Thirteen environmental activist groups published a joint statement after the massive flood in Uttarakhand. They expressed their grief and anguish for the lives lost in the tragic event that occurred in Chamoli Uttarakhand.
The statement also noted that hundreds are missing and several feared dead. “We are also aware that there is no clear statement from the government or any other State agency about the exact event that triggered the massive flood. However, considering the location and context of the event conjectures are that this could have been an avalanche or landslide and/or a glacial lake burst of some sort. The high altitudes of the Himalayas have been known, for time immemorial for the harsh conditions of the climate and floods. But in recent decades, these ecologically and geologically fragile and sensitive terrains have become even more vulnerable due to rapidly changing climatic patterns, the statement said.
Let us acknowledge that these climatic changes, be it erratic rainfall or deglaciation due to increased warming are not ‘natural phenomena’. These are caused and exacerbated by several anthropogenic factors, the biggest being the rapid exploitation of land, water and forests and the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere given the highly polluting nature of ‘development’ – worldwide. This crisis is adversely affecting the poorest of communities across the world and in our country, living in frontier regions like the mountains and coasts. Scarcities of water, changing agricultural patterns and deforestation have grossly impacted farmers, forest-dependent indigenous people and the urban poor.
Let the common people know that in the year 2008 the government of India set up the National Climate Change Action Plan. In the last couple of years close to 140 Billion dollars have been spent on various missions under this plan. Thousands of crores have been spent on setting up state climate cells for climate change research in the Himalaya. Apart from this several independent studies have been published over the last two decades on the vulnerabilities of the Himalayan region. It is a matter of shame and sheer negligence that the findings of these studies have not converted to policy.
Which is why the dam-building agenda continues unabated and unabashed in the Himalayas ranging from the East to the West attempting to realise a potential of 118000 MW of electricity involving hundreds of large, medium and small hydropower projects. In Himachal, where projects worth 10000 MW have already been built have changed land use – gobbled forests & farms, caused landslides. soil erosion and impacted the riverine ecosystems at an enormous scale. According to the State Disaster Management Authority, most of Himachal’s hydropower projects in operation or under construction fall in areas highly vulnerable to various hazards like landslides and floods. The Avay Shukla Committee report presented to the Shimla High Court in 2011 had recommended a moratorium on new hydropower projects in the state for this reason. But the state government dissed the report completely.
Most of the planned projects that are yet to come up in Himachal are in the climate-vulnerable and ecologically fragile greater and trans-Himalayan regions of Kinnaur and Spiti, located in the Upper Satluj valley and Lahaul in the Chandrabhaga also known as Chenab, where tribal communities are resisting them tooth and nail. These are also geologically unstable terrains prone to earthquakes and avalanches. A study by researchers from the University of Potsdam, Germany, analysing 273 hydropower projects in the Himalayas in India, Nepal and Bhutan found that about 25% of them are likely to face severe damage from quake-triggered landslides.
The 2013 Uttarakhand disaster was an expensive and tragic lesson. The Ravi Chopra Committee and scientific assessments made clear the role of hydropower and mindless construction in exacerbating the impact of the Kedarnath flash flood. But we learnt nothing from it. The reason we refer to this as an ‘agenda’ should be clear by now. It is an agenda because no amount of evidence presented to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, to state departments, to CWC, to courts has led to reconsideration or review of the hydropower policy of the Government of India or the state governments of Uttarakhand, Himachal, Arunachal, Sikkim etc. Lack of adequate and thorough scientific planning and shoddy impact assessment studies are approved by Expert Appraisal Committees with members who are clearly in support of projects. The Asian Development Bank which has funded the expansion of NTPC projects in the Dhauliganga river approved an EIA report of Tapovan Vishni gad which doesn’t have a single mention of the threat of flood or glacial lakes, avalanches. International Financing agencies are thus also complicit in this negligence.
Once clearances are granted non-compliance of environmental norms and social accountability laws is rampant. No safety monitoring is undertaken and the lives of workers and people of affected villages are constantly at stake. Have we ever heard of an Environment Clearance of a dam being cancelled because of non-compliance? Diminishing space for democratic public participation in decision-making processes have further worsened the situation in the past few years. With the EIA 2020, the MoEF&CC and government are completely finishing this space. What is worse is that the central government, despite the obvious hazards associated with large hydropower projects, has in 2019 classified projects above 25 MW as ‘renewable’ which will be able to avail subsidies and the power produced by these will be subject to obligatory purchase norms.
We express our collective rage at the inaction by the government at multiple levels and its repeated thrust on large dams in the Himalayas. No amount of monetary compensation can placate the anguish of those who have suffered irreparable losses. No amount of trying to hide behind words like ‘natural disaster’ and ‘act of god’ can deceive the people. The lack of accountability and intent of all the institutions, agencies and political representatives involved stands amply exposed.
13 Signatory groups
1.Himalayan Students Ensemble;
2.Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective; 3. Himalaya Bachao Samiti, Chamba; 4.Himalaya Niti Abhiyan;
5.Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur;
6.Nagrik Adhikar Manch, Kangra; 7.People’s campaign for socio-economic equity in the Himalaya; 8. Save Lahaul Spiti, Lahaul;
9.Spiti Civil Society, Spiti;
10.Sutra, Himachal Pradesh;
11.Towerline Shoshit Jagrukta Manch;
12.Zilla Van Adhikar Samiti;
13.Sirmaur Van Adhikar Manch