Ecological and climatic hazards loom large across the country: landslides and abnormal warming in the Himalayas, sea-level rise in the deltas and estuaries, unchecked dredging of rivers, endangered tribes and marine species in the Andaman-Nicobar archipelago are just a few. Many issues vanish from public memory, but survivors continue to struggle.

Environmental disasters are a ticking time bomb, and India is no exception. The country has experienced a number of environmental disasters in recent years, including the Bhopal gas leak and the Uttarakhand floods. These disasters have caused widespread damage and loss of life, and they serve as a reminder of the importance of environmental protection.

Reality of disasters

India is living the sad reality of disasters, particularly those in the Himalayan states, being conveniently forgotten. Those responsible for these events are often not taken to task, nor is any accountability fixed. These disasters are actually Himalayan both in nomenclature as well as impact.

The latest in the series of these disasters is the glacial lake outburst in Sikkim less than two weeks ago. This tragedy had followed the unprecedented disaster witnessed by Himachal Pradesh merely two months ago.

The monumental tragedy has already vanished from the pages or discourse of the so-called mainstream national media. People who have faced innumerable losses continue to struggle to put their lives back on track. The year 2023 had started with the land subsidence at Joshimath.

The Sikkim tragedy has once again brought into focus the often raised and conveniently forgotten questions regarding the development needed across the mountain states. Shoving down a model that reaps so called ‘developmental benefits’ in the plains simply does not serve any purpose in the hilly terrain.

Observers point out that erecting unplanned projects and buildings may serve as a tool for the political class to fool the masses. However, the people do understand how the local ecology, environment and sustainability is being sacrificed at the altar of a ‘development model’, that serves the interests of a chosen few while it unleashes a cascading misery for the majority.

Sikkim Disaster

It is amid the recent Sikkim disaster that a call has been raised once again to reframe Himalayan disaster and climate discourse while putting people, indigenous local knowledge and governance at the centre.

‘Disaster Making in the Himalaya’, a recent study by Himdhara Collective that has been working on issues related to the Himalayan population, ecology and environment, states that development policy has induced a cycle of disasters in the Himalayas. It added that the warnings have not been heeded and it is the State that is accountable.

In Sikkim, the disaster is a pointer towards the continuous destruction in the Himalayan states. Each has caused widespread distress due to loss of life, property and an uncertainty over how the future would look for mountain communities. Sikkim’s tragedy has inflicted another deep wound on the Himalayan communities (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam and other parts) who have had no respite from the cycle of catastrophes throughout this year.

A statement issued by Youth for Himalaya, a collective with members from different states of western and eastern Himalayas committed to social and ecological justice in the region, has listed some stark facts about what the people are facing.

“Starting from the news of the Joshimath land subsidence crisis in January, Doda land subsidence crisis in February, to the destruction caused during monsoons in Himachal and then last week’s destruction in Sikkim. All these events in the chronological order are defining how life has become uncertain and dangerous, throughout the year, in the Himalayan region.

“While this destruction has gravely affected Himalayan regions, the fertile plains on the foothold of Himalaya were also affected, as is evident from the Sikkim floods that also caused havoc in the North Bengal and Himachal floods that hampered the daily lives of communities in Punjab. The same happened in Uttarakhand where the Van Gujjars suffered.

“The response to the community’s appeals since the past decade and more have been nothing more than negligible and apathetic. This is evident from the fact that none of these crises was designated as a ‘National Disaster’, and still no long term strategy has been formulated even after unprecedented damage caused by these disasters, to mitigate and adapt before the next crisis hit the region again,” the Collective has stated.

Govt failures

It needs to be underlined here that the Central government’s failure to designate the disaster in Himachal Pradesh as a national disaster is fast snowballing into a major political issue ahead of the forthcoming Parliamentary elections. The impact of this disaster leading to heavy flooding in Punjab is also assuming the same proportions.

