What's worsening Uttarakhand's fragile ecosystem

There is little to defend the need for an all-weather road to access the four dhams

INDIA-CLIMATE-GLACIER-FLOOD Action stations: National Disaster Response Force personnel prepare for a rescue operation outside a tunnel in Chamoli district on February 10, 2021, after a flash flood | AFP

The spectre of floods looms before us, yet we build houses by rivers,” wrote the Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar. The poet died in 1975, but his words turned out to be prophetic. They translated into what happened a few months ago in Joshimath and in many other places across Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh over the past few years―in how a blatant disregard for nature worsened an already erratic weather pattern, how houses crumbled and lives were swept away.

The Joshimath disaster is attributed to a hydropower project which involved some deep digging and the subsequent bursting of an aquifer. Ravi Chopra, a scientist who focuses on the interactions between technology and society, said that despite the charm of hydropower, its flaws were recognised early on. “Engineers neither understand nor care for the ecosystem of the river which is dramatically impacted. Their teaching has never incorporated ecology,” said Chopra.

One of the biggest drawbacks of such projects is that in the distance between a powerhouse and the river―anywhere between 4km to around 20km―the river dries up. As water is forced into a tunnel, aquatic life trapped in it dies because of a lack of oxygen. They, however, have advantages over large dams like the one in Tehri―where the rim of the reservoir shows the signs of a series of landslides triggered by the slow seepage of water into the surrounding rock fissures. Better scientific understanding since 2006, when the dam was commissioned, have rung alarm bells over the possibility of its destruction as it lies over a major geological fault zone. If that were to happen, the force of the water would wipe off habitations 100km downstream. “Dams on faults are like time bombs. We must abandon projects in areas which are acutely sensitive,” said Chopra.

Going by that logic, the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project in Chamoli should have been abandoned. In February 2021, a glacial burst swept away the main dam and more than 140 workers trapped in tunnels were either found dead or are still missing. It is the same project that is believed to be behind the Joshimath disaster.

Equally concerning is the Char Dham Pariyojana (CDP), the 012,000 crore project to build a 889km-long, all-weather road linking Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, the four major shrines in Uttarakhand. Hemant Dhyani, a member of the Supreme Court’s High Powered Committee (HPC) on the CDP, said that the body in its report of 2000 had agreed on most points, except for the critical aspect of road width. The under construction road is 10m wide―something that can only be achieved by a vertical cutting of the slopes, massive tree felling and the accumulation of mass muck.

Dhyani said it was a tragedy that the dhams (pilgrimage centres) were being viewed in terms of daam (monetary value). “The ecosystem services that the Himalayas provide, such as catering to the water needs of half the country’s population through rivers that arise in the Himalayan basin cannot be weighed on the same scale as revenue generation.”

Of the many ironies that lie behind the CDP is its breakup into 53 projects, each less than 100km in length, thereby negating the need for environment impact assessment. Another is the government’s target to have 18,000 people visit the dhams per day, when the HPC has recommended a maximum of 6,000 people.

In 2012, the Union ministry of environment declared the watershed area along the stretch of river Bhagirathi an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ). Such areas are ecologically important and are to be protected from industrial pollution and unregulated development. In 2018, the Uttarakhand government objected to the designation as ‘anti-development’. Land use change was thus approved to meet local needs, including infrastructure development in larger public interest and national security. It also allowed the cutting of hills in the area and construction on steep slopes. The CDP will pass through this protected area, too.

There is little to defend the need for an all-weather road as all the dhams, each located above 3,200m, are buried under snow for almost six months. The other argument in its favour, that of catering to the Army’s needs, was negated by India’s first chief of defence staff, the late General Bipin Rawat, who had, in a press interaction, said, “The requirements of the Army are adequately fulfilled by the existing road itself.”

Mallika Bhanot, a volunteer at Ganga Ahvaan, a citizens’ forum which monitors the Bhagirathi ESZ said, “This sacrosanct land and its cultural sanctity is an opportunity, not a burden for the government. Its policies should be designed to enhance and not destroy this sanctity. How does it even make sense to put up a statue of Adi Shankaracharya at Kedarnath after you destroy a village he set up?”

Bhanot’s reference is to Haat village in Chamoli. Haat and the Lakshmi Narayan temple complex in it were set up by Shankaracharya who also settled a community of Gaur Brahmins in it to carry out the temple rituals. For those who could not make the arduous climb to Badrinath, paying obeisance at the temple at Haat would invoke the same blessings.

Yet, in 2016, the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation started dumping debris from the Vishnugad-Pipalkoti hydropower project, around the temple. Within no time it reached a height that obscured the temple’s spire. An INTACH report of September 2022 noted, “Destruction… perpetrated at the moment, will not just obliterate an ancient site but also harm… the institution of the Badrinath Yatra and the legacy of Adi Shankaracharya.”

But as Dushyant Kumar wrote, it is not our souls that are broken, it is the mirrors offered to us ordinary folks that are cracked. And in their reflection we gaze helplessly at the march of a broken, misguided technology.