The Two Seasons Of Uttarakhand: Pilgrimage Season And Disaster Season

Making sense of the incessant spate of disasters in the Himalayan state. Uttarakhand as a naturally disaster prone state made worse by reckless human activities.

Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand
Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand

On good days Uttarakhand is in the news for high-profile visitors thronging the state seeking spiritual rejuvenation. Political faces like PM Modi, Rahul Gandhi, and many others have walked up its winding, paved paths leading up to its famed Kedarnath temple. 

On bad days, the state is buried under landslides or submerged under floodwaters. On such days, the same high-profile visitors are back in the state on choppers, aerially surveying the extent of the damage. Life in Uttarakhand looks like a seamless dance between profound spiritual existence and climatic tragedies of epic proportions. 

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The latest tragedy:

At 5 am last Monday (Oct 18) a cloudburst triggered yet another flash flood in Ramgarh and Okhladanda blocks in the disaster-prone Himalayan state. Heavy rains battered the state for the next two days. The weather finally began to clear up after Wednesday. By the end of the week, the death toll stood at 95. The NDRF claimed to have rescued as many as 1,300 people. An unreported number still remain trapped under debris, or in areas rendered unreachable due to the rains. 

The state that normally records about 30.5mm rainfall in October saw 122.4mm in the 24 hours following Monday’s cloudburst. 

The worst of this flash flood is over for now. The rain has been on a decline since Tuesday. The time for frenzied news-reels with minute-by-minute data about the disaster has passed. Can we now pore over the more important questions and data about the state and its incessant spate of disasters? These questions have been begging serious attention for at least two decades now, if not more. Why the disasters in the first place? What are we doing wrong? What can we do to right the ecological situation in the state?

We will need to understand the land at its geographical level first, and then follow it up with some backstory of the region’s ecological problems. Let’s begin with:

Understanding the vulnerable topology:

Geologically speaking, the Himalayas are a bit like an impulsive young kid. The youngest among the world’s mountain ranges, its still, majestic, calmness is deceptive. Underneath, the violent process that pushed up the earth into these jagged mountain peaks 50 million years ago, is still active. The plates that rammed into one another are still busy adjusting and readjusting against one another. In plain human-speak; that’s earthquakes. A lot of Earthquakes.

Nestling in the lap of this wild, unruly mountain is Uttarakhand. 

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Mountains, forests, and gushing streams are held together in a delicate balance in Uttarakhand.
Mountains, forests, and gushing streams are held together in a delicate balance in Uttarakhand.

If the shifty ground underneath wasn’t bad enough, the stupendous heights of the Himalayas pose another problem. The state sits on the windward side of the mountains, which obstruct rain-bearing clouds and cause them to pour down in torrential rain (this process leaves the other side dry. Think of the dry, leeward climate of Tibet).

In its natural state, Uttarakhand’s landmass is 86% mountainous. Out of this 56% is forest cover. As the mountains quake, come down in landslides, torrential rain, and stream erosions, its forests help to hold it together. 

Nature willed the region to be volatile and tempestuous, but with the right amount of checks and balances in place. It is when you bring in human settlements and their reckless activities that natural phenomena turn into a natural disasters. Now let’s analyse the dangerous human-variable in this delicate ecological equation:

Man-made natural disasters:

“Disasters happen when we do something stupid”, said scientist and director of People’s Science Institute, Ravi Chopra in an interview after the February floods. Chopra is the man behind the Uttarakhand Disaster 2013 report on the Kedarnath floods. The report clearly identifies the state’s Hydel Power project dam constructions as one of the main causes for the rise of flash floods in the region. 

Scientist Ravi Chopra has reported that the state’s development policy and dam building projects for causing irreparable ecological damage.

The Uttarakhand state was notified in the year 2000. Immediately after becoming a state, the government started a Hydel projects drive. The drive soon turned into overdrive. Within 5 years dam construction, deforestation, and mountain-blasting were going on in full force. Local residents began to complain of homes developing cracks due to these activities. 

Consider the available data on floods in the state before and after 2000. From 1989 to 1999 the state witnessed 4 floods in the entire decade. That number shot to 22 between 2002 and 2012. The very next year, the massive Kedarnath floods happened.

Adding fuel to this ecological fire is the ambitious Char Dham Pariyojana. This is a highway-building project meant to improve road connectivity to four sacred Hindu shrines. The Supreme Court ruled against the project’s broad-width highways in 2020. By then, however, nearly 700 hectares of forest land had been lost with the felling of 47,043 trees.

