few of the most significant Hindu pilgrimage sites in India known as the Char Dham. The Kedarnath is located at the height of 3,583 m above the sea-level near Chorabari glacier in the western Garhwal Himalaya.

MP Thapliyal, chairman of Kedarnath-Badrinath Temple Committee, asserts: “The temple area has the capacity to accommodate less than 5,000 people, but the Kedarnath shrine is receiving footfalls of 20,000-25,000 pilgrims almost every day.”

Predisposal to natural calamities

Uttarakhand is a mountainous state; hilly terrain comprises around 90 per cent of its aggregate geographical region. The state has attained its place among the first five states in reverence of natural hazards. It has an exceptionally fragile landscape that by origin is susceptible to natural calamities.

The State is predisposed to earthquakes, landslides, flash-floods, cloudbursts, avalanches, as well as droughts. According to the state records, there have been 20 landslides in the State over the 11 years from 2001 to 2012, and seven incidents of cloudbursts between 2002 and 2010.

More than a few lakhs are at risk of exposure to increasing frequency and intensity of natural hazards; this is due to various drivers, including climate change and environmental degradation. Uttarakhand’s exceptional geography and topography make it particularly vulnerable to climate-induced natural disasters.

The worst consequences on infrastructure and population arguably in the last 100 years were witnessed during the floods of 2013 in the Mandakini, Alaknanda, and Bhagirathi Valleys, which claimed around 6,000 lives and thousands missing.

Hectares of cultivated land were either submerged or washed away; the standing agriculture crop (paddy) was destroyed and adversely affected the horticulture land and production. It lead to a substantial economic loss for the state as the post-disaster reconstruction cost has been estimated at Rs 3,964 crore.

Disaster risk is a function of the interplay between three key elements: hazard, exposure and vulnerability. The vulnerability of the mountain region is regularly reflected in the form of extreme climatic events in Uttarakhand.

In the previous few years, especially in 2010, 2012 and 2013, the state has seen an increase in natural disasters induced by extreme climatic events.

A number of development factors have additionally exacerbated disaster risk and vulnerability in the region, the report on the Uttarakhand Disaster in 2013 released by the Ministry of Home Affairs highlights factors such as deforestation, building of roads and tunnels through mountains, construction of hydropower facilities, tourism-related construction in floodplains and hillslopes, as well as sand mining on river beds.

As the state government preferred to ignore the findings and recommendations given by the various field experts, the buildings are again standing tall near the Kedarnath shrine complex.

Unregulated construction a concern

In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked to develop Kedarnath into a “smart pilgrimage centre”, it resulted in an infrastructure upgrade — the construction of new roads and broadening of the existing one.

The construction of Char Dham circuit is in full swing; it was anticipated that it would facilitate easy access to the four wheelers and reduce traffic jams by offering broad road connectivity to the high altitude shrines, hence an increase in the influx of tourists.

A temporary road has been constructed on the river Mandakini by pouring the mud and restricting the river flow towards one side. This alternate route is currently available for commuting towards Kedarnath, rainfall or sudden cloud burst in the region can turn out to be destructive if the river breaks the mud boundary.

Despite knowing the fact that all the hill districts of the Uttarakhand fall in a zone that is highly seismic and landslide-prone, the cutting of mountains for the construction of roads is happening at a faster rate. According to the experts, the Char Dham project is being carried out without assessing the impact and the carrying capacity of the region.

Hemant Dhyani, an environmentalist who is a part of a campaign — Ganga Avahan — said according to estimates about 19 million tonnes of waste will be generated between Rishikesh and Srinagar (in Uttarakhand) and cutting down of thousands of trees.

Keeping in mind the soil erosion and the fact that monsoon will begin soon; this muck is bound to reach the rivers.

For Kedarnathyatra, the state government made a provision for registration, but this remains relevant for pilgrims taking pony or helicopter services. In the absence of checkpoints, many tourists going by foot wilfully missed the registration process. Therefore, the local authorities remain misinformed about the actual numbers who climbed to the Kedarnath.

In August 2018 the High Court of Uttarakhand had instructed the state government to limit the number of tourists to 200 per day visiting alpine meadows or sub-alpine meadows or bugyals and directed to remove all the permanent structures within three months from these areas. The Uttarakhand government decided to challenge the above mentioned high court order considering it a big blow to the tourism industry.

Recently, the serpentine ques of the traffic-jammed four-wheelers on the route of Haridwar, Dehradun, and Mussoorie made the news. The ever-increasing statistics of tourists visiting the state is putting pressure on the mountain ecosystem. It is estimated that 25 lakh tourists are likely to visit this year.

To cater to the need of growing tourism economy government is giving way to the unregulated infrastructure construction, environmental degradation and have no policy for proper land use. It seems the governments are not ready to learn from past mistakes. There is no wrong in saying it is an invitation to another disaster to happen.

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