On February 7, 2021, Uttarakhand was hit by yet another disaster. A glacial lake outburst in the Rishiganga river of the Nanda Devi National Park caused severe flash floods in the state. The Chamoli district was the worst affected region by the upsurge in the waters of the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers. In addition to the immense loss of life and property, the estimated damage caused to the ongoing hydro-projects is over Rs. 1500 crores. However, this calamity cannot be dismissed as a natural act, especially since it has its origins deeply engraved in human activity and intervention.
The Himalayas are a highly fragile and sensitive ecosystem with frequently occurring earthquakes, avalanches and floods. Developmental projects like hydropower plants, bridges and roads in these areas disrupt the natural course of activities, thereby resulting in the large magnitude of natural disasters. In addition to this, the melting of the ice-caps, escalated by Climate Change and Global Warming has made the Himalayas extremely volatile. And the lack of proper disaster management in these places only make matters worse by making rescue operations all the more challenging.
Despite Rishiganga’s history of being a highly volatile area (major lake burst in 1968, 1970 and floods in 2013), Uttarakhand government has continued to sanction construction of both large and small hydropower projects in the state. Currently, over 80 major hydropower projects are either operating or under construction in the state. Additionally, the state has 33 small hydro projects under operation with 14 projects in the implementation process.
The government’s reluctance in prioritising the environment also came to surface in the Union Budget, 2021. The Environment Ministry was allocated a total of Rs. 2869.93 crores, However, the Tapovan-Vishnugad, the worst-hit hydro project during the recent floods had an investment of over Rs. 4000 crores. This reveals the bare minimum effort from the government in matters of environment renewal and conservation.
During the disaster of 2013, we witnessed the heavy price the people and the community had to pay due to the encroachment by the government over ecologically fragile spaces. In 2014, the Chopra Committee discouraged the construction of dams in periglacial regions, taking into consideration the 2013 cloud burst. However, the government’s neglect of the objections raised by experts and the protests by the local people is what caused the disaster, a disaster that was disguised and marketed as development.
Though hydropower projects are India’s attempt at tapping and utilising its renewable source of energy, the sensitivity and fragility of their locations cannot be ignored. The Uttarakhand disaster is a warning sign for all the development activities happening in the various delicate ecosystems of the country. Another such disaster waiting to happen is in the Little Andaman island of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The government think tank, Niti Aayog proposed a plan to make Little Andaman in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a free-trade zone by constructing a mega financial tourist complex. The document called ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island – Vision Document’, wants to use the strategic location of the island to build an area that could compete with Singapore and Hongkong in the international market.
Furthermore, for this project, the document proposes the de-reservation of 32% of the Reserved Forests and de-notification of 31% of the Tribal Reserves of the total 95% of forests that cover this area. The aim is to create financial and residential districts along with leisure spaces to increase tourism. The project also proposes the creation of nature resorts and retreats.
Being one of the worst-hit areas during the 2004 Tsunami, Little Andaman is geographically vulnerable and prone to tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. The document proposed takes no account of this fragility of the area. Allowing construction and development here might result in a huge loss of life and property, along with extensive damage to the ecosystem.
Moreover, the Onge tribe that inhabits Little Andaman, is one major indigenous tribe that continues to live in isolation. The de-notification of 31% of the area of their residence would not only leave them displaced but also expose them to the outside world. Along with the Onge tribe, Little Andaman is also home to the endangered Leatherback Sea turtle. The de-reservation of forests would thus result in a loss of habitat for both animals and the people, thereby endangering their lives.
The proposition by Niti Aayog has raised several red flags amongst the conservationists and environmentalists regarding the loss that might take place. What’s alarming is that the document uses the terms sustainable and holistic development, but the proposed plan, as of yet, does not include any concrete steps or provisions for the rehabilitation of the local people and the wildlife. Thus, once again the government’s intention lies in increasing revenue through the exploitation of both the ecosystem and the indigenous population without providing appropriate provisions.
With an increasing pressure to strengthen the economy and expand international trade, the government policies have been taking a monetarily beneficial perspective while environmental renewal and conservation in India, has taken a backseat.
India’s policies and projects in regards to both economics and the environment reveal a non-sustainable model of development that not only includes the displacement of animals and forests but also indigenous people, from their original habitat. Without any provision for their rehabilitation, the future appears bleak for these communities. It has thus become a pressing need for policies and laws to be both economically and environmentally sustainable for the country. With the increase in development projects in recent years, the future of India’s diverse ecosystems continues to remain uncertain and vulnerable.
Artwork by Muskaan Kanodia
Muskaan is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.
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