Chamoli disaster: Chronicle of a Himalayan tragedy foretold

Lands in ecologically sensitive zones were sold and resold against all rules as the law looked the other way. The constant push for ‘sustainable development’ created the scenario for this tragedy

Chamoli disaster: Chronicle of a Himalayan tragedy foretold

Mrinal Pande

The poet Kalidas said the Himalayas stood upon the earth as ultimate standard and centre of everything (Sthitah Prithivyamiv Mandadah). Spanning millennia, the epic story of Himalayas encompasses a history of India’s spiritual and ecological salvation. Far from being wild and barren, the Himalayan area has had a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, water bodies and cultures that grew around it.

Pilgrims, adventure lovers, scientists, geologists and mountaineers from all over the earth came here seeking knowledge, information, routes for trade and a meeting point and conflict zone for the world’s super powers -- China, Russia and India.

But watching the ITBP men dredging the bodies of the dead workers from power plants inundated and destroyed by a recent flood, one wondered if the central leadership, the corporates and the state government hotly apportioning blame for environmental degradation on each other were aware that it was their constant push for a ‘sustainable development’ and religious tourism that created the scenario for this tragedy.

Uttarakhand’s remote Himalayan area is the ‘Maika’ (natal home) of two of India’s holiest rivers -- Ganga and Yamuna, along with their countless subsidiaries. The very names of these ancient villages surrounding Gangotri and Yamunotri read like a poem: Gomukh, Bhojbasa, Dharali, Harsil, Rainthal, Dayara, Badkote.

The irony is that this year the fast-receding glaciers near Nanda Devi which triggered off the floods, have ruined the village of Raini, the birth place of India’s first major public movement against environmental degradation.

This year when the snow came, it was supposed to firm up the glaciers’ diminishing form. But the old ecological balance had been disturbed by hare brained ‘vikas’. Area rivers were being dammed and pushed into underground tunnels to generate electricity for far away plains. And the state government was being applauded from the wings by various ministries for its proposal for a big expansion of the Char Dham Yatra.

The widening of roads in sensitive zones and building new ones through reserve forests were expected to bring in more footfalls and more money. Just one hanging piece of a glacier dropping into the rivers set forth a deluge that wiped out over two hundred lives and millions of rupees spent on the vikas.

No matter how much they claim to love the mountains, the fact is that most of our politicians and the Babus, sitting in Delhi or Dehradun, who draft their dreams into blue prints for vikas, remain urbane weekend visitors to these areas.

The Hindi versions of available tracts on environmental issues, copiously used both by officials, social workers and the media in the Hindi belt make for a strange reading. They include legal interpretations of internationally binding agreements on environmental protection along with detailed bureaucratic guidelines for encouraging community participation in environmental protection.

And even though nations speaking in multiple languages are signatories to these agreements, in India most of the original documents arrive in English. The tacit assumption being that the agency or agencies of government will have them translated in Indian languages.

This long exposure has handed the field level workers -- the Asha Didis, school teachers, and block level officials -- an awkward medium of communication. Out of cowardice or a constitutional eagerness to please, the field workers and their leaders usually just accept the strange Sarkari jargon as their normal voice. One minute they may be sipping tea with the workers and talking normally, the next, lecturing their disoriented listeners and using terms like ‘labharthi’.

This term, neither local nor global, is composed by joining together two Sanskrit terms, ‘labh’ and ‘arthi’. In colloquial Hindi, the word ‘labh’ means profit. ‘Arthi’ means one who seeks something. So, the term labharthi to the common man has begun denoting, not a humble receiver of benefits accruing out of something well done, but someone that seeks a profit.

Most of the Himalayan hill communities lived for centuries on forest produce, grazed their cattle in common fields, and drawn water from common resources. They had followed strict community rules about how to take only what you can replenish and never ever pollute the source of sustenance. This was made possible by conferring divinity over all the natural phenomena. The forests, the grazing lands, the rivers, they were all divine properties and you looted them at your own peril.

This simple logic saved the forest, water sources and grazing fields from human greed and exploitation even during droughts and floods. But when power dams and Yatra roads began to come up, locals were told they must sell community assets for a price the buyer will set. In local experience, all governments have unhesitatingly obliged those who were well-connected and well-heeled by presenting them with precious public land for a song. Thus, precariously located properties in ecologically sensitive zones have been sold after flouting all laws and norms, not once but several times over while the law looked the other way.

A generation ago the villagers would have chased these very buyers out of their village brandishing a sickle or a Khukri. The term ‘Samajik Vaniki’, unthinkingly and literally translated in English as ‘social forestry’, has now acquired deep ironic overtones. “If this is Samajik Vaniki,” an amused village woman once asked tongue in cheek, “what were we practising earlier, Asamajik Vaniki (anti- social forestry)?”

It was due to repeated assaults on their livelihood and dignity by politicians of Uttar Pradesh, who were arrogantly dismissive of the Pahadis, that folks from the hill regions raised a demand for a separate state.

Sadly, the last minute caste based politicking saw to it that heavily populated non hill districts like Haridwar, Haldwani and Udham Singh Nagar that were captive vote banks of wily politicians, got appended to the new state. Thus, the demographic imbalance that had put the political and recreational interests of the folks from the plains above life and death issues of the rural hill folk, was perpetuated. The rest, as they say, is history.

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