“People thought that all he (Khanduri) wanted was to widen the roads for the growing tourist traffic. It was only later that we started to see a different picture. For example, a road was widened till Lambagad and after that there was nothing. Now at Lambagad, there was a dam constructed by the Jaypee Group. It created a suspicion in our minds that this widening of roads was done primarily for the movement of big trucks with construction material for dams,” says Dr Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute in Dehradun.
The other reason behind the spurt in road projects, says a transport department official who does not want to be named, is that there was “a lot of money to be made”. Since the 1962 war with China, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) built the arterial roads in the region, putting in reinforcement walls in the unstable stretches. Under the cut-and-fill method, the excavated earth was used to pave the road. But as too many road projects were commissioned, nobody bothered to identify the unstable slopes; the earth was simply dumped in the rivers below. To cut costs, road projects even stopped creating adequate drainage systems.
“Usually, we cut the mountain side and leave it for two years to allow debris and overhanging material to come down. The mountain stabilises through two monsoons before we put in the hard topping. But growing traffic demands that we expand the roads and destabilise the mountains again. Also, while the widening was earlier done by men and machines, now we use dynamite to do it quickly. There are several roads that have become landslide-prone because blasting leaves cracks inside the mountain,” says a former civil works engineer who served in Rudraprayag district.
Since 2010, under the PMGSY, a number of approach roads have been built to villages way up on the slope, which further increases the risk of landslides. “There has been a lot of road cutting by state agencies, not by the BRO, and the degree of care, I would say, is marginal. It is a recipe for disaster in a young, unstable mountain,” says Chopra.
The indiscriminate rollout of roads also spurred unregulated construction across the state. Unlike in rural areas, there are construction codes for urban areas, but few follow the rules. Just across the state Assembly building in the state capital are encroachments on the Rispana streambed.
The situation is well imaginable in rural areas, where the tourism centres have become death traps. After the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, a study by IIT Roorkee found that traditional low-rise, lightweight timber buildings performed extremely well. But to accommodate the growing number of tourists, Uttarakhand’s traditional constructions gave way to unplanned multi-storied buildings on columns and beams. At Gaurikund, where the trek for Kedarnath begins, walking the 20-feet-wide road along the 200-odd metres of the main bazaar is like moving through a tunnel with airless three-storey buildings on both sides.
It is not a coincidence that Garhwal suffers heavy loss of lives and property year after year while neighbouring Kumaon reports far less damage. All major shrines of the state are in Garhwal and these destinations are all by the rivers. Since pilgrims have to access the ghats, hotels have cropped up on the edge of the rivers. The result is an unbearable load on the Garhwal mountains that are anyway much steeper compared to the rolling hills of the Kumaon. With this lopsided burden alongside rivers prone to flash floods, it was only a matter of time before the overhanging structures were swept away.
The construction boom, on the other hand, fuelled illegal mining of sand and boulders from riverbeds. Such extraction changes the slope of the riverbed, making the flow restabilise itself, causing the river to change course. With constructions right up to the bank, the disastrous consequence was visible last week.
Nowhere in the state is the SC order to restrict construction within 200 metres of a riverbed followed. The valleys here have been formed from debris rolling down from the mountain and are loose beds of gravel. When it rains, the water sinks quickly, giving the impression of dry real estate. But during monsoons, these gravel beds temporarily become very active. Yet, with the connivance of the local officials, scores of buildings have come up on such treacherous foundation all over the state.
The SSB Academy building that was inaugurated last year and damaged last week in Srinagar, for example, was built on the Alaknanda riverbed. Many houses that were buried in silt in the adjacent Shakti Vihar were also built illegally. “It is an old colony of Srinagar which used to be a fair distance away from the river. But in the past few years, it expanded towards the riverbed in connivance with local officials,” says Pratik Palwar, a Srinagar resident.
Over the past week, much has been said and written about the absence of warning from the Met department, which, in turn, has claimed that its alerts went unheeded. On 15 June, the IMD flashed a “severe” warning for Kinnaur and Garhwal. It was upgraded to “very severe” the next day. It remained so till 17 June when flood and landslide ravaged Garhwal. While Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna dismissed the warning as “unspecific and non-actionable”, his officers apparently acted on it.
