On the afternoon of 16 June, local resident Manav Bisht watched dozens of constables leaving the paramilitary Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) Academy, which stood between his house in Shakti Vihar, a locality in Uttarakhand’s Srinagar town, and the Alaknanda river that had started swelling from 10 am. The waters threatened to enter the academy building after 5 pm and more jawans were shifted to Pauri, the district headquarters.
SSB IG S Bandhopadhyay was aware of the torrential rainfall up in the hills. There was also the flood warning issued by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). As night fell, the Alaknanda breached the meagre embankment and ravaged the academy building. Sometime after midnight, after drowning the 500-metre stretch of the SSB campus, the torrent rose above the 10-feet-high boundary wall on the other side and entered Shakti Vihar.
Bandhopadhyay’s timely action saved many lives. But busy evacuating his men, he did not inform the district administration. “I didn’t need to tell anyone. They could see what was happening. Everyone had information about the heavy rainfall,” says Bandhopadhyay. But nobody thought it necessary to warn the residents of Srinagar.
So, Bisht, much like his neighbours, was caught unawares when the river entered his house around 1.30 am. Suddenly, there was panic everywhere. Within an hour or so, the entire neighbourhood had gone under the roiling waters. Few managed to get hold of any valuables. Bisht’s family barely managed to escape in the clothes they were sleeping in.
About 100 km away, further up in the hills, another river was also in spate. While the Alaknanda was engulfing parts of Srinagar, the Mandakini began battering the temple town of Kedarnath in the early hours of 17 June. Soon after pilgrims and residents of the pilgrimage centre woke up to sights of devastation, a massive landslide sent huge mounds of rock into the Charbari lake, 6 km upstream of Kedarnath.
Binod Mantri, a pilgrim from West Bengal’s Hooghly, was uneasy since 16 June. With no let-up in the rain, worried locals advised him to shift closer to the Kedarnath temple from his hotel by the river. So he checked into the Rajasthan guesthouse with 16 family members and stayed indoors as landslides, rain and howling wind battered the town. Next morning, the family was preparing to venture out for a quick breakfast when the torrent entered the room. Mantri and his brother-in-law survived by clinging on to the window grill. Everyone else in the family, all 14 of them, climbed onto beds and were swept away within minutes.
“The landslide caused a giant splash like a brick dropped in a bucket of water,” recalls one of the four Indian Army jawans posted at Kedarnath. The mass of rock smashed against the sand and boulders, giving the river momentum to sweep up more rocks on its way to become the destructive force that wiped clean everything in its path. By nine in the morning, Kedarnath had become a ghost town. Rambara, a settlement downstream, simply disappeared.
By 18 June, the magnitude of the disaster became clear. Across 37,000 sq km of the Himalayan state, landslide and floods trapped more than 80,000 tourists, triggering one of the biggest rescue operations by the armed forces and the biggest by helicopters so far. The race against time took its toll even on those who toiled round the clock to save lives. On 20 June, Rudraprayag District Magistrate Vijay Dhaundiyal suffered a heart attack. At least 20 rescue personnel perished, adding to the official death toll of 5,000, which, locals and eyewitnesses claim, will be in the range of 10-20,000 if those who have gone missing are also accounted for.
For each survivor, another seems to have died in this unfolding tragedy. Sixty-five-year-old Aishwarya made it alive, along with just seven of her group of 15. “Standing beside a bonfire to keep warm, she was having coffee at a roadside shop when the flood waters came. Before she could react, out of nowhere, a pack of mules charged towards her, knocking her over and pushing her into the open fire,” said one of her relatives at the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust in Dehradun, the state capital, where she is being treated for severe burns and an injured hip.
Against heavy odds, it took even the army’s best efforts more than a week to reach the stranded in many areas. “We were nervous when we first got here. We didn’t know if we would be able to pull this off. But today, we are getting the last of the nearly 300 survivors down from Jungle Chatti,” a Fifth Sikh Regiment officer leading the rescue operation in Kedarnath told TEHELKA, while keeping a watchful eye on able-bodied survivors climbing off a rope down a 80-degree, 90-feet-deep drop.
