The incessant rains in Uttrakhand and Himachal Pradesh have led to widespread destruction and devastation in the hill states. The loss of life and property has been even greater in Himachal Pradesh, than in Uttarakhand. According to reports, between June and mid-August, 2023, the death toll due to heavy rains in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand has crossed 230! At the time of writing this article in the third week of August, 2023, 68 people have died in Himachal Pradesh with 15 missing persons, whereas 16 lives were lost and 15 are missing in Uttarakhand.
Just before the assembly elections in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dehradun and announced that an all-weather road would be built by widening roads leading to the Char Dhams in Uttarakhand. The work for this project started with Rs. 12,000 crore for widening the existing roads to 12 meters width. To implement this project, thousands of trees were chopped and mountains were relentlessly blast and cut through. In fact, the central government ignored its own notification of 2018, which said that the width of a road cannot exceed 5.5 meters in the hilly terrains.
To expedite the 825 km project, the central government split up the project into each less than 100kms, only to bypass the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). As per the 2006 notification, EIA is mandatory for the ‘expansion of all highway projects of a length of 100 km and above and construction of projects over 20,000 sq metres’.
Today, instead of an all-weather road, this path is marred by regular landslides. The National Highways going to Rishikesh-Badrinath and Rishikesh-Gangotri have remained closed for several days, and at many places, it is found that the road has completely sunk in. In other places, the widened part of the roads are completely washed out. In yet others, even the road that existed has now collapsed.
The committee constituted by the Supreme Court has stated that the hill cutting and blasting deployed for this project is unscientific and that it has created more than 145 new landslide zones along the path.
Illegal mining has been another major contributing factor for widespread devastation in the state. It important to note that the unscientific and unfettered mining has resulted in rivers flowing at an increased speed, which in some cases has led to the change in its course, thus taking unprecedented paths downstream during the monsoon, which is wreaking havoc.
Typically, the river mining season is between October 1st and May 31st, and the mining activity is banned outside of this period, especially in the rainy season. However, in 2020, the BJP government of Uttarakhand managed to avail permission from the Union Ministry for Forest and Environment for mining in the month of June, which is in blatant disregard of environmental safeguards.
A report published by the Reporters Collective in 2023 states that the Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has been visiting Delhi since February to obtain permission for mining in Gaula river. The Union Government, while granting permission, has failed to check the devastation that is already caused to Gaula river in the recent years due to sand mining.
Amid the uncontrolled sand mining, experts and activists have warned of the impending disaster, but it seems as if the sand mafia is calling the shots with the double engine government in Uttarakhand playing the invisible hand.
The collapse of the Dehradun-Rishikesh bridge on the Jhakan river in 2021, which was supposed to last for 100 years, was a forewarning of the devastation that was to happen due to the uncontrolled sand mining. As per reports, in this monsoon season in Uttarakhand, 83 bridges have been damaged. Like the Dehradun Rishikesh bridge, most of these bridges were built only around 10 years ago, with their estimated durability being that of 50 to 60 years. The bridge built on Malan river in Kotdwar, which was built in 2010 at a cost of Rs. 12.35 crore, collapsed on July 13th. After the collapse, a video of Kotdwar MLA and Assembly Speaker Ritu Khanduri Bhushan went viral, in which she was telling the disaster management secretary that a lot of sand mining has occurred in the area, and local sand miners were standing behind her!
In June 2020, Uttarakhand government estimated a revenue of Rs. 50 crore from mining. Now, the government will have to shed an estimated Rs. 92.47 crore to rebuild these bridges.
The rains have also washed off the fallacy of the Centre’s ambitious project of ‘Smart City’ in cities like Dehradun of Uttarakhand. Dehradun regularly witnesses waterlogging even when it experiences light rain. The recent photos of the Dehradun SSP and Urban Development Minister Premchandra Agarwal (in Rishikesh), who were seen clinging to boats when the rains caused flooding in some areas, expose the reality of the smart cities.
The recent rains have also caused further land subsidence and cracks in Joshimath. In the past eight months, the residents of Joshimath have been demanding relief and rehabilitation as the hill town continues to sink. But the double engine government of the Centre and the State has not yet made public the report of the eight central scientific institutions submitted in February 2023.
Similar cases of land subsidence have also been observed in Mastadi village of Uttarkashi. In Jakhan village of Binhar area, Dehradun, an entire village was flattened by a massive landslide and around 150 people are now without shelter.
The Himalayas are known as “young fold mountains” which are still growing and are seismically very active. Formed due to the collision of Indian and Eurasian plates, the northward movement of the former puts continuous stress on the rocks, rendering them weak and prone to landslides and earthquakes. This, combined with steep slopes, rugged topography, high seismic vulnerability, and rainfall, makes the region geologically unstable and disaster prone.
Incidents like heavy rains, fires and earthquakes are natural, but the indiscriminate construction and exploitation of resources without recognising the delicate ecology and environment of the hills have increased the exacerbated the devastation caused by these natural phenomenon. From the mega road expansion project in the name of national security to building cascading hydroelectric power projects, from unplanned expansion of towns to unsustainable tourism, all these are taking a heavy toll on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Furthermore, these unscientific and unfettered exploitation in turn impacts the climate and cause erratic climate patterns.
Environmentally devastating projects of the double engine BJP governments have today made Uttarakhand a ticking time bomb for disaster. While big corporations, continue to reap profits by exploiting the ecosensitive mountains, the people of Uttarakhand continue to pay the price.