Change policies to avoid disasters


Right decisions taken by policy makers at the right time, could have avoided catastrophes in the Himalayan region, which have escalated of late.

Recent years have witnessed a spate of disasters in Himalayan region, in which the damage from adverse weather was greatly accentuated by man-made factors. We need to draw some essential lessons from these in the form of important changes in development policies and priorities for the entire Himalayan region.

Let’s consider what a high-level appraisal committee of the Environment Ministry said about the Tehri Dam Project (TDP) in Uttarakhand, “Taking note of the unacceptable risk involved, extremely poor status of readiness to deal with the hazards, and unprecedented damage in case of a breach or over topping the Committee reiterates it’s considered view that it would be irresponsible to clear the Tehri dam as currently proposed.”

More specifically the committee said, “Considering the almost total certainty that a strong earthquake of magnitude greater than 8.0 on Richter scale will occur in the region during the life of the dam, and considering that the dam design does not provide for such an earthquake the committee has no option but to conclude that construction of the Tehri dam, as proposed, involves totally unjustified risks. The magnitude of the disaster that would follow, if the dam collapsed, strengthens the committee’s opinion that approval to the construction of this dam, as proposed, would be irresponsible.”

The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) had not given the necessary attention to the hazards and risks of TDP. This report said, “Though despite repeated requests the THDC did not provide the committee with the risk analysis in terms of the impact of dam failure on the life, property and cultural heritage, our own tentative calculations suggest that if the Tehri dam collapsed, it would cause a flood wave which would wipe out Rishikesh and possibly Haridwar. This wave would wash away most of the settlements around this region.”

On the basis of a simulation exercise this report went on to provide estimates of how many hours it’ll take to devastate very densely populated urban areas in the Ganga valley in the case of any damage to TDP. The authorities merely made some minor adjustments and speeded up the project. The state minister who was involved in pushing ahead the project later called this the biggest mistake of his life, but by then it was too late.

At the time of the devastating earthquake in Uttarkashi, several reports pointed out that damage had been most acute in precisely those areas where a tunnel based hydel project Maneri Bhali had been built. This led to large-scale use of explosives not just for the construction of these projects, but also for widening the roads, so that extra-large machinery needed for tunnelling work could be transported. These explosions made the already-existing landslide zones more unstable. What is the rationale given for such decisionmaking?

Leaving aside the obvious role of corruption, at the policy level this is justified on the basis of a completely distorted view that such hazards have to be accepted if the high energy potential of the region is to be achieved. It is important to emphasise that there are other, much less hazardous ways of utilising the energy potential.

For hundreds of years the villages of the Himalayan region have tapped the energy of flowing water in the form of thousands of watermills. In more recent times, despite the overall neglect of watermills, some initiatives have been taken to add some electricity generation in these watermills with encouraging results. Villagers have welcomed these efforts as this enabled them to meet their power needs for domestic purposes as well as village-level cottage industries. One needs to make available technical expertise to villagers to plan such hydel generation on their rivulets and other water sources as can be done without harming their villages and forests. There should be a special emphasis on educated youth and women in this effort, in the process creating highly creative tens of thousands of jobs all over the Himalayan region.

Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra

The writer is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who writes on social concerns.