As of 26 June, there are still 5,000 survivors stranded in the Badrinath and Harsil areas and the rescue work — Operation Surya — continues despite intermittent rain and worsening weather conditions. While some locals allege that rescue operations have been skewed towards saving pilgrims and foreigners, villagers of Bhagori and Ganeshpur in Uttarkashi are going out of their way to shelter and feed the stranded. With the armed forces and the administration confident that the last few will be rescued in the next couple of days, the worst seems to be over for the visitors.
The surviving tourists will return home. Uttarakhand and its people will have to face the consequence of this disaster. Nearly 1 lakh of them have become homeless and there is resentment among the locals that rescue efforts have ignored them so far. With more than 300 reported cases, acute diarrhoea is threatening to take epidemic proportions as rotting corpses have begun to contaminate water sources.
Already, the state has estimated the damage to be upwards of Rs 3,000 crore. Insurance companies are looking at claims worth more than Rs 1,000 crore. The Char Dham Yatra has been called off indefinitely. Damaged roads and other infrastructure may take years to rebuild. Religious tourism, the mainstay of Garhwal’s economy, will now have to start from scratch.
In the 2011 census, Uttarakhand’s population was 1.08 crore. The state hosted 2.68 crore pilgrims and tourists in 2010- 11. Since then, the Garhwal religious circuit saw a four-fold increase in the number of pilgrims as year-round access to the shrines — earlier restricted to four months — was allowed.
According to Yatra Rotation Samiti member Sanjay Shastri, around 1 lakh vehicles — 50-60 percent of these not from the state — do three trips of the Char Dham Yatra each year. Since 2005-06, the number of taxis and jeeps registered in the state has jumped tenfold. Since 2010, the state has added 4,500 km of road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) alone. Its total road length nearly tripled in the past decade.
“People became greedy. Everyone went overboard. How long would the mountain suffer thousands of jeeps and buses crawling up and down and accommodate thousands of tourists? All along the banks of the river, there is construction of houses. Where we used to have tents a few years ago, we have five-storey buildings. At some point or the other, nature had to hit back. This was it,” says Gaurav Singh, who runs a tea stall in Guptakashi village.
And this is when things have gone to plan. After an emotionally-charged political struggle, the creation of the Uttarakhand state in 2000 promised its people their right over the hills, forests and water. At the time, many professed that the new state could build its economy without compromising its pristine hills, by focussing on it and other soft-skill industries. Instead, Uttarakhand decided to go big on tourism, the only industry it had known until then.
In 2001, the state constituted the Uttarakhand Tourism Board and chalked up its tourism policy with the vision to “make Uttaranchal synonymous with tourism”. The focus was on drawing higher numbers of tourists and bigger investment into the state. From 1 crore in 2001, the number of visitors to the state grew to 3 crore in 2010.
Over the decade, a number of schemes and tax rebates for building tourism infrastructure ensured ‘development’ of pristine destinations and mushrooming of hotels and resorts. The state raised the budgetary allocation for tourism by 224 percent in the 10th Plan. At present, 22 tourism projects worth Rs 1,840 crore are coming up on the public-private partnership (PPP) model and account for 47 percent of the total investment in the PPP schemes under implementation in the state.
While promoting unrestricted growth in tourism, the new state decided to exploit its hydropower potential as well. Former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal prepared a ‘Vision 2020’ statement to make Uttarakhand a “prosperous state”. With the theme ‘Pahad Ka Pani, Pahad Ki Jawani’, the plan was to harness the natural resources of the state in an optimal manner and create more jobs.
“The state has a capacity to produce at least 40,000 mw of power from hydel projects. Therefore, we have planned to install several hydel power units in the state. The surplus power will be sold to other states. We have invited investors and the response has been very encouraging. To rope in local talent and provide jobs, we have decided to employ local youths in mini hydel power projects,” Pokhriyal was quoted as saying in 2010. The result: 73 hydel projects on the Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, and several more on other rivers of the state.
Unbridled tourism and construction of dams on rivers had one common demand: newer and wider roads across the state.
Uttarakhand started widening its roads in 2002. Till then, all roads here were two-lane, except for the Tehri road, which was widened up to the dam site in the 1990s. The story was to repeat under BC Khanduri, the then surface transport minister.
