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Take a pause: what do the Uttrakhand floods tell us about India’s development model?

July 1, 2013
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Vanita Suneja, Oxfam India’s Economic Justice Lead, looks at the underlying causes of the devastating floods in Uttrakhand~5948752

The recent flash floods in Uttrakhand have already claimed around 1000 lives and more than 3000 people are still missing.   One of the worst calamities caused by an extreme weather event in the form of cloud burst and high intensity rains in the eco-fragile region has devastated millions of lives, and washed away a number of villages. Havoc in the Uttrakhand was inevitable. Scientists, local people and environmentalists have been shouting at the top of their voices for a Himalayan policy for development. But these voices were trampled in the cacophony of   an unscientific construction boom (always presented as ‘development’).

The fragile construction of the hills themselves has given way in response to the assault of many decades.  It is not that the hills or their people did not give warnings year after year. But in the saga of rising inequality unfolding in the region, these were the worst years for many who were bypassed by development, just as these were the  best of times for the few to steer development  to  their advantage.

In the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins of Uttrakhand, 70 hydroelectric projects are under construction with a severe impact on more than 9000ha of forest land. A report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) recommended in 2012 that 24 such projects should be scrapped. The government ignored the report as well as the pleas of grass root movements, affected people, technical experts or even recommendations made by forest advisory committees. It gave environment clearances to these projects, brazenly flouting environment safeguards, let alone social safeguards for directly affected populations.

To aid construction of dams, developers built more and wider roads with frequent blasting, leaving cracks inside the young mountains. The tourism Industry also helped write the script for disaster.  Spurts of roads were followed by mushrooming of hotels, sometimes putting multi-storey buildingsin pristine areas, on the river beds and on top of unstable slopes .

Now is the time to pause. This is not a debate between development and non-development. It is the choice for scientific development steered by local wisdom and for the benefit of the local population. It is also about the choice to say no to short-term development for the few that results in collateral damage for all in the long run.

Eco-fragile areas need roads, electricity, schools, hospitals and food, but not at the cost of irreversibly destroying their own foundations. But the question is, are we ready for scientific development in the hills or do we still want to test the patience of nature and people for more such disasters before we take the inevitable U–turn away from current development planning? And given the climate change hovering on the horizon, making such events more frequent, the clock is ticking.

So what kind of development model does the hills economy need? The kind of road required in a hilly terrain is different from the plains. The strength of the roots of trees holding the soil cannot be ignored by allowing deforestation on the road sides. The principle of least damage to geological features, natural gradients, water channels, springs and forests applies more strictly here than in plains, given the fragile geological conditions and the inter-connectivity of a system including natural water sources, forest, agriculture and the livelihoods of people.. The highest level of science and technology coupled with traditional wisdom is required for planning in the hilly states.

19live-uttarakhand1These states also deserve a quid pro quo in terms of getting additional funding from the national kitty, given that they have also committed extra resources by conserving more than half of their land mass under forest as a contribution to the nation as well to the world. Special treatment or financial assistance to the hilly states who are conserving forests for all of us should not be considered a hand-out or discretionary payment, but the right of these states.

Similarly the commitment and technology required for the public distribution system, health services or other schemes for hills need to be tailor-made for last mile delivery. Despite the rich diversified and organic vegetation base from agriculture and forests, a model of cottage industry based on these resources   has eluded rural India, especially the hill as well as tribal economy, for years.   The trend of   migration from these areas in the absence of livelihood opportunities has its own toll on the hard-working women left behind.  If the current development model is not reversed, the damage is going to be more severe and more frequent  in years to come .

The road to development based on only the unscientific construction industry (be it in the name of energy, roads or tourism), leads to doom, as shown by the  Uttrakhand floods.   This is the time to take a pause and plan for real development in the hills.

7 comments

  1. Hi, thanks for this thoughtful post. I would be interested to know more about Oxfam India’s work. How is it working to affect national and state policymakers on this kind of issue?

    It seems to me an enormous task (contra to the whole ‘development’ mantra that seems to have taken hold of the country) but one that as your article highlights, is urgently required.

    In the spirit of a regular theme of the blog: what is the theory of change that underpins Oxfam India’s work and how does this then inform implementation?

    Thanks.

