Monday, 8 July 2013

The Uttarkhand Apocalypse: is Himachal next?

 Himachal has been incredibly lucky. Every ingredient of the Uttarkhand disaster, bar one, was( and is still) present in the Himachal context- rampant, unplanned construction; mindless allocation of hydel projects; ruthless denudation of forests; quarrying and mining of hills and river beds; unnecessary road construction. The one missing ingredient saved Himachal- reduced intensity of rainfall: had another 100 mm of rain been unleashed over Kinnaur, particularly in the Sangla valley, the devastation from Chitkul down to Rampur would have been horrific. But for how long can we count on luck, for how long can successive govts. play Russian roulette with nature?

The term " flash floods" has become a convenient alibi for govts to explain away the devastation regularly caused by our mountain streams, but the fact is that these same rivers have for centuries been able to handle heavy discharges- why is it that it is only now that they cause such terrible damage? Is it a mere coincidence that practically all such " flash floods" occur in areas where hydel projects are coming up? It was a welcome change to hear the Chief Minister in a recent TV interview acknowledge that hydel projects are partly responsible for these occurences, but he left an exit suit for himself by adding that " no one can fight against nature's fury". That is precisely the point, Mr. Chief Minister: don't fight with nature, work with it.

The largest single contributor to the rape of Himachal's environment are the Hydel projects, and successive BJP and Congress govts. since the early nineties have to take the blame for it. They have been blinded by the lure of revenues, the discretion, patronage and rent seeking that comes with big money. It is not that they are unaware of the consequences of such massive degradation- there are constant protests from affected villagers, NGOs, CBOs and even in the reports of various agencies. But the lure of money and the arrogance of power and the ineptitude of the higher bureaucracy have ensured that these concerns are ignored.

In 2009, acting on a PIL( CWP no.24/09 ) the HP High Court had appointed me as a one man Commission to study and report on the environmental impact and compliance of major hydel projects in the state( I was at that time the Additional Chief Secretary[ Forests]). I visited all major projects in the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi river basins and submitted my report to the court in June 2010.( The full report is available on the web-site of the Hp High Court). I am also an ardent trekker and have been trekking the high mountains of Himachal for the last twenty years with a core group of like minded friends, and have seen at first hand the gradual but steady degradation of the environment that our leaders' misconceived notion of development is causing. Most visitors to the state witness, and grumble, about what is happening to its towns, but this is just the crust: the real, frightening, long-term destruction is taking place in the interiors and remote valleys where our policy makers can't be bothered to go.

There is no such thing as an eco-friendly hydel project in mountain terrain. The constraints of topography, design and finance will always cause environmental damage of varying degrees, no matter what conditions are imposed to minimise it. Therefore it becomes incumbent upon every govt. of states such as Himachal to assess when the damage to the ecology by such projects exceeds their benefits, and put a halt to more projects. No such assessment has ever been done in Himachal though the tipping point was reached long ago.There are currently more than 150 big and small hydel projects operating or under construction in the state, primarily in the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi valleys. Projects have also been allotted in the high Chenab valley but the govt. is still figuring out how to evacuate the power from there over the 13000 feet high Rohtang Pass! The biggest footprint of these projects is on account of the sheer volume of muck and debris that they generate by tunneling and road construction. Just to give one an idea, the net volume of muck generated by the Kol Dam of  NTPC on the Sutlej is  2.27 crore cubic metres; to put this in perspective: if this muck were to be dumped into the Sutlej( where it will eventually go), it would raise the level of the Sutlej by 2.20 metres along a length of 100 kms.( the distance almost from Khab to Tattapani). And Kol Dam's generating capacity is only 800 MW-projects aggregating to more than 4000 MW are coming up( or have already come up) on the Sutlej!  All projects have approved dumping sites but even these are on the precipitous banks of these rivers: they have the effect of further constricting the channel and the natural flow of the river, and sooner or later the gradient, weathering effect and the constant flow will ensure that this muck finds its way back to the river. And as if this were not enough, the constant use of heavy explosives and blasting  for construction of tunnels and roads has irretrievably fractured these mighty mountains causing huge landslides long after the projects themselves have been completed. This is further compounded by the large scale deforestation of this fragile terrain which is still a work-in-progress for nature. Since the eighties, more than 750000 trees have been felled, most of them for hydel projects and their transmission lines, further loosening the already disturbed soil. All this eventually finds its way into the rivers.The governments at the Centre and the state cannot be unaware of the environmental havoc they are causing, it is recorded by their own expert agencies: the 2007 Report on land degradation by the National Remote Sensing Authority, Hyderabad, states that Himachal is one of the three states of India that " have the highest percentage of soil degradation". Himachal's rivers are being literally choked by the millions of tonnes of muck that is being dumped into them by these projects.The most irrefutable proof of this is the BBMB's own admission that the life of the Bhakra Dam has been significantly reduced because of the unexpected levels of silt in the river. The  much maligned " flash floods" are the direct result of the muck from these projects finding their way into the rivers: their capacity to carry water is dangerously compromised, the waters in times of heavy rains initially back-up and then break loose with ferocious power, carrying with them millions of tonnes of rocks and debris, demolishing everything in their path. Some of the recent videos of Uttarakhand show just this- the pictures show a flood of rocks and mud rather than water cascading down the valleys. And still we fool ourselves and call this " nature's fury"? Sometimes I wonder- will we still have a Sutlej or a Ravi or a Beas in ten years' time?

