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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  Don’t blame nature for the Uttarakhand flood disaster

Don’t blame nature for the Uttarakhand flood disaster

The problem with bribing your way through the next infrastructure project is that nature does not accept bribes

A securityman opens a gate covered in posters of missing people, affected by the flash floods and landslides, at the Indian Air Force base in Dehradun, in Uttarakhand on 26 June 2013. Photo: Reuters (Reuters)Premium
A securityman opens a gate covered in posters of missing people, affected by the flash floods and landslides, at the Indian Air Force base in Dehradun, in Uttarakhand on 26 June 2013. Photo: Reuters

Uttarakhand has only reaped what it sowed. With more than 1,000 lives lost in the calamity, and losses estimated to be above 3,000 crore, this might seem like a cruel, insensitive, politically incorrect thing to say. But facing up to the truth is the least that we owe to the many who have paid with their lives for the greed of a few.

In fact, it might serve us well to remember a true son of the fast-eroding Uttarakhand soil who martyred himself trying to communicate a message to the state administration that, if heeded, would have gone a long way in minimizing (if not preventing) the scale of destruction wrought by the rains.

On 13 June, 2011, exactly two years before this disaster (the spell of heavy rainfall that triggered the floods began on 14 June, 2013), a sadhu known as Swami Nigamanand passed away at the Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences at Dehradun. He had been on an indefinite fast to protest against the rampant stone crushing and strip mining along the banks of the Ganges in Uttarakhand.

Incidentally, in his final days, Swami Nigamanand shared the ICU with another sadhu who also happened to be engaged in a protest fast at that time—Baba Ramdev. Indeed, in a country with a well-deserved reputation for kowtowing to sadhus and babas, it is instructive to look at what kind of sadhus and babas we actually care about.

As it turned out, the demagoguery of a self-styled yoga guru turned anti-corruption crusader hogged the limelight while the sadhu who crusaded for the environment and preached respect for the river was allowed to die—he passed away on the 76th day of his fast.

Swami Nigamanand’s demise drew barely a handful of mentions in the national press. The cause he fought for—quickly forgotten. And the Uttarakhand administration is still in denial about the real causes of the flood damage, causes the Swami (among many others) had dedicated his life to fighting, in vain.

In an interview earlier this week, the Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna was asked point blank if this was a man-made tragedy. His answer: “This is a childish argument by people who don’t understand nature but want to embarrass the governance."

It is not clear whether one should interpret this statement as a lie or as a sign of the esteemed leader’s ignorance. But if we can make the reasonable assumption that the head of the department of environmental studies at Delhi University (DU) is a person who understands nature in a non-childish way, this is what he had to say about the Uttarakhand floods when asked by the New Scientist, a magazine that ought to know a thing or two about people who understand nature: “The current devastation and human misery is largely man-made." The DU professor, Maharaj Pandit, added that “rampant unauthorized and mindless building activities on the river flood plains in the Himalayas" are the prime causes of the disaster.

There are enough studies and data to establish that a disaster such as this is not only man-made but also, by that token, pre-ordained. It is a matter of common sense that if you build on river beds and flood plains, your structures will be washed away when the rains come and the river bed/flood plains fill up with water. That is why even the barely literate, part-time farmers who reside in, and grow vegetables on, the Yamuna flood plains in Delhi pack their belongings and shift onto higher ground every year just before the monsoon.

It is also a matter of common sense that if you mine river beds for sand and gravel, if you indiscriminately divert forest land for mining, and if de-silting of rivers is not carried out, then you are setting yourself up for extreme soil erosion, landslides, and flash floods of unmanageable magnitude. But sadly enough, it is common in our myopic vision of development to choose short-term “solutions" over long-term sustainability. What passes for development in Uttarakhand is nothing but the material manifestation of the will to power—and pelf—of a shifting consortium of politicians, builders, real estate speculators and sand-mining contractors.

According to media reports, when the floods struck, about 28 million tourists were visiting the state, while the local population is close to half that number. First of all, it is irresponsible to let such a huge volume of human traffic into an ecologically sensitive area, that too in the monsoon season. But once the decision had been taken to milk tourism to the maximum, you would naturally need to build infrastructure to cater to such tourist inflows. This requires planning. And given the fragile nature—of both the climate and eco-systems—of the Himalayan region, it also requires a strict adherence to building and environmental norms. The first principle of disaster management is prevention—by taking the necessary precautionary measures. But Uttarakhand, captive to local interest groups, has been doing the exact opposite: actively soliciting disaster.

As recently as February 2013, the Uttarakhand high court had passed an order asking the state government to demolish structures that had come up within 200 metres of the river banks. But the administration did not act. When the floods came, many of those illegal structures got demolished anyway.

Such short-sightedness and flawed (or zero) planning is not unique to Uttarakhand. It is a unique Indian tradition that finds expression even in the most modern of our achievements, and in triumphs we take pride in, such as, for instance, the Delhi Metro. According to a new UN study, the Delhi Metro “ignored disaster threats during planning" as a result of which 50 stations were at high risk, leaving it susceptible to massive casualties when disaster strikes in the form of floods or earthquakes.

But one cannot blame the flouting of norms on corruption alone—the reality is not so simple. It is fashionable—especially among those who believe that eliminating corruption will solve all of India’s problems and turn us into a superpower—to pooh-pooh environmental activists as Luddites, doomsayers and left-wing loonies. The cabal of bureaucrats, businessmen, technocrats and politicians that call the shots in developmental policy and decision-making—when not corrupt—take a perverse pride in a managerial tunnel vision that believes only in “getting things done". They see environmental issues purely as roadblocks on the path of development, not as facts of nature that must be dealt with on their own terms. They cannot see that human beings—even CEOs, bankers and shareholders—are an integral part of nature and derive their sustenance from it.

Their narrow pragmatism that avoids thinking of the final consequences of their choices is nothing but a form of magical thinking that is different only in degree from that of the other, more populous, and unscrupulous, bunch that simply does not have the time of day for such romantic nonsense as “Mother Nature" and “ecological balance", and thinks nothing of deploying all their assets—cerebral and material—to circumvent the law and line their pockets.

The problem with bribing your way through the next infrastructure project is that nature does not accept bribes. And the problem with tweaking or ignoring environmental norms to please industry and speed up projects stuck due to “environmental roadblocks" is that nature does not operate out of rational self-interest. You cannot negotiate with it—you either abide by its rules, or tomorrow, if not today, it will have its way.

Until we find a vaccine for the two kinds of diseased developmental pragmatisms afflicting us – the rational-managerial kind that believes only in numbers and data and whose imagination can never apprehend a river or a mountain or a forest as anything other than an economic resource, and the rapacious-crooked kind that wants to exploit everything in as short a time as possible to get rich quick—we might have to get used to mega-disasters such as the Uttarakhand floods, and consider them as just another fact of modern life, like traffic jams and security checks.

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Published: 27 Jun 2013, 11:49 AM IST
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