  2. Thank you for this, Vanita. Your insight into how short-sighted development contributed to the devastation in Uttrakhand is a graphic example of what Oxfam argued in a recent paper on resilience – ‘No accident: resilience and the inequality of risk’ (www.oxfam.org.uk/resilience). In that paper, we said that building resilience is not about technical fixes but must address the power, politics and injustices that lie at the heart of poor people’s growing vulnerability to climate change and disasters. See also another guest blog on FP2P from a few months back by the report’s author and our resilience guru Debbie Hillier: http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?tag=resilience

  3. I see two separate questions when looking for the cause of the floods.

    1. Why was there so much water coming down the rivers?
    2. Why did the floods cause so much damage?

    The cause of the water must be mainly due to the size of the cloudburst or glacial lakes bursting (both possibly linked to climate change) . Kedernath, a scene of great devastation, is close to the glaciers at the head of the valley. There will be little forest capable of absorbing water in the catchment area above it and I don’t see that poor human management could have made much difference in the size of the floods.

    Dams are getting some blame – yet (unless they burst), dams and reservoirs will slow down flood water.

    The Himalayas are geologically young mountains, the rivers are still cutting deep and steep valleys, often through quite weak rock. These steep sided valleys will always have landslides. It is true that tree roots help prevent landslides, but I am not sure that is a significant factor in the case of really big slides. What is true is that over time (on a geological scale) these slopes will slide and get eroded until they are no longer steep. The shocks from blasting during road or dam construction are insignificant factors in anything except the very short term (i.e. at the time of the blast).

    So why did the floods cause so much devastation? This is where I see human influence being most significant. Floods on this scale should have been anticipated, so buildings should have been planned to take this into account. Better disaster management or early warning systems may also have helped limit loss of life.

    I like the idea of using the highest level of science and technology, but I’m not sure what it means to couple this with traditional wisdom. One website says local beliefs blame the catastrophe on the relocation of the Dhari Devi Temple.

    Meanwhile, whatever the cause, my thoughts are with those affected by this disaster.

  4. Thoughtful indeed Vanita. the fragility of the Himalyan ecosystem has always been overlooked by the state for immediate political gains & wishful interest …last heard over media debates that early warnings from ME dept & cautions were quite timely & clear yet ignored by the people responsible…whether we’ve Disaster management Bodies a district, state & Nationa level plush with state & bilateral funding & favoured beaurocrats/ politicians on top job .. the ultimate ation & response is aways from Defence & forces…

  5. The states of Sikkim, North east States and Darjeeling should take the lessons from Uttarkhand disaster. The teesta river has been tamed and has been converted to pond, north sikkim and east sikkim near the himalayas has mushrooming hydel project and we have seen the start of the calamities. If the govt, policy makers and public do not heed to the indicators of nature these hilly regions are doomed to perish.

  6. True Vanita ji. It is obvious that how short visioned development is causing harm to the the environment & human race. But the situation in mountains is worst in comparison to plains. The charm of scenic beauty, search of peach, pleasure of healthy environment with increasing purchase capacity to enjoy all this we are unknowingly disturbing the natural ecosystems. I am just remembering the interviews of few trapped at Kedarnath most of them admitted they went their just for tourism purposes. Is it all required? I don’t say tourism should stopped but I am just wondering is their any place we (homo sapiens) have left unexplored? If from tomorrow we get ways to be on moon I am sure after 1000 years there will no moon at all…I feel WE are living in a way as we are the only living living thing expected on the earth. Everybody else is just a means of satisfying our desires. But that is not true..there is a strong struggle for survival is going on among and with in the ecosystems.These incidents are just a warning that much more is awaiting in near future.

  7. True Vanita ji. It is obvious that how short visioned development is causing harm to the the environment & human race. But the situation in mountains is worst in comparison to plains. The charm of scenic beauty, search of peach, pleasure of healthy environment with increasing purchase capacity to enjoy all this we are unknowingly disturbing the natural ecosystems. I am just remembering the interviews of few trapped at Kedarnath most of them admitted they went their just for tourism purposes. Is it all required? I don’t say tourism should stopped but I am just wondering is their any place we (homo sapiens) have left unexplored? If from tomorrow we get ways to be on moon I am sure after 1000 years there will no moon at all…I feel WE are living in a way as we are the only living thing expected on the earth. Everybody else is just a means of satisfying our desires. But that is not true..there is a strong struggle for survival is going on among and with in the ecosystems.These incidents are just a warning that much more is awaiting in near future.

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