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“As for the Sikkim crisis, which is the epicentre of the current glacial outburst, groups like Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), have been advocating against large dams and concretization of rivers since the last decade. Their resistance to the destructive developmental model in their region is notable, historic and sad, as no one in the government ever took notice of it.

“What they have been warning against for so long has now become a sad reality for the people of Sikkim. The large dams over Teesta acted as a water bomb, which when broken under the pressure of flood, brought tonnes of concrete muck which caused havoc in Sikkim as well as Northern part of West Bengal.

“On one hand, the government paid no heed to the early warnings by the Himalayan communities regarding the construction of large dams, road widening projects, promotion of uncontrolled tourism, rapid concretization leading to land use change and on the other it had no flood warning system of its own in place.

“So much so that a senior bureaucrat has gone on record to say that ‘the event at Lhonak occurred between 9.30 pm to 10 pm on October 3, it hit Chungthang dam 62 kms down at 12-12.30 midnight and hit the Dikchu dam another 53 kms at 2 am. Even after 4-5 hrs after the event occurred at Lhonak the main dams on the river were not notified’. This shows the level of negligence vis-a-vis dam safety mechanisms – all the institutions involved are thus culpable,” the statement reads.

The Youth for Himalaya have pertinently highlighted that a decade ago the Kedarnath tragedy served as an eye opener for the people of the country and the government. “But the mindless concretisation of these regions in the last ten years and continued negligence of social and environmental laws serves as proof that these disasters are state-led development disasters.

“This is evident from the fact that National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams were not sent in there on time by the central government even after the massive devastation in Sikkim, which is highly condemnable. Be it the floods in Himachal or Joshimath land subsidence in Uttarakhand, the Centre has been continuously ignoring the disaster in the Himalayan states and is not declaring it as a national disaster.

“Even after so many days of these devastating floods, ration and water are still not reaching the affected areas. In the relief camps, the risk of water borne diseases like diarrhoea, viral, dengue etc. is increasing day by day. Thousands of people are living in these relief camps and they are being overwhelmed,” the organisation stated.

It has underlined an urgent need of air support in the completely disconnected parts of Sikkim for rescue and relief work along with the devastation being declared a national disaster. It has called for a relief package so that normal life can be restored as soon as possible.

It added that facilities of ration, medicines, network, electricity and water should be immediately restored to the people and measures should be taken to prevent water-borne diseases by paying attention to health services. The most important is the demand for an independent inquiry into the ‘negligence in the safety system of dams and bridges’.

Another important intervention that has been called for is that mass tourism should be stopped in favour of regulated and responsible travel. The organisation has echoed the call coming for a long time from various other states on halting dams and hydro power projects in the Himalayan regions immediately. In addition there is a need for a detailed safety audit of all existing dam projects that must be carried out at the earliest.

On October 6, the government had stated that, “The central government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is standing shoulder to shoulder with Sikkim. The central government has assured all possible help to the government of Sikkim. union home minister and minister of cooperation Amit Shah has approved release of both the instalments of central share of State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to Sikkim, amounting to Rs 44.80 crore in advance, for the year 2023-24, to help the state in providing relief measures to the affected people.

“Further, to make an assessment of damages caused due to a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF)/cloud burst /flash floods, the ministry of home affairs has constituted an Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT), which will visit the affected areas of the state shortly. Based on the assessment of IMCT, further additional central assistance from NDRF to Sikkim will be approved, as per laid down procedure.”

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It added, “In the early hours of October 4, due to incidents GLOF/cloudburst /flash floods, there was a sudden surge in flows in the Teesta river, which washed away several bridges, parts of NH-10, the Chungthang dam and has impacted several small towns and several infrastructure projects in the upper reaches of the river valley in Sikkim.

“The situation in Sikkim is being closely monitored by the central government at the highest level on a 24×7 basis. The central government is providing full support to the government of Sikkim by mobilising timely logistics resources to supplement the efforts of the state government to deal with the situation effectively.