There are two other impacts of hydel projects that need to be mentioned. The first is the fact that hydel projects are coming up one after the other on the same river, leaving no linear distance between the tail race of one project and the diversion weir/ dam of the next one. In my report to the High Court I had mentioned that in the stretch of the Ravi river in Chamba district between Bajoli( Bharmour) and Chamba town, a riparian distance of 70 kms, 4 HEPs have been sanctioned/ are under construction, each diverting the river into kilometres of underground HRTs( Head Race Tunnels). Once these projects are completed, only 4 kms of the Ravi would flow in its original bed- the remaining 66 kms. would totally disappear! I have since mapped out the Sutlej also- out of about 115 kms. of this mighty river between Khab and Bilaspur, 103 kms. would disappear underground. What are we doing to our mountain rivers? Are we converting them all into mythical Saraswatis?

The second impact can be even more terrifying, if that is possible. Dams are meant to store water and release it gradually to generate power. Such dam-based projects( as opposed to pure run-of the river ones) pose a tremendous danger to downstream populations in these narrow valleys. For these HEPs water is inventory and every cubic metre of water has a monetary value, so they are loathe to release water unless it can generate power. During times of floods they continue to store water until it reaches the High Flood Level and starts threatening the dam itself. Then they open their flood gates and release the water in such humoungous volumes that floods result downstream. In the normal course, had the river not been dammed, the excess water in the river would have been discharged over an extended period of time, limiting the damage. The really chilling thought is what would happen if three or four dams were to all open their flood gates simultaneously, which is a distinct possibility with the cascading sequence of projects we are allowing. No one appears to have studied the probability, or the impact, of such an eventuality.

Most of these points I had brought out in my report to the HP High Court in 2010. I had also made four broad recommendations:

[I]   All approved hydel projects should have a minimum riparian distance of five kms. between projects, and  all sanctions should be reviewed accordingly.

[II]  All further sanctions should be put on hold till such time as the govt. carried out EIAs ( Environmental Impact Assessment) studies for the whole river basin( and not just for the limited area in which one project is located, which is the current practice). This was because I was convinced on the basis of data available with me that the CUMULATIVE IMPACTS of so many projects on one river alone were more than the sum of individual project impacts, and these were not being factored in.

[III] Indisriminate allotments of HEPs all over the state, without any concern for the fragility or ecological value of the area, should no longer be allowed. Certain ecologically important and vulnerable areas- National Parks and Wild Life Sanctuaries and their buffer zones, dense forests, the upper catchment areas of rivers and streams, high level pastures, areas contiguous to glaciers, areas rich in wild life and flora, etc.- should be declared Ecologically Sensitive Zones under the Environment Protection Act immediately to stop the rampage.

[IV]  Minimumwater flows in the rivers downstream of the dams should be strictly enforced. Out of the ten projects I had studied only one had provision for this!

The State Govt. of the time vehemently opposed my report in the High Court, and none of the recommendations have been implemented, as far as I know- business goes on as usual.

