Are we Indians learning the lessons nature is teaching us?

— A ‘Spirit of the Forest’

So the writing on the wall has become clearer. The calamity of Jammu & Kashmir follows the Uttarakhand calamity the very following year. The floods in J&K are estimated to be the worst in the past hundred years. The historical Lal Chowk of Srinagar town was completely devastated after being submerged under several feets of water for many days. More than 6000 villages in Kashmir valley and Jammu region were affected. Does it mean there is more beneath these statistics that we need to excavate before we move on into our happy rut of urban humdrum? Is there a subtext lying undetected among these ruins?

Causes of the disasters

Whether it is the floods of Mumbai in 2005, or the disasters of J&K and Uttarakhand, the blame goes to “very heavy rains over a very short period of time leading to incessant flooding”. Interestingly, a group of people attribute these disasters to “climate change”. But then the reason for these calamities is not really so difficult to fathom. It is now a well known fact that rapid deforestation and urbanization is the root cause of the ecological disasters that we have been witnessing at an alarming A man wades through a flooded road along the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagardegree and level for the past few years. A report by the Tribune states that it has been admitted by J&K State Government officials that roughly half of the area earlier occupied by lakes, ponds and wetlands has now been converted into human habitation. The Wular lake, one of the largest fresh water lakes of Asia where the Jhelum river flowing through the Kashmir valley drains, has shrunk by 87.58 sq. kms. Similarly, the area of the famed Dal lake of Srinagar has been reduced by half to 12 sq. kms and the average depth of the lake has reduced by 3 meters.

Some well-known school-book facts do not need environmental expertise of a climate-change conference to wake up to. We have all been reading since primary school how rapid deforestation accelerates the loss of soil causing siltation in rivers and water bodies. Further, loss of forest-cover leads to loss of cohesion in the underlying strata causing landslides. Some of these landslides often form temporary dams and eventually result in a deluge when a temporary dam breaches. Forests reduce the speed of flow of water, thereby, allowing more percolation and far lesser erosion. The problem is further compounded by development and unbridled construction on flood plains of rivers and reckless constructions very close to the river bank. Such was the case in the Uttarakhand due to which the damage that culminated on that unfortunate day was far more serious as compared to J&K disaster. In fact, there’s more up North if we care to look closer and deeper for a minute.

Himalayas: The fragile Ecosystem

Himalayas are the youngest mountain chain of the planet and are still much at the stage of formation. Due to this reason, there are widespread tectonic forces as the chain pushes against the Tibetan plateau. Though the hills may outwardly look very serene and majestic, they are actually very vulnerable to the slightest disturbance as these mountains are characterized by infirm top soil and unstable sedimentary deposits.

Yet, we are carelessly pushing the wagon of civilization forward and brutally prising open a price from environment as we stampede forward.

As our population grows and tourism finds new frontiers, the need for creation of new roads and further widening of existing ones has greatly increased. This has led to further destabilization of  slopes. Coupled with rapid deforestation of the slopes, the occurrence of landslides has grown manifold over the past decade adding to the woes of the native people. As the weather becomes more erratic year by year, the probability of such calamities occurring in some region of the Himalayas or the other in the coming years becomes far stronger.

Environmentalists argue that hydro electric dams play a major role in the occurrence of such natural calamities. Mining for limestone and other minerals play their role in the degradation of the ecosystem. In the state of Uttarakhand alone, there are 86 hydro-electric projects with an installed capacity of about 3600 mega watts (MW), the larger ones being the Tehri (1000 MW), Koteshwar and Vishnu Prayag (400 MW each).  Up ahead to exacerbate this situation, 41 hydro-electric projects with a proposed installed capacity of about 2400 MW are under construction. This includes the 1000 MW Tehri stage – II project and 330 MW Srinagar Project is Pauri district. What is even more alarming is that another 197 hydro-electric projects are proposed in the state with a proposed installed capacity of about 21,200 MW, that is, roughly six times the hydro-electric installed capacity at present. The proposed projects include 83 large hydro-electric projects (installed capacity of more than 25 MW) which will produce roughly 20,400 MW of electricity.

An aerial view of a flooded area in MuzzafargarhSuch hydro-electric projects are severely devastating, experts argue. Firstly, they cause large scale deforestation thereby rendering the mountains prone to erosion, landslides and bringing about a change in the natural ecosystem due to artificial plantation, mostly of commercial nature, as a part of catchment area treatment. Secondly, construction of dams involves extensive blasting and tunneling leading to weakening of the mountains and magnifying the disaster potential as a consequence. The disposal of muck generated due to blasting and tunneling is a huge problem and heedless dumping leads to very adverse impact on vegetation cover and pollution of water bodies.

Wrong operation of the dam in itