The havoc that followed torrential rains in Uttarakhand had been in the making for many years. Rampant construction and unmindful digging and blasting of the hills had been going on, and the State’s successive governments ignored the warning signs. By PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI in New Delhi

HUNDREDS dead, thousands marooned, scores of villages washed away, an unknown number of people still missing and the eighth century Kedarnath temple inundated. The unusually early and immensely heavy rains in Uttarakhand have devastated the hill State to such an extent that it will take months for the government to restore normal life. While official figures put the death toll as on June 20 at 150 odd, government officials in Uttarakhand said the actual figure could be much worse as rescuers had still not been able to reach all the affected areas and many villages had been totally wiped out, with entire habitations disappearing into the swirling waters of the Bhagirathi, the Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers. The Kedarnath temple is in Rudraprayag district, and hundreds are feared dead inside and around its premises. Also, as this is the season in the State for the Char Dham yatra, some 75,000 people, mostly pilgrims, are thought to be stranded.

“We cannot put a figure to the number of casualties yet because the details are still awaited. A disaster of this magnitude, so early in the season, was just not anticipated and it will take us time to get our act together,” said a senior government official. The State government was obviously caught napping because cries for help from those stranded went unheeded by the authorities. The Centre had to step in with the Army, the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).

Instead of initiating immediate rescue efforts, as the tragedy struck for the first time on June 14, the Chief Minister went running to New Delhi to seek help from the Centre. No wonder, once he went back to the affected areas after four days of devastation, he faced hostile people. A senior official in the Home Ministry confessed to this correspondent: “The political leadership in the State simply failed to deliver.”

Now, even as vast areas in the upper reaches of the State remain unreachable, personnel of the Indian Army, the IAF, the ITBP and the BRO are struggling 24 hours a day to get the stranded people out. The real extent of the destruction is yet to be understood. From whatever sketchy information is available, it is on a mind-numbing scale. “Devastation on this scale has never been seen before because this is unusually early for such heavy rains and flash floods to come,” says Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, a non-governmental organisation that has been campaigning for many years now to save the Ganga from dams and tunnels built for hydropower projects. According to Ganga activists, even though the havoc wreaked by nature’s fury is unfortunate, it could be a godsend if it jolts the government into doing something about saving the ecology of the area from unchecked development projects that are damaging the environment.

“We have been saying that the Garhwal Himalayas, where the maximum devastation has happened, are unstable hills that are still in the process of growing. Blasting them to make tunnels, dams, roads and other such projects destabilises the entire mountain range. The earth and rocks become loose, and when there are torrential rains, they come tumbling down with a humongous amount of slush, which destroys everything in its way. Stop digging, stop blasting, stop this unmindful construction activity, otherwise the entire hill State will be destroyed,” Mallika Bhanot says.

Facts seem to prove her right. As early as 1991, when Uttarkashi, on the banks of the Bhagirathi, was struck by a massive earthquake, Jhamak, a village situated above the tunnel for the Maneri Bhali I hydroelectric project, suffered more extensive damage than other villages closer to the epicentre. In 2007, when blasting for the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project was under way, many houses in Chai Gaon sank, many others developed cracks in their walls and roofs, and many people had to move out of their houses. In 2008, when Maneri Bhali II became operational, Dhanari Patti, a set of 13 adjoining villages, saw frequent landslides, and groundwater sources in the area mysteriously disappeared. In 2010, there were heavy rains and the Koteshwar powerhouse in Uttarakhand’s Tehri district, then under construction, got flooded, causing damage to the tune of Rs.100 crore. Once the Koteshwar dam was emptied after the rains stopped, there were landslides in the adjoining areas. Also in 2010, the Loharinag Pala hydropower project, then under construction, caused massive landslides in a nearby village, Bhatwari, and sent many houses tumbling into the Bhagirathi river. Subsequently, the work was stopped.

According to environmentalists from the area, nature has been sending warning signals for many years, but the authorities chose to ignore them. Even last year, a cloudburst caused massive floods in Uttarkashi district. The flood waters of the Asi Ganga river entered the village of Barsu. Many lives were lost and there was widespread destruction. According to activists, cloudbursts become catastrophic in areas where there are hydropower projects and where digging, blasting and tunnelling work is taking place.

Even though work has been stopped on many projects since 2010 on directions from the Centre or the Supreme Court, the tunnels that had been dug and the hills that had already been blasted are destabilising the area and triggering further landslides. The situation gets compounded when there is heavy rain, and now the result is there for everyone to see, says Hemant Dhyani, a Ganga activist, who has been campaigning for long to stop big power projects on the Ganga and its tributaries in the Himalayas. The situation acquires urgency because while only a few projects, such as the Srinagar hydropower project, the Asi Ganga hydropower projects and Maneri Bhali I &II, are being executed or completed on the Ganga, 70 more such projects are being proposed on its tributaries such as the Alaknanda, the Bhagirathi and the Mandakini. Activists ask why new projects are being considered when those that have been completed have caused such demonstrable damage.

Even though the Central government is aware of the gravity of the situation and has initiated some half-hearted measures such as declaring a 130-kilometre stretch of the Ganga, from Gangotri to Uttarkashi, an eco-sensitive zone, logical follow-up measures—for example, putting an immediate end to all construction activities or banning sand mining and blasting of hills—have not been taken. And the Centre’s half-hearted measures are being undermined by the State government. On May 6, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna led a delegation of Members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to his party, the Congress, to the Prime Minister to demand revocation of the notification of the 130-km eco-sensitive zone.

Unfortunately, even declaring the Ganga the national river and constituting the National Ganga River Basin Authority to monitor development in the Ganga river basin have been of no use because the authority, which is led by the Prime Minister himself, has not met after a couple of initial meetings.

What, however, is even more unfortunate is the fact that though everybody agrees it is important to save the Himalayan region, nobody seems to be doing much. There have been two debates in Parliament and all parties unanimously agreed that rampant construction in the Himalayan region must stop, yet nothing happened. “All under-construction and proposed projects on the Ganga must be stopped immediately, a minimum of 60 per cent of the water from all power projects must be released into the river all the year round, and proper planning for the conservation and protection of the Himalayan region must be done,” says Samajwadi Party MP Reoti Raman Singh. A parliamentary forum led by him has decided to mobilise people to direct action to save the Ganga.

It remains to be seen whether this initiative will deliver the desired results, but this year’s floods must make the Centre sit up and decide not to fiddle with nature in this fragile ecological region. Meanwhile, G.D. Agrawal, the former Indian Institute of Technology professor whose fast in 2010 resulted in the declaration of the eco-sensitive zone and the stopping of the Loharinag Pala and other power projects, began another fast on June 13 to demand that the Ganga be restored to its past glory.