Solutions that solve nothing:

The tragedies wrecked by nature’s furies are no patch on the tragedies of human incompetence. The state’s reactions, relief efforts, and solutions have consistently led to even more problems than there were, to begin with. 

After the 2013 Kedarnath floods, the government set up a committee to assess the reasons for the state’s massive and repeated natural disasters. The final report came out in 2015 and has stayed on paper ever since. Instead of a coherent long-term policy to handle the region’s fragile environment, there are stopgap solutions after every disaster. These solutions include relocation of people to “safer areas”, and repair and restoration of infrastructure.

The problem with the restoration of damaged infrastructures is that it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the structures shouldn’t have been built in high-risk areas in the first place. Take for example the Vishnuprayag project on the Alaknanda river. The dam was built in one of the most susceptible regions in the state. Unsurprisingly, the 2013 floods pummeled the structure with floodwater and boulders, burying it under 60 feet of rubble and silt. One might say that it makes sense to restore an electricity-generating and economy-boosting unit. But in the long run, does it really?

Ecological migrations often lead to people leading more deprived lives in Uttrakhand.
Ecological migrations often lead to people leading more deprived lives.

Relocation is another stopgap solution that has its own set of side effects. This solution almost always generates resentment and resistance from people. People obviously hate being shunted away from places they have always lived in. In the dire circumstance when they have to be relocated for their own safety, the state’s poor planning, survey, and its broken bureaucratic machinery worsen the situation for them.

Worse still, relocations normally happen after a disaster strikes. Relocating emotionally and economically drained populations turns them into socio-economic marginals of a new region.

Sustainable solutions:

It goes without saying that modern development cannot be wished away. We need electricity, we need the rich Himalayan natural resources, and we would love to visit the breathtakingly beautiful Uttarakhand as tourists. All this needs infrastructure, settlements, and other economic activities. The answer to Uttarakhand’s ecological troubles isn’t a return to poverty or some prehistoric state of being. 

The answers are much simpler, even surprisingly affordable. 

The best walls of the Hydel projects were no match in the face of nature’s furies in Uttrakhand.
The best walls of the Hydel projects were no match in the face of nature’s furies.

The quaking earth below:

Uttarakhand has at least two tectonic fault lines. The earth underneath is already alive with tectonic activity like faults, thrusts, and plate collisions. Activities like digging and blasting will only worsen the situation. No construction, settlement, or heavy economic activities must be allowed around those two fault lines. 

Cracks, fissures, and any changes in the mountain’s slopes must be regularly identified and dealt with. It is important that neither surface nor rainwater percolates into any fissures. The one good kind of infrastructure to invest in would be a good, large drainage system for surface and subsurface water. 

An excellent long-term strategy is to study the region and narrow down high-risk areas. Settlements in the region can then be slowly thinned out with the help of incentives. Such calculated moves will help reduce the pressure on such topologies. 

Forests and Natural Rescources:

Forests are the armour of this delicate region. When the glaciers above recede, they leave rocks and boulders exposed. As the snow melts (and it is melting at a higher rate now), the two primary glaciers: Gangotri and Yamunotri come flooding down. The water collects those loose solids from the paraglacial regions, gains energy, gushes downstream with high velocity, and smashes everything in its path. In the absence of forest cover, the floodwaters collect more solid matter and turn even more devastating. Forests need to be actively preserved in order to reduce the impact of floods.

While it is important to use the state’s Hydel capacity to the fullest, flood-prone basins like the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi can surely be spared? A lot of lives and several crores of investment can be saved by not building units around susceptible river paths.

Tourism Revamp

Uttarakhand is a spiritual hotspot for tourists. The tourism industry is bound to be the state’s best cash cow. Having said that, it is important to remember Ravi Chopra’s observations: “…if you are going to concentrate everything on four routes, you will not spread the wealth around.” Uttarakhand has a lot more to offer.

Homestays are more eco-friendly than sprawling hotels in Uttrakhand.
Homestays are more eco-friendly than sprawling hotels.

Spreading out the tourism activity over larger areas will distribute the benefits of the industry. Investing simultaneously in eco-tourism can be a winning move in a state like this. Tourism infrastructure also needs to shift from a hotel and lodging-oriented setup, to the more eco-friendly homestay model. 

Sustainability is a far cheaper and more productive investment than shelling out disaster relief every few months. It’s an idea that merits some serious consideration. It is an idea that may keep Uttarakhand’s head above water for a longer time.