“The logistics support provided includes deployment of adequate teams of NDRF, Indian Air Force helicopters and Army personnel along with necessary search and rescue equipment. Further, technical teams of ministries of power, telecommunications and roads, highways and transport are assisting for timely restoration of damaged infrastructure and communication network in the state.”

Meanwhile, Youth for Himalaya stated, “We will keep on speaking against these development disasters, and in favour of local communities of Himalaya, until there is a systemic response and accountability from the government.”

The report released by Himdhara Collective that largely focuses on community perspectives on landslide hazards in Kinnaur, it highlighted that disaster response evolved since 2005 has been in the domain of ‘managing’ disasters limited to rescue and recovery. It has stated, “Whereas the recent spate of disasters challenges the narrowness of the disaster discourse in the Himalaya and exposes the complete disregard for systemic change towards prevention and mitigation.”

The report was released alongside a discussion where the speakers included Manshi Asher and Himshi Singh from the Himdhara Collective alongside Roshan Lal, Jiyalal Negi, and Pramiti Negi who are prominent activists from Kinnaur. The emphasis was on a holistic inter-disciplinary rethinking towards systemic change with local communities at the centre. The issues raised by them mirrored the concerns of the people of Sikkim as well.

The study itself is a collaborative effort, involving various community groups in the tribal district of Kinnaur, a multi hazard zone where over 1500 landslide prone sites have been identified by the government.

“We understood that criticality of localised place-based insights, invaluable indigenous perspectives based historical lived experiences in a landscape prone to landslides, something that is given no importance in disaster and climate policies,” Himshi Singh said.

Community perceptions

The study aimed to understand local community perceptions of living in a landslide-prone landscape. It also delved into historical shifts in socio-ecological systems, the contribution of climatic changes and hydropower projects in multiplying risks and scrutinised state as well as community responses to these disasters in recent years.

The document challenges conventional narratives that portray the Himalayas as ‘inherently’ fragile and attribute disasters solely to the global climate crisis. This has led to narratives using terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘unpredicted disaster’ in the media and resulted in complacency as well as the lack of accountability amongst governments and scientific bodies.

The report underscores the importance of considering historical factors like colonialism, neo-liberal extractive development in contributing to disaster and climate risk in Himalayan regions. It emphasises the links between landscapes, societies, economies, and politics, highlighting their role in building resilience or driving vulnerability in a diverse ecosystem.

“In the past there had been a strong local consciousness of mountain hazards (like landslides and floods), evident in oral narratives, language, cultural and societal practices and occupational diversity. Mobility, Ownership of resources and collective action contributed significantly to govern life and livelihood and thus local resilience and adaptability,” said Manshi Asher.

Roshan Lal Negi, a linguist, emphasised the presence of local geographical knowledge and wisdom in the indigenous language, songs and names of villages. Over the past few decades a rapid breakdown of these, combined with state and market dependence, has led to heightened sense of risk. The palpable uncertainty is also compounded by the climate crisis, the study found.

“Post-independence State welfare policies and development in Kinnaur initiated with motorable roads along with events like the 1962 trade halt, Schedule V area declaration, land reforms, and horticulture promotion opened up new opportunities but also triggered significant socio-economic and cultural shifts,” Prakash Bhandari said.

It was pointed out that the 1990s witnessed a complete shift to cash-based horticulture and commercial cultivation and rapid land use changes driven by 30 small and large hydropower projects with an installed capacity of 4000 MW have come up here. 90% of all the forest diversion in Kinnaur forest division, has been for hydropower projects and transmission lines officially devouring more than 11,500 trees.

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The Sutlej basin has experienced a 97% surge in glacial lakes due to warming. “Climatic shifts marked by reduced snowfall and increased rainfall, along with land use changes, lead to frequent disasters like landslides and floods in Kinnaur. Mega hydropower projects, backed by global institutions and local interests, impose unequal risks, disproportionately affecting marginalised communities,” Jiya Lal Negi said.

