Uttarakhand Reconstruction

In the aftermath of the Uttarakhand disaster, most of the rescue work especially of pilgrims appears to have been completed now (second week of July), even though many thousands of people are still missing and may regrettably be dead.

Relief work, particularly for the many thousands of local inhabitants and migrant workers, has started sluggishly and is yet to pick up serious momentum. Reports suggest that numerous villages and settlements have been completely destroyed, people are stranded, many are injured or otherwise incapacitated, and struggling for food, water and medical care. Unfortunately, given the well-known weak leadership, poor condition and low capability of the state administration, only meagre governmental relief will reach people particularly in more remote areas, and that too very slowly. Badly built roads with unstable hillsides, whose collapse had contributed significantly to magnifying the impact of the disaster triggered by heavy rainfall, floods and landslides, are now also a major hindrance in relief operations.

Reconstruction of the road system in the disaster-affected areas is clearly going to be one of the leading priorities in the months to come. Not just the relief work, but also all the other restoration and rehabilitation work as well as the ability of local inhabitants to rebuild their normal life, education, health care and livelihoods will hinge upon quick restoration of a reliable, safe and good quality road network and other communication infrastructure. Some preliminary discussions have also begun on the much-needed longer-term reconstruction and redevelopment of thousands of villages and many towns in the region. Many central and state government departments and agencies will have to prepare plans and cost estimates. International agencies such as the World Bank, IDB and others have already agreed to extend financial support and also provide technical and other assistance.

Looming Danger

All these are no doubt necessary. But there is also great danger here. Large amounts of money will start flowing and a variety of works will be undertaken. As already evident from a few articles appearing in the media, many agencies, institutions, consultants and individuals will offer all manners of advice, suggestions and ideas: who will vet these and how will decisions be taken? Contractors will line up to take up works: how will fairness, transparency and cost-effectiveness be ensured, and how will cronyism be prevented?

Above all, what kind of reconstruction or re-development will be done? What kinds of structures would be built, using what techniques? Will there be new norms, standards, regulations, and will there be measures taken to ensure rigorous monitoring and strict compliance? Or will it all amount to nothing more than business-as-usual, resulting simply in the same poor quality infrastructure, built in the same environmentally destructive manner and by flouting all norms as before? Can or will we work to build a new, more sustainable pattern of development or will we perpetuate past follies?

A vigorous debate is already underway about what sustainable development in the fragile mountain ecosystem should mean, keeping in mind its carrying capacity. Many environmentalists and development commentators have raised important issues about dams and other hydro-electric projects, roads, urban settlements, construction on the riverbed, pilgrim traffic and other patterns of development which are seen to have had highly damaging consequences as seen in the Uttarakhand disaster. It would be a grave mistake if government agencies overseeing planning and implementation of reconstruction were to ignore the many insightful suggestions made by leading scholars, experts and development thinkers. In particular, there is need to ensure that the opportunity offered by the massive reconstruction exercise to change the current trajectory and embark on a different development path is not lost.

At the same time, there is also a danger that some of these alternative visions of development may be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some ideas acquire a self-propelled momentum, driven mostly by an ideological pre-disposition. These ideas appear, even if unintentionally, to suggest a development pathway that, while attractive to proponents, would find few takers among the local populace or among decision-makers. Such extreme views or over-zealous advocacy also run the risk of making conventional development appear more reasonable if not by itself, but by contrast.

This article deals with such a clash of ideas regarding two major areas of infrastructure, roads and dams or other hydro-electric projects.

Damn All Dams?

The debate over dams is, of course, nothing new. The furious debate over the Narmada and Tehri Dams brought the issue of large dams into sharp focus, and has polarised opinion over the past two decades along apparently irreconcilable pro- and anti- lines, leaving little room for those advocating a case-by-case analytical process. The anti-large dam position gradually extended to one opposed to all dams and other hydro-electric projects. This has come to the fore in the context of the Uttarakhand disaster with many articles arguing that the magnitude of the calamity, if not the disaster itself, can “indubitably” be attributed to dams and other hydro-electric projects in the upper Ganga and Yamuna basins, with some articles even specifically calling the Tehri Dam “the main culprit.”

One does not want to rake up old arguments about the merits and de-merits of dams. But one of the features of the main anti-dam campaign has been its resort to multifarious aspects identified as the major problematic, selected according to prevailing circumstances at any given time. For instance, large dams were opposed citing submergence and displacement of people and habitations (to my mind the major issue), seismicity, less life than projected due to siltation, water-logging in nearby areas, generation of methane from submerged vegetation and so on. Supporters of dams could then point to feasible technical solutions to many of these problems and argue with considerable validity that poor implementation is the problem rather than the concept itself.