 Let us now consider the second biggest instrumentality for environmental destruction at the govt's disposal - the PWD( Public Works Department). The hydel projects at least make an attempt to reduce their footprints but the PWD has no such pretensions: secure in the backing of politicians whose only interest is the award of contracts and sub-contracts to as many of their supporters as possible. There do not appear to be any environmental norms for road construction in Himachal, notwithstanding the constant vigil maintained by officials of the Forest Deptt. Road cutting debris is simply dumped down the hill sides, trees felled or buried in muck, no retaining walls or other structures built, no cross drainage done, no effort made to stabilise the slopes. A PWD road can be seen from miles away, by just following the succession of landslides on a mountain side. These slides and patches of erosion continue for years and in fact become bigger every year. Every year, as road construction attains a frenzied pace with the PMGSY and similar schemes the strangulation of the rivers continue.Little is being done to control this because all this is being done in the public interest- to connect villages. No one disputes this, but must it be done in such a hurry, with so little concern for the environment? The NHAI has strict engineering norms for its roads, why can't the PWD? Yes, this will make the roads more expensive to build and fewer kilometres will be added every year, but isn't it better to preserve the natural features of this beautiful state, to save its people from periodic " natural" disasters than to simply garner a few more miserable votes?

The contribution of unplanned and unregulated mass tourism in the state to its environmental degradation is growing every year and no one appears to be paying any attention to it. Ever more roads are being built to remote, fragile and pristine destinations in the name of tourism. To give just one example- Hatu Peak is a spectacular meadow perched on a ridge above Narkanda, with a period temple on it, at about 10000 feet. Till a few years ago it could be reached by a comfortable twelve km trek through dense oak and deodar forests; a few thousand people went up every year. And then the Govt. built a motorable road to Hatu. Hundreds of stately, ancient trees were felled, tonnes of debris dumped in the untouched forests. Today the meadow is rutted with the tracks of hundreds of buses and cars, there is garbage strewn about everywhere, thousands of tonnes of emissions choke the forests, and the place is ruined for eternity. Parashar lake above Mandi was ruined in similar manner by the local Minister many years ago.Choordhar is another peak/ temple at a similar height whose snow cap can be clearly seen from Shimla-it is the southernmost point in India to receive snowfall on a regular basis. The Govt. is now building a road there also! Chamunda Devi's temple in Kangra is nationally famous, and lakhs of people come there every year. What most people don't know is that the original Chamunda temple was/is located another six thousand feet above the present complex, in the lap of the Dhauladhars. It is an ancient shrine, on a small grassy ridge, in the midst of a small forest of oak and fir. Only a few hundred persons visit it every year, mainly locals , which is a good thing because it has no water, no toilets, no accommodation- but even then, on my visit there some years ago, I noticed that the stand of trees was gradually disappearing under the pressure of the need for wood for heating and cooking. I was horrified, therefore, to read in the papers some days back that the Chief Minister has announced that a road would be constructed to the old Chamunda temple! Many of the natural treasures of the state are under similar threat from short-sighted politicians: Triund, Shikari Devi, Bijli Mahadev, Saryolsar lake on the Jalori ridge, to name just a few.

All these places have practically no carrying capacity and centuries ago had struck a fine balance with nature, which is now being threatened. Infusions of hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims into these locations( apart from other serious ecological impacts), with their demand for transport, accommodation, heating and cooking, will only lead to hastening the warming process of their surrounding snow fields and glaciers, further deforestation and soil erosion, and ultimate catastrophies of the Uttarakhand type. Localised warming will lead to increasing incidence of GLOF( Glacial lake overflow), one of the main reasons for the sudden deluge of waters that engulfed Kedarnath. In fact, a scientific study published in the Economist of May 11, 2013, has reported that significant glacial retreat is occurring in the eastern Himalayas and the area of glacial lakes has gone up by 26% since 1970. The effects of EWEs( Extreme Weather Events) which are predicted to increase, will be multiplied exponentially and in the cross-fire between a grievously wounded Nature and myopic administrators will be thousands of unsuspecting tourists and locals whose bodies will never be found. The Himachal govt. has to wake up before it is too late, rise up above populism and show some leadership in the following areas:

[I]  Abjure construction of roads to locations which do not have the carrying capacity to sustain large numbers of people. If essential, provide ropeways instead

[II]  Do not increase the carrying capacities of such places either by artificial interventions- respect the balance of nature struck over centuries.