“There was a Met warning for high rainfall and we were watching the water level. But this happens each year. In Rudraprayag town, we shifted people. In Gaurikund, people were asked to climb up and some were shifted to Rambara (which was eventually wiped out) and the police kept people awake through the night. All the people alive today are those who were evacuated to higher ground. But no one expected a mountain to crumble and fall into the lake (in Kedarnath),” says Rudraprayag Superintendent of Police Birenderjeet Singh.
If the warning indeed alerted at least a section of the state administration, was it merely unprepared to meet the challenge? In its performance audit report submitted to Parliament on 23 April, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had highlighted that the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), constituted in 2007 and headed by the CM, had not formulated any rules or policies for disaster management in the state.
“Would we be better off with a policy?” counters a state official closely involved with relief and rescue operations. “The scale of the disaster was simply unmanageable. But we have done well. With the army’s help, we have taken control of the situation within a couple of days. While theoretically it might have been possible to save more lives by evacuating people before the floods hit, what do you do about the loss of infrastructure? Can we move roads and buildings to safety?”
Experts such as geologist KS Valdiya and environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar have faulted the government on that very ground. The rainfall, they maintain, was not unnatural but the human and infrastructural cost of the tragedy was the state’s doing. “The CM says this rain is unprecedented. It is not. Uttarakhand has seen so many disasters of this kind, but not this magnitude. Just last year, there were two tragedies — Uttarkashi in August and Rudraprayag in September — when houses collapsed like cardboard boxes and roads gave in. Yet, no lesson was learnt and blast tunnelling work continued for hydropower projects,” says Thakkar.
Others point out what they feel is the real tragedy of Uttarakhand’s people. “The state invests public money in ill-advised projects that compromise our safety. At the same time, damage to misplaced infrastructure causes the state economy huge losses,” says Malika Vridhi of Munsiyari-based NGO Himal Prakriti. “After all, it’s the people’s money. Instead of pumping it into destructive projects, the state should invest in sustainable agriculture and skill development programmes.”
Even where the warning system could save lives, the infrastructural damage was overwhelming. At the SSB Academy, the loss was estimated at 100 crore. Vast lengths of vulnerable roads have simply been swallowed by the rivers. Several hydel projects in the region are also hit. “What is the wisdom in making investment that self-destructs,” asks Thakkar, “while causing damage to the natural systems and people?”
On paper, the population density of Uttarakhand is just 189 per sq km. But the sense of space is misleading. More than 90 percent of the land is mountainous and 64 percent is protected forests out of bounds for the locals. Mushrooming development projects are further elbowing out the hill people while the Tourism Board and numerous private players are hoarding land. The dams and reservoirs are also eating into agricultural land.
“Heavy influx of tourists and wrong tourism practices are stressing these hills. Our people mostly work in menial jobs while outsiders rake in the profit. In the time of climate change, it is very important that the people protect their streams and forests. That can only happen when they have the ownership,” argues Vridhi. “Our model of eco-tourism shows how communities can benefit by caring for their natural environment. This is not a model for boutique outlets but needs to be adopted across the state.”
Through community participation in eco-tourism, the hill people may actually benefit from tourism that, contrary to popular belief, now accounts for just 2 percent of the state’s employment. But the state tourism policy has no such plans. Its tourism Master Plan for 2007-22 identifies “very large, overall carrying capacity given the immensity of the natural environment” as the biggest opportunity for the industry in the state. Barring a 2012 report by Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd that examined the carrying capacity of Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Mussoorie, no study has ever been conducted to determine how much tourism pressure the state’s overcrowded destinations can take.
Meanwhile, Bahuguna is determined to make Uttarakhand power surplus by 2016. “It is childish to suggest that the cloudburst at Kedarnath happened because of wrong construction on the riverbeds. Without tourism, there will be poverty, unrest and migration. We have clearance for 53 run-of-the-river hydro projects and we will roll out 36 for bidding by December. If you take a decision, then stick to it, don’t scrap it because of some activists,” he asserted, repeatedly, over the past week.
It may yet take more lives for Uttarakhand to realise how far down the suicide slope it has come.
With inputs from Ushinor Majumdar and Shonali Ghosal