There seems to be no end to the miseries in the flood ravaged Uttarakhand. There is a need for the Government to take a relook at the clearance process to prevent the repeat of such manmade disasters.
Anger of the mountains of Uttarakhand has not subsided two years after the 2013 disaster. Landslides continue to happen regularly and the char dham yatra is nowhere near restoration. Reason is that the spree of road making, hotel construction and hydropower tunneling that were the cause of the disaster continues unabated.
The rainfall during June 16-18, 2013 was higher than normal but not uncommon. The India Meteorological Department says that rainfall in the six affected districts of Uttarakhand in the period of June 16-18 was between 59 and 160 mm per day. The rainfall at six stations in Kumaon and two stations in Garhwal was more than 173 mm per day with the maximum of 237 mm recorded at Mukteshwar. Rainfall in the affected area was much less than in other non-affected area. This clearly establishes that the ‘Disaster’ was not due to ‘excessive’ rainfall though it was certainly higher than normal. Rainfall in the area may be called “high normal”—it was higher than normal but within the levels recorded previously. The Expert Body constituted under orders of the Supreme Court has pointed out that nine districts received heavy rainfall in that period. This fact that rainfall was not unusual has also been noted in reports of the Wadia Institute, Disaster Mitigation & Management Centre of Government of Uttarakhand and Ministry of Water Resources. Yet, some “experts” continue to harp on the excessive rain quoting non-existent sources. For example, SK Mazumder, Former Emeritus Professor at Delhi Technical University writes: “The State of Uttarakhand experienced an unprecedented meteorological condition during mid June 2013. The onset of monsoon in the state was relatively earlierresulting in heavy to very heavy rainfall/cloud burst throughout the state during June 16-18, 2013. Various factors, namely, high melting rate of glaciers, prolonged heavy rains, (320- 340 mm/day), steep and bare catchment, landslides etc. resulted in very high run-off/flash flood in all the rivers in the state.” As mentioned above, the figure of 320-340 millimeters rain per day is cooked up. There was no such rain in the area.
Indeed, the problems increased because there was an outburst of a glacial lake at Chorabari Tal. This added to the High Normal rainfall. But the lake was relatively smaller and such outbursts happen regularly in the Himalayas. There was nothing exceptional in this.
The Tehri Dam arrested the flow from Bhagirathi and Bhilangana Rivers and helped reduce the water reaching Haridwar. However, it is not clear that any substantial damage would have occurred at Haridwar had this water reached the city. The riverbed is wide here and the increase in water level due to this additional water would be small. Secondly, the flood control function of Tehri was purely fortuitous. Tehri Dam has not been designed for flood control function and would not be able to hold much additional water had the same rainfall occurred in September. Thirdly, most damage would have been inflicted on the illegal structures built on the Ganga flood plain rather than the city proper. It would perhaps be correct to say that Tehri Reservoir helped prevent damage to these illegal structures but there is no evidence whatsoever that the increase in water level in absence of Tehri Reservoir would have inflicted any damage to the city of Haridwar.
The true cause of the Disaster was that the High Normal rainfall carried with it boulders, trees and huge amounts of loose earth. The boulders and tree logs blocked the gates of the hydropower projects under construction at Phata-Byung and Singoli-Bhatwari on the Mandakini. The river could not carry these materials downstream as its path had been obstructed. These materials got deposited in the riverbed. The level of the riverbed rose due to this deposition. The rising level of water then scoured and submerged many villages like Chandrapuri lying on the banks of the river. Famed geologist KS Valdiya writes that the stones in the area are soft and fractured and even a small blow would lead to their collapse. The National Institute of Disaster Management says that earlier earthquakes had loosened the rocks in the mountains. The Disaster Mitigation & Management Centre, Uttarakhand says that blasting for road construction led to increased landslides. Expert Body constituted under orders of the Supreme Court pointed out that the damage was restricted to the upstream and downstream of the four hydropower projects that obstructed the path of the rivers—Vishnu Prayag and Srinagar on the Alaknanda and Phata-Byung and Singoli-Bhatwari on the Mandakini. This is mainly due to blocking of the path of the river by hydropower barrages. The expert body also points out that hydropower projects have not been designed properly. The Phata-Byung project, for example, was designed for a maximum flood of 1106 cubic meters per second while the water flow during the disaster was 1597 cubic meters per second.
The road making and hydropower tunneling activities have contributed to the making of the disaster by use of explosives. Geologists have pointed out that the rocks of these mountains are fractured and soft and have already been loosened by the earthquakes. Indiscriminate use of explosive for cutting the hills for road making and for boring into the hills for making hydropower tunnels have made things worse. The vibrations from these explosions have loosened the rocks yet more. The Phata-Byung and Singoli-Bhatwari hydropower projects lie directly below the Kedarnath Mountains. Both these projects are making tunnels more than 10 kilometers long. Huge amounts of explosives used by these projects loosened the mountains and the rocks came tumbling down in the High Normal rainfall.
These road and hydropower projects also contributed to the disaster by dumping vast amounts of muck into the riverbed. The Ministry of Environment permits these developers to dump the muck on the river banks and secure it with stone walls so that it does not flow into the river. But corruption in road making and cost cutting in hydropower projects lead to these guidelines being rarely followed with the result that the muck is carried by the river when in flood. Part of the muck got deposited in the riverbed and raised level of the river and led to increased flooding. Secondly, this muck-laden water worked as a sandpaper and scoured the banks leading to thousands being rendered homeless.
The Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is responsible for giving Environment Clearances to these projects. The Committee is often headed by hydropower proponents who have least knowledge about environment. Two of the Chairmen have been retired bureaucrats from the Power Ministry. As a result the environmental impacts of the projects are not taken on board and clearances are provided at the asking. In the view of the said, there is a need for the Government to take a relook at the clearance process so that man does not again make such manmade disasters.
Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
(The writer is a former Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)