Kedarnath Catastrophe - Wrath of the rivers

Kedarnath Catastrophe -  Wrath of the rivers
Highlights

In 1985, Rambada, the mid-way halting point of the 14 km trek to Kedarnath, was just what it was meant to be...

In 1985, Rambada, the mid-way halting point of the 14 km trek to Kedarnath, was just what it was meant to be - a resting place for tired legs, of both mules and men. The number of stalls serving quick refreshment was in single digits. But on that fateful day this June, there were about 5,000 people at Rambada, of which around 1,000 belonged to local business establishments. One example to prove how things have grown out of proportion in the hills! A whole set of reasons have together contributed to the tragedy which could have been avoided

badrinath in 2012

Sriparna Saha

Kedarnath, October 2012. It was 5.30 am. A bone-biting chill had engulfed the pilgrim town nestled at a height of 11,00 feet in the high Himalayas. The temple of Lord Shiva, an ancient stone structure was still a silhouette in the silvery predawn while behind it the snowcapped Kedar Dome peak towered in the strikingly blue backdrop. A typical day in Kedarnath revolves around the temple and begins quite early. Even at that hour a serpentine queue had formed near the front door. Amidst the rhythmic chanting of mantras emanating from the sanctum sanctorum, I stood amongst the devotees, braving the icy winds. I was eagerly awaiting my turn for a darshan of the jyotirlinga, regarded as one of the most sacred spots on earth.

A long chain of ramshackle stalls adorned the approach road to the temple. After done with divinity, I ventured into a tea stall which was on an evident expansion spree � the owner revealed that rooms were being constructed (of course illegally) on the first floor for accommodation of pilgrims- an extremely lucrative seasonal business. During the peak months of May and June when hordes of people visit the place, the average rate of a room simply skyrockets to unthinkable levels. "The rooms will be ready next season. I have the best location. The temple is just a stone's throw away." He was quite proud of his possession.

Did he ever imagine that hardly a few months later all his future plans would be washed away in a matter of minutes? Last week on the fateful morning of June 17, when a part of the Kedar Dome peak broke away and nature unleashed its fury on this temple town, this shop was one amongst the many that were either washed away by flash floods or buried under tonnes of slush left behind by the roaring waters of an aroused Mandakini, the river which flows beside this place. Only the ancient temple built by Adi Shankara more than 1,000 years ago was miraculously intact amidst scenes of desolation and heart rending devastation.

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The massive calamity that unfolded in Uttrakhand and particularly in the Kedarnath valley that day got substantially magnified due to illegal construction and rampant deforestation- the byproduct of aggressive unregulated development. Till about the 1980s, there existed only a handful of hutments at Kedarnath as it is a fragile valley falling under a seismic zone and is extremely prone to erosion and landslides.

However, recent satellite imageries depict that in the region, where thousands of pilgrims are still missing as I write this piece; innumerable buildings have come up next to streams and rivers in the last three decades. The Badrinath Kedarnath Temple Committee, which owns most of the land in the place, allowed rampant construction and opted for ostrich syndrome for obvious financial gains.

"The natural flow of water in Kedarnath has got blocked by huge construction in recent years," said an Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) official, an organisation which monitors hydrological flow of major river basins in India. During a visit to the Himalayas, one is expectedly overcome by the sheer magnificence of the mountain chain which is still "young" in geological terms and continues to be active, one of the main reasons for its instability (read landslides, flash floods). The problem gets compounded by disturbance and exploitation of the already-fragile ecosystem by a man-made demon named development.

In the last few decades, an intricate network of roads has been proliferating into the mountains, making some of the most remote areas more easily accessible. This has translated into a tremendous increase in the numbers of people visiting the mountains every year. The number of tourists visiting Uttarakhand, as per state records, increased from 1.11 crore to 3.11 crore between 2000-2010 -a growth of almost 300%. At current growth rates, the figure is projected to double again by 2017. The vehicular population in the state almost tripled between 2005-06 and 2012-13. Carrying capacity studies done in recent times show that many places in Uttarakhand, including Kedarnath, breached their infrastructure limits quite some time ago.

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Building infrastructure in the hills to match the growing human influx is a challenge that Uttarakhand until has not given a serious thought to, in spite of a number of master plans made and development reports prepared by various agencies. Presently over three-fourths of the available rooms in the hilly state is with low-cost hotels which are run by the locals. The low paying tourists and pilgrim crowd typically don't fit into the revenue models that high end hotels, governments and the tourism industry is interested in. Hence construction on most routes has just grown organically and illegally without any care for the environment. Also, putting a ceiling on the number of pilgrims and tourists visiting Uttarkhand is a political hot potato that no government is willing to touch.

Damming of the Himalayan rivers for purposes of hydro power generation also raises serious environmental concerns. Roughly 300 dams are proposed or under construction in the deeply cut valleys of India's mountainous north with the ambitious aim of transforming the Himalayan region into a powerhouse. Of that, around 70 hydel projects have been proposed on two main tributaries of the Ganga - Mandakini and Alaknanda. Two 20 km tunnels are being built to divert these rivers for hydel projects. Constant blasting of river banks has affected the local ecology. The green cover carpeting the slopes meant to absorb and check the water flow is being eroded in the name of hydel energy generation.

"Large-scale construction of dams and absence of environmental regulations has led to the floods," opines Sunita Narian, director general of Delhi based advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). "There is no local planning and local authorities are not in control. The houses built on river banks are falling like a pack of cards. The floods are completely man-made, avoidable and criminal," she says.

In the aftermath of the grave tragedy that has hit Uttarakhand, the politically backed builder mafia that was demanding withdrawal of the Central Government notification of the Eco-sensitive Zone (ESZ) from Gangotri to Uttarkashi (Under the notification, over 4,150 sq kms area was to be declared eco-sensitive, restricting commissioning of hydropower projects, quarrying activities, construction of roads in prohibited areas and also limiting the number of footfalls in the region) has suddenly fallen silent.

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In 2010, during the BJP regime, a CAG (Controller and Auditor General's) report highlighted that many of the hydroelectric power projects to be built in the Himalayas had been allotted to paan masala firm owners, cycle makers and garment manufacturers � people with no prior experience in constructing hydropower projects, leave alone building them in a seismic zone like Himalayas. It is a sad fact that had the environment not got degraded, one of the worst tragedies in our living memory perhaps would not have taken place. But now, will the concerned authorities care to wake up, take note of the great lapse and go in for a course correction so that such a tandav nritya- (Lord Shiva's Dance of destruction) can be averted in future? Only time will tell.

Way back in 1985 when I first visited Kedarnath, Rambada the mid way halting point of the 14 km trek � was just what it was meant to be - a resting place for tired legs, of both mules and men. The number of stalls serving quick refreshment was in single digits. With the passing of years, as religion became a big business, the stop over metamorphosed into a town, of course sans the proper infrastructure. Guest houses and eateries mushroomed along the banks of the river Mandakini. Mindlessly dumping garbage into the natural water channels day after day, year after year, they in a way dug their own grave.

On that fateful June morning, when the heavy downpour propelled Mandakini to breach its banks, flooding Kedarnath and more than 200 villages along the 14-km trek route, at that time there were about 5,000 people at Rambada, of which around 1,000 belonged to local business establishments. Almost all are missing as of date as Rambada has ceased to exist after the cloudburst. Though a disaster of gigantic proportions, a careful analysis only justifies its happening. The river, choked by unbridled construction and constantly bullied by men, has finally managed to extract its revenge.

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