[III] Do not allow construction of any kind under the garb of providing facilities for visitors beyond the basic needs- toilets and water.

[IV] Strictly regulate the number of visitors after first ascertaining the carrying capacity of the location. This will also limit the casualties if a disaster happens.

[VI] Invest the state's limited resources on providing good communication links instead.

The world over it has been established that tourism is a double-edged sword and it needs responsible hands to wield it.

Finally, a word about the role of the agency at the Centre entrusted with the task of protecting the country's environment- the Ministry of Environment and Forests( MOEF). Its role so far has been apathetic at best and dubious at worst. Its decisions are entirely subjective, whimsical and politically coloured. Whereas it comes down heavily on villagers who are dependent on forests for their livelihood and spends its time devising ways to deny them their rights, it has failed to show the same concern for mega projects which cause a million times more damage. It has banned the only kind of tourism which makes sense- Ecotourism( Himachal was the first state to come out with a comprehensive and genuine Ecotourism policy) on pure technicalities but has no compunctions about allowing hydel projects in the buffer zones of National Parks, or in approving such projects at heights in excess of 10000 feet, located adjacent to montaine glaciers! At the heart of its misplaced magnamity is its Expert Appraisal Committee which makes the final recommendations. It is shocking to note that in the six year period ending December 2012 the EAS has approved 262 river valley projects! Actually, I am not surprised- after all the Committee's Chairman was earlier the Chairman of the Central Electricity Authority and its Vice Chairman an engineer. The earlier Chairman was closely associated with hydro-power companies. People who have built their careers on erecting edifices worshipping concrete and cement, on the extraction of power from the last drop of water and the last ounce of coal have now been put in charge of protecting the environment! The irony here is delicious, were it also not so tragic.

Is anyone listening?


  1. For all its pluses Democracy can exact a terrible price when the voting populace is ignorant and shortsighted. They elect similarly shortsighted politicians who sacrifice the environment among many other things for political - and personal - gain. That's sadly the case in your Uttarkhand and Himachal accounts. I typically bristle at judicial overreach through PILs, etc., but perhaps this is a needed imposition on a feckless Executive that fails to look out for the long term interests of the population.

    Our best officers also pay the price for their honesty and zeal in looking out for future generations. Instead of appreciating and embracing your brilliant insights and thoughtful recommendations the political leaders must have resented them.

    On another note our expanding population in an already overcrowded India almost ensures environmental degradation will continue, if not accelerate. Alas, in our democracy we cannot impose a two child policy, leave alone the type of one child policy prevalent in China. Still, you do a valuable service by raising the alarm and pushing for measures that can at least considerably slow the damage to our surroundings.

  2. The present system is hard of hearing.

  3. Kudos for speaking your heart out once again and thankfully, this time without having to pay a price for it! In a democracy, people ultimately get the government/politicians they deserve. So why blame the poor political animals. They, no longer are capable of leading; instead they merely follow the masses. For, leadership is a demanding business seeking discipline and ability to rise above the ordinary.
    We are destined to destroy ourselves, sooner than later. One mega scam after another mega scam goes on to prove that no one who matters cares. Each one is busy bidding (for more) or biding (time). Unless people themselves rise against the mindless populism, it will go on till (expected) apocalypse. Die all, die merrily.
    I was in Kinnaur during the fateful week. Within a matter of few hours, how things changed significantly. Working in the Himalayas requires an approach different than what is applicable elsewhere. We need to be sensitively innovative. During consultation process for a cement plant, about eight years ago, I had suggested installing electric ropeways (HP is supposedly surplus in hydropower, at least in summer months) for taking out cement and bringing in the coal/clinker to save environment and to save traffic congestion but it did not find favour then and it wouldn’t find now. Although the truck owners (land losers who bought trucks and deployed on transportation) can have equity in the ropeway project also and earn livelihood without risking their truck and lives (theirs and others’) yet unless led from top it is highly unlikely to see the light of the day.
    People living in the Himalayas have to show the path to ecologically sensitive planning rather than waiting others to lead them to their doom. Hope we change to lead than continue to be led.