“People thought that all he (Khanduri) wanted was to widen the roads for the growing tourist traffic. It was only later that we started to see a different picture. For example, a road was widened till Lambagad and after that there was nothing. Now at Lambagad, there was a dam constructed by the Jaypee Group. It created a suspicion in our minds that this widening of roads was done primarily for the movement of big trucks with construction material for dams,” says Dr Ravi Chopra, director of People’s Science Institute in Dehradun.
The other reason behind the spurt in road projects, says a transport department official who does not want to be named, is that there was “a lot of money to be made”. Since the 1962 war with China, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) built the arterial roads in the region, putting in reinforcement walls in the unstable stretches. Under the cut-and-fill method, the excavated earth was used to pave the road. But as too many road projects were commissioned, nobody bothered to identify the unstable slopes; the earth was simply dumped in the rivers below. To cut costs, road projects even stopped creating adequate drainage systems.
“Usually, we cut the mountain side and leave it for two years to allow debris and overhanging material to come down. The mountain stabilises through two monsoons before we put in the hard topping. But growing traffic demands that we expand the roads and destabilise the mountains again. Also, while the widening was earlier done by men and machines, now we use dynamite to do it quickly. There are several roads that have become landslide-prone because blasting leaves cracks inside the mountain,” says a former civil works engineer who served in Rudraprayag district.
Since 2010, under the PMGSY, a number of approach roads have been built to villages way up on the slope, which further increases the risk of landslides. “There has been a lot of road cutting by state agencies, not by the BRO, and the degree of care, I would say, is marginal. It is a recipe for disaster in a young, unstable mountain,” says Chopra.
The indiscriminate rollout of roads also spurred unregulated construction across the state. Unlike in rural areas, there are construction codes for urban areas, but few follow the rules. Just across the state Assembly building in the state capital are encroachments on the Rispana streambed.
The situation is well imaginable in rural areas, where the tourism centres have become death traps. After the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim, a study by IIT Roorkee found that traditional low-rise, lightweight timber buildings performed extremely well. But to accommodate the growing number of tourists, Uttarakhand’s traditional constructions gave way to unplanned multi-storied buildings on columns and beams. At Gaurikund, where the trek for Kedarnath begins, walking the 20-feet-wide road along the 200-odd metres of the main bazaar is like moving through a tunnel with airless three-storey buildings on both sides.
It is not a coincidence that Garhwal suffers heavy loss of lives and property year after year while neighbouring Kumaon reports far less damage. All major shrines of the state are in Garhwal and these destinations are all by the rivers. Since pilgrims have to access the ghats, hotels have cropped up on the edge of the rivers. The result is an unbearable load on the Garhwal mountains that are anyway much steeper compared to the rolling hills of the Kumaon. With this lopsided burden alongside rivers prone to flash floods, it was only a matter of time before the overhanging structures were swept away.
The construction boom, on the other hand, fuelled illegal mining of sand and boulders from riverbeds. Such extraction changes the slope of the riverbed, making the flow restabilise itself, causing the river to change course. With constructions right up to the bank, the disastrous consequence was visible last week.
Nowhere in the state is the SC order to restrict construction within 200 metres of a riverbed followed. The valleys here have been formed from debris rolling down from the mountain and are loose beds of gravel. When it rains, the water sinks quickly, giving the impression of dry real estate. But during monsoons, these gravel beds temporarily become very active. Yet, with the connivance of the local officials, scores of buildings have come up on such treacherous foundation all over the state.
The SSB Academy building that was inaugurated last year and damaged last week in Srinagar, for example, was built on the Alaknanda riverbed. Many houses that were buried in silt in the adjacent Shakti Vihar were also built illegally. “It is an old colony of Srinagar which used to be a fair distance away from the river. But in the past few years, it expanded towards the riverbed in connivance with local officials,” says Pratik Palwar, a Srinagar resident.
Over the past week, much has been said and written about the absence of warning from the Met department, which, in turn, has claimed that its alerts went unheeded. On 15 June, the IMD flashed a “severe” warning for Kinnaur and Garhwal. It was upgraded to “very severe” the next day. It remained so till 17 June when flood and landslide ravaged Garhwal. While Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna dismissed the warning as “unspecific and non-actionable”, his officers apparently acted on it.
