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Uttarakhand tragedy - 'development' wreaks havoc

Any talk of “development” today sounds ominous and one tends to visualize the motives behind it that are sinister. Our political masters (mis) understand by the word development only growth and expansion that is mostly spatial in the context of a city. That there are other meanings also attached to the word, like improvement in quality, refinement or even an attempt to attain fullness, do not seem to occur to them.

That a city has its own ecosystem comprising all the natural elements, including the humans that need to attain fullness is missed by them. To the politicians development means build and construct more and more eating away all that comes in the way, farmlands, hills wetlands or whatever. The greater such development, the thicker is the cream that can be skimmed.  None is bothered about how that affects those who people such developed habitat with an ecosystem that is often uncongenial and degraded.

 

In the context, for example, of Bhopal, a city that could have been beautiful and eminently liveable, development has wrought havoc to its environment. In the quest of that illusive or, more appropriately, ill-conceived and misdirected development, the powers-that-be allowed its green hills to be ravished, life-giving water bodies to be degraded, tranquilizing centuries-old parks ravaged and rendered a once-salubrious clime immoderate and unwholesome.

Living in this city as I do, I have, therefore, come to dread the word “development”. Fortunately for me I am not alone. Even the Supreme Court recently echoed similar sentiments, though in a different context. It said, “the whole issue of development appears to be so simple, logical and commonsensical. And yet, to millions of Indians, development is a dreadful and hateful word...” (Mahanadi Coalfields case - 2010). A kind of tyranny that inflicts lifelong misery and privation!

Nevertheless, driven by their lust for power and eventual pelf the politicians, ably assisted by the construction lobby (or is it a mafia?) and unscrupulous bureaucrats, swing into action for development contributing to that buzz-word, “growth”. Looking for short-term gains – of flow of votes and cash – they get into a mad rush for development with utter disdain for the consequences of their actions in the long term.

Something of this nature happened in Uttarakhand in recent times. As long as it was part of the massive state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) it was neglected, being far away from the centre of gravity. Born as Uttaranchal in 2006 on separation from the parent UP, it was renamed as Uttarakhand – a name that traces its origin to puranic times. Soon the process of development was initiated by those who fought for its separation. Having got hold of power they launched themselves into a mad scramble to convert it into an “Oorja Pradesh” (The Energy State). For realizing the state’s hydro-power potential of an estimated 25000 MW building of dams, barrages and embankments on and along the rivers became an obsession. In the process, numerous roads by cutting the hills or tunneling through them (weakening the already weak young mountains) were constructed to get to the sites of dams and barrages necessitating large-scale scarring of the mountain-sides and deforestation. Forests were also lost to agriculture, housing for progressive urbanization and to other sundry activities.

Those who happened to be in power could not resist the spin-offs from construction, logging and so on and, virtually, the state was progressively stripped off of its natural assets. Possessed as they seemed to be, they even refused to implement the Central notification declaring an Eco-sensitive zone between Gomukh (terminus of the Gangotri glacier at around 13000 ft.) and its district headquarters Uttarkashi (app 4500 ft.) for the sake of development. (A 1700 MW hydelpower plant had been planned where generation of not more than 2 MW was permissible. Mass scale land-use conversion was planned for mining, construction of hotels and resorts.) Progressively, the mountains got scarred and lost their green cover that deprived them of the capability to hold the soil, the dammed rivers lost their waters, the animals their pastures as the locals looked on, presumably, in dismay.

Blessed as the state is with the four holy Hindu shrines, of which two are connected with the most holy and revered rivers of the country, it could never have escaped pilgrims from all over the country. The new state, however, gave the subdued religious tourism a mighty heave. It became a big collective enterprise and virtually every section of the population got into the act. Roads were re-laid or newly-built on which run hundreds of buses, SUVs and MUVs.  Rest houses and hotels came up, shopping and eating joints were opened up all along the routes on mountain slopes and dangerously close to the fast-running rivers, throwing to the winds all environmental norms.

The country’s rising middle-classes sent the tourist traffic soaring by the year so much so that on 16th June 2013, thousands were milling around at the four shrines located at elevations of 10000 to 12000 ft in ecologically fragile narrow valleys. While the entire population of the state is 1 crore, 2.5 crore tourists had traveled to it – much more than what was its carrying capacity. Kedarnath with a population of fewer than 500 was hosting 17000 pilgrims. A disaster was in the making and, lo and behold, suddenly Nature struck a violent blow – a massive cloudburst that sent millions of cusecs of water gushing through the narrow valleys carrying along massive boulders down the steep mountain slopes sweeping away or destroying everything that came in their way, from houses to cars to men, women, animals roads, and slices of the weakened mountain sides.

The question that authorities must answer is “Development for whom? For those who lost their lives or are still missing and presumed dead or for those who have lost all their means of livelihood in the havoc that was wreaked?

Uttarakhand alone is not in the race for development at the cost of environment. Another small state carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, is racing ahead to become the power house for the country. Sitting on vast reserves of coal, it has cleared coal-mining even in virgin forests, one of which was a proposed elephant reserve in a forest that was declared “no-go” by Jairam Ramesh during his tenure as environment minister. Advocated by him to prevent all human intervention in such primeval forests the concept, however, lost out to the imperatives of development at the hands of the Prime Minister. Numerous thermal plants in the state spewing yet-to-be-managed polluting fly ash have rendered fertile farmlands infertile and local tribal inhabitants sick and poor. The entire thing is, however, a different long story that has already been told.

A large section of the Indian political class care little for the environment as it often proves to be a hindrance in their vote-catching and money-making devices. No wonder environment is taking a beating all over the country in the mad rush for development. Dams, mining and industry coupled with unrestrained tourism have devastated or are in the process of devastating the environment in large tracts of the country in ecologically sensitive areas, from North-East to Odisha in the East, to the South in Karnataka and Kerala, from Goa and Western Ghats in the West to Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the North. The most serious instance of political aversion to the cause of the environment was the suppression in 2011 of the Report of Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel by the very Ministry (of Forests & Environment) that had constituted it. It had eventually to be put in the public domain as a sequel to orders issued under the Right to Information Act.

Politics of votes, coupled with pervasive corruption, is out to destroy whatever little is left of the country’s environmental assets. If no remission takes place in respect of all that is currently happening, the country is likely to witness many more “Uttarakhands” in the future.

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