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Uttarakhand Calamity: SDPI demands review of planning & construction of dams in Indian Himalayas

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By Pervez Bari

Bhopal: The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) has expressed its deep anguish, anxiety and pain at the devastating loss of life, livelihoods, and homes in Uttarakhand and beyond caused by flash floods resulting from extremely intense rainfall which swept away mountainsides, villages and towns, irrigation canals, domestic water sources, dams, roads, bridges, and buildings — anything that stood in the way.

SDPI national president A. Sayeed in a statement has conveyed his party’s sympathy and condolence to the victims and bereaved families who have been devastated by the catastrophe of flash floods and has extended support to those still fighting for survival. The rescue operations put in by various agencies of the central government and some NGOs should be appreciated in this hour of crisis which is no less than a national calamity, he added.

Sayeed said excessive rainfall provides only a partial explanation for why the Himalayan hill States of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have been battered beyond measure in recent days. For man’s excesses and follies have also been a factor in the destruction that nature has wrought. It is evident that the problem of poor soil stability on the steep slopes in this fragile region has been compounded by man-made factors like indiscriminate deforestation and mindless construction. Hundreds of buildings along the banks of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi have been swept away in Rudraprayag district alone, he stated.

He pointed out that a 2011 notification to declare as eco-sensitive a zone extending to a distance of 130 km from Gomukh where the Alaknanda begins, up to Uttarkashi, remains unenforced to this day. The Uttarakhand government’s misgivings on this move, based on the argument that it would impede development, need to be re-examined in an informed manner. Strategies to ensure better overall management of water resources in the region are needed. However, observations by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2010 expressing concern over disturbance to the natural ecology and destabilisation of hill slopes caused by the construction of hydel projects along the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, and over the failure of the administration to plant enough trees to mitigate risks arising out of soil degradation, have a fresh resonance at this point.

SDPI has demanded that (i) the governments at the central and state level retreat to a low carbon pathway of development that has equity, decent employment, and sustainability at its core; (ii) the planning and construction of dams in the entire Indian Himalayas be reviewed, and all construction be halted until such a review is carried out; (iii) the use of explosives in all such infrastructure development works is completely stopped; (iv) the stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi be declared an eco-sensitive zone without further delay and (v) a river regulation zone be enforced such that no permanent structures are allowed to be constructed within 100 metres of any river.

Sayeed said that the destruction caused by the heavy rains across north India is a grim reminder of how woefully unprepared India is to respond to natural calamities. Laws defining the state’s role in such situations must be framed right away. As the scenario in flood-hit Uttarakhand is heading towards being disastrously grave, one has reasons to wonder whether our disaster management efficiency meets the international standards, or even the very least required standards.

The statement said that India is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world when it comes to the state’s role in combating natural disasters — disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation, disaster response, and rehabilitation and recovery. The preparedness level to combat natural calamities too makes a difference. This level of preparedness is a direct product of public policy towards natural disasters. India’s disaster management is still based on archaic post-disaster rehabilitation and damage control.

As such to prevent the kind of losses that Uttarakhand is experiencing, the Government’s approach towards disaster has to be turned upside down. Pre-calamity operations must be set off to minimise the losses and casualties in case of a natural disaster. The relief machinery lacks adequate training and management and is often found wanting in pre-planned contingency measures, relying, thereby, mostly on ad hoc measures that diminish the efficacy of its operations, the statement stated.

[Pervez Bari is a senior Journalist based at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. He is associated with IndianMuslimObserver.com as Bureau Chief (Madhya Pradesh). He can be contacted at pervezbari@eth.net]
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