In similar vein, after the Uttarakhand disaster accusing fingers have been pointed at all dams and other hydro-electric projects, chiefly run-of-the-river projects involving no impounding structure as such which comprise most of the power generation projects in the upper hills. Leaving aside the issue of dams for now, many arguments have been conflated in the enthusiasm to garner support for an essential opposition to any interference with the natural flow of the river. So run-of-the-river projects, in which the river water is basically diverted into tunnels where it drives turbines to generate relatively small quantities of power, are opposed on the grounds that the tunnels were built by dynamiting the hills. Or on grounds that diversion in any case is an interference with natural water flows. Nothing much can be done about the latter objection except abandoning all hydro-power, acceptability of this option being highly doubtful even among locals. But would the opposition remain if dynamite were not used, and the debris or sediment not dumped into the river? There is need to dis-aggregate the issues and arrive at as broad a consensus as possible reconciling the minimal risks, acceptable damage and benefits meeting different demands of society especially the local population such as electricity, co-benefits in local employment and other infrastructure.

It is not yet known how much damage has been caused to these run-of-the-river projects in the disaster affected areas. But we should be looking beyond repairs. Given the huge damage done by a proliferation of often poorly conceived and badly implemented hydro-electric projects especially in the recent past, a comprehensive review of hydro-electric projects in the upper Himalayas definitely needs to be done by a panel including independent technical experts, ecologists and social scientists covering all relevant aspects: hydrology and the flow of the river and of silt, impact on flora and fauna, impact on local populations including access to water resources, impact of the works on the geology particularly given the fragility of the Shivalik hills which are the youngest of the Himalayan ranges, techniques of construction including disposal of debris. It is also very important that the very numbers of such projects, their distance from one another, and their cumulative impact be evaluated and a holistic plan drawn up for hydro-electric projects on the upper reaches of the Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries.

Many experts and other commentators have recommended such a course. Many of these specific problems and points have also been raised by the CAG and other authorities from time to time. But it must also be realised that liberalisation and opening up of power generation to the private sector underpins much of the problem witnessed in recent times. Liberalisation and accompanying cronyism has seen a sudden proliferation of power generation projects in Uttarakhand (and other states such as Himachal) with many promoters having no background in this sector, leave alone experience of working in mountainous or fragile Himalayan areas. The nexus between these entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and political leaders of both the Congress and BJP, both of whom have ruled the state during this period, has resulted in clearances being given without careful consideration or due process, in lax regulation, poor monitoring, and authorities paying scant attention to or actively colluding with violation of norms regarding blasting, disposal of debris and so on, all cumulatively leading to massive problems as currently witnessed.

Will the alternative developmental vision also reverse this trend, roll back the laissez faire system of liberalisation and the lackadaisical involvement of all and sundry in power generation, leading to havoc in the mountains and rivers of Uttarakhand?

Issue of Roads

A similar set of issues arises in connection with roads. Many commentators have remarked caustically on the proliferation of roads in the Garhwal hills in recent times, and have again pointed to the use of dynamite, to exacerbation of pre-existing instability of the hills and to increasing landslips. It has been pointed out that more roads, increasing tourism and ever larger towns often on the riverbed or on unstable hillsides have all fed off each other and grown far beyond the carrying capacity of the mountain ecosystem. Some commentators have even wondered why so many roads are required, and why the Garhwal hills should not be allowed to retain their pristine and unspoiled beauty which is what attracted tourists in the first place.

We need to remember that one of the main laments during the prolonged agitation for a separate state and one of the major attributes cited of the backwardness of Uttarakhand, and of the Garhwal region in particular, was the lack of roads. People in the hills could not take their produce to market, children either had no schools or dropped out due to the long distances they had to walk every day, hospitals were out of reach for the sick, the infirm and for pregnant women, and the lack of communication in general were condemning the people of the region to perpetual backwardness.

So roads are essential, and good ones at that, which can outlast the vagaries of weather, the inevitable landslips and which can take buses and trucks carrying agro produce out and other goods into the region. Of course, there would be differences between the main highways and the village connectivity roads. But even a brief experience of so-called national highways in Uttarakhand, including on the high-traffic pilgrimage routes, would make anyone cringe.

Road building has indeed been a major problem and responsible for a huge amount of damage. Blasting has been used, de-stabilising already unstable hill slopes. Despite norms recommending using debris in road construction itself, the debris is mostly simply dumped into the river. Both private contractors and state-run agencies have been indulging in such practices, while authorities are simply not bothered.

But none of these are inevitable or essential for road-building, nor is it impossible to build good roads in the Himalayas. A quick look at Himachal or in the trans-Himalayan regions in Ladakh or Tibet would show this is not so.

Different techniques for road-building in unstable regions are available, and are well known. Hill slopes can also be stabilised after road construction to prevent landslips. In earlier times, slopes used to be allowed to stand for a few years, while loose debris gradually fell and attained stability levels for a few years. Nowadays nobody has time and nobody wants to wait. But there are processes to accelerate this process as well. There are also standards and norms for building good roads, even “green roads.” Of course, this might involve acquiring the necessary capability and would cost some additional money. But is that a problem? And should money be a constraint when the issue of sustainability of the mountain ecosystem and the Himalayan rivers, and the well-being of the people of Uttarakhand is at stake?

There are many problems. But there are solutions too.