“There was a Met warning for high rainfall and we were watching the water level. But this happens each year. In Rudraprayag town, we shifted people. In Gaurikund, people were asked to climb up and some were shifted to Rambara (which was eventually wiped out) and the police kept people awake through the night. All the people alive today are those who were evacuated to higher ground. But no one expected a mountain to crumble and fall into the lake (in Kedarnath),” says Rudraprayag Superintendent of Police Birenderjeet Singh.
If the warning indeed alerted at least a section of the state administration, was it merely unprepared to meet the challenge? In its performance audit report submitted to Parliament on 23 April, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had highlighted that the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), constituted in 2007 and headed by the CM, had not formulated any rules or policies for disaster management in the state.
“Would we be better off with a policy?” counters a state official closely involved with relief and rescue operations. “The scale of the disaster was simply unmanageable. But we have done well. With the army’s help, we have taken control of the situation within a couple of days. While theoretically it might have been possible to save more lives by evacuating people before the floods hit, what do you do about the loss of infrastructure? Can we move roads and buildings to safety?”
Experts such as geologist KS Valdiya and environmentalist Himanshu Thakkar have faulted the government on that very ground. The rainfall, they maintain, was not unnatural but the human and infrastructural cost of the tragedy was the state’s doing. “The CM says this rain is unprecedented. It is not. Uttarakhand has seen so many disasters of this kind, but not this magnitude. Just last year, there were two tragedies — Uttarkashi in August and Rudraprayag in September — when houses collapsed like cardboard boxes and roads gave in. Yet, no lesson was learnt and blast tunnelling work continued for hydropower projects,” says Thakkar.
Others point out what they feel is the real tragedy of Uttarakhand’s people. “The state invests public money in ill-advised projects that compromise our safety. At the same time, damage to misplaced infrastructure causes the state economy huge losses,” says Malika Vridhi of Munsiyari-based NGO Himal Prakriti. “After all, it’s the people’s money. Instead of pumping it into destructive projects, the state should invest in sustainable agriculture and skill development programmes.”
Even where the warning system could save lives, the infrastructural damage was overwhelming. At the SSB Academy, the loss was estimated at 100 crore. Vast lengths of vulnerable roads have simply been swallowed by the rivers. Several hydel projects in the region are also hit. “What is the wisdom in making investment that self-destructs,” asks Thakkar, “while causing damage to the natural systems and people?”
On paper, the population density of Uttarakhand is just 189 per sq km. But the sense of space is misleading. More than 90 percent of the land is mountainous and 64 percent is protected forests out of bounds for the locals. Mushrooming development projects are further elbowing out the hill people while the Tourism Board and numerous private players are hoarding land. The dams and reservoirs are also eating into agricultural land.
“Heavy influx of tourists and wrong tourism practices are stressing these hills. Our people mostly work in menial jobs while outsiders rake in the profit. In the time of climate change, it is very important that the people protect their streams and forests. That can only happen when they have the ownership,” argues Vridhi. “Our model of eco-tourism shows how communities can benefit by caring for their natural environment. This is not a model for boutique outlets but needs to be adopted across the state.”
Through community participation in eco-tourism, the hill people may actually benefit from tourism that, contrary to popular belief, now accounts for just 2 percent of the state’s employment. But the state tourism policy has no such plans. Its tourism Master Plan for 2007-22 identifies “very large, overall carrying capacity given the immensity of the natural environment” as the biggest opportunity for the industry in the state. Barring a 2012 report by Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd that examined the carrying capacity of Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Mussoorie, no study has ever been conducted to determine how much tourism pressure the state’s overcrowded destinations can take.
Meanwhile, Bahuguna is determined to make Uttarakhand power surplus by 2016. “It is childish to suggest that the cloudburst at Kedarnath happened because of wrong construction on the riverbeds. Without tourism, there will be poverty, unrest and migration. We have clearance for 53 run-of-the-river hydro projects and we will roll out 36 for bidding by December. If you take a decision, then stick to it, don’t scrap it because of some activists,” he asserted, repeatedly, over the past week.
It may yet take more lives for Uttarakhand to realise how far down the suicide slope it has come.
With inputs from Ushinor Majumdar and Shonali Ghosal