Himalayan Disguise

The panellists underscored that the Moorang and Pooh regions exhibit heightened susceptibility to erosion and landslides, with 67% of the landslide-prone area facing risks from planned hydropower projects. While Nichar region constituted only 14%, of the total landslide-prone area this is where the impact of sudden rainfall, leading to flash floods triggering landslides and subsidence, as cascading and creeping disasters was ubiquitous, especially around hydropower project sites.

“While it is the fatal tragedies like Nigulseri that catch media attention it is the gradual and incremental displacement, a biswa of land, a crack on the wall, a handful of families, at a time, that remains an invisibilised impact and has affected the local lives and livelihoods irreversibly,” it was stated.

The speakers raised the all important aspect of the state and policy failure in responding to the disasters as they pointed out that whether in Kinnaur or the rest of the Himalayan belt, these disasters are complex, cascading and compounding but not isolated events. This makes it difficult for an event to be attributed to a single ’cause’.

“Hydropower companies benefit from holding flood waters and generating revenues and if there is damage it is covered by insurance. But all the costs are borne by the local people and ecology. Individual Panchayats through ‘agreements’ with the companies hold companies accountable for compensation and rehabilitation in case of disasters but agreements are unimplemented, often bolstered by the state’s reticence due to lack of ‘scientific correlation’ between construction induced landslide aggravation. If this is not a kind of slow violence, what is?” the speakers said.

It was pointed out that the government in the name of mitigation only has techno-managerial solutions like plantations or structural engineering which have failed.

Some of the major demands aired on the occasion included district landslide hazard zoning, identifying risks, hazards, and vulnerabilities on sensitivity maps be made accessible to Panchayats and regularly updated with community involvement.

It was also sought that land-use plans and land capability map preparation under Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) and Community Forest Resource (CFR) committees be formulated with the consultation of the gram sabhas for which financial and technical support should be provided to Panchayats. It was further asserted that integration of geological stability criteria into approvals for roads is essential and participation of local Panchayats and forest rights committees in planning and monitoring be ensured.

In addition to this there is a need for proper drainage planning in urban and rural areas for safe wastewater disposal. No construction work should be allowed that obstructs natural drainage and such information should be part of the disaster training provided to Panchayats.

India’s environmental disasters are a ticking time bomb, and the government must take action to prevent a catastrophe. The country’s air and water pollution is among the worst in the world, and its forests are being rapidly depleted. This is having a devastating impact on human health and the environment.

Advice to government

The government must do more to address these issues. It needs to invest in renewable energy, reduce pollution emissions, and protect forests. It also needs to educate the public about the importance of environmental protection.

The following are some specific actions that the government can take:

  • Invest in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This will help to reduce India’s reliance on fossil fuels, which are a major source of air pollution.
  • Reduce pollution emissions from vehicles and factories. This can be done by implementing stricter emissions standards and providing incentives for businesses to invest in clean technologies.
  • Protect forests from deforestation. Forests play an important role in cleaning the air and water. The government should work to prevent illegal logging and replant trees that have been cut down.
  • Educate the public about the importance of environmental protection. People need to be aware of the dangers of pollution and the importance of protecting forests and other natural resources.

The government must take action now to address India’s environmental disasters. If it does not, the country will face a catastrophe. ■ #hydnews #khabarlive #hydkhabar

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A senior journalist having 25 years of experience in national and international publications and media houses across the globe in various positions. A multi-lingual personality with desk multi-tasking skills. He belongs to Hyderabad in India. Ahssanuddin's work is driven by his desire to create clarity, connection, and a shared sense of purpose through the power of the written word. His background as an writer informs his approach to writing. Years of analyzing text and building news means that adapting to a reporting voice, tone, and unique needs comes as second nature.