The Great Degradation of Uttarakhand


The Great Degradation of Uttarakhand

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Uttarakhand is known for its Himalayan beautiful mountains and river, the Valley of Flowers, the hill stations of Dehradun, and other natural wonders that people from outside of the northern state usually think of in terms of holiday spots. Today, however, Uttarakhand’s environment is in the news for less pleasant reasons: Massive flash flood in the state’s Chamoli district have caused immeasurable destruction, claiming at least 26 lives with over 170 still missing, sweeping away houses, bridges, and dams.

Rescue and evacuation operations are underway to aid residents of stricken villages in the region. Especially tense missions are currently going on in two of the many hydroelectric power plants that were affected by the avalanche. The Rishi Ganga power project was swept away, and 35 workers are reported missing. The project site connects to the major Dhauliganga river downstream, where the flooding broke through the dam, washing away the huge NTPC Tapovan hydrel among others. Over 150 workers are missing from the Tapovan plant alone, and a bridge connecting thirteen villages in the Tapovan region has been destroyed, leaving thousands of people completely cut off.

The nation has been gripped by visuals and stories from the devastating flood. Emergency responders, including the Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and the National Disaster Response Force, are on the scene helping stranded villagers and dam workers to safety. Airdrops of food and essentials have been making their way into the villages. Videos of trapped workers being rescued after hours are going viral, and the tireless efforts of the heroic responders are inspirational. Prayers have poured in from around the country, while young cricket star Rishabh Pant, who hails from Uttarakhand, has pledged his entire upcoming match fee towards flood relief.

Watching the country come together in support of Chamoli during this difficult time is heartwarming. But even as people do their best, is it enough to chalk this tragedy up to the hashtag #UttarakhandDisaster, or even donate to aid funds? The causes of the flood are still unknown. Reports suggest it might not be a glacial outburst but a Landslide Lake Outburst Flood. However, there is no denying we have turned a deaf ear to scientists and ecologists who have long warned about unsustainable and overly intensive development in the delicate ecosystem of the Himalayas.

But even as people do their best, is it enough to chalk this tragedy up to the hashtag #UttarakhandDisaster, or even donate to aid funds?

Not only are several hydroelectric power plants being built in Uttarakhand, but the state is also seeing other infrastructure development designed to support tourism. Like many hill stations, the building of roads, hotels, and townships is geared more towards visiting holidaymakers than the locals of the area. The day-to-day lives of Uttarakhandis as well as their traditional customs, which tend to be sustainable and in tune with the natural ecosystem, are often overlooked. Reckless development can have far-reaching consequences, as environmental degradation too often spells ruin for the people whose lives are supposedly being improved by these infrastructure projects.

The problem with thoughts, prayers, and donations for Chamoli, then, is that while they are well-intentioned and helpful, they can never bring back what has been lost. They will not address the loss of livelihoods, of precious homes and property, and they will certainly not bring back the dead or heal the injured. The worst part is, we never really had to reach this point at all. In 2019, a resident from Chamoli filed a petition in the Uttarakhand High Court against the Rishi Ganga Power Project, claiming that the plant’s poor regulation was endangering the historic river’s wildlife and the culture of local inhabitants in the area. At the time, little notice was taken, and the same cycle continues in rural regions across the country.

Of course, it’s important to note that we don’t know the causes behind the Chamoli tragedy. Still, the effects of big development promises need to be examined before they begin, not after the next Chamoli. There’s nothing to tug on the heartstrings in looking at proposed development projects, particularly when the benefits look good on paper. But the people who are being affected have a better idea of what is happening to their home, long before it makes the national headlines that spur us into action. If we want to actually stop another Chamoli, we need to stand up to the everyday degradation of the environment. Instead of raising our prayers after the fact, we can listen to the concerns of locals and support them with our voices against projects that jeopardise them. With any luck, there won’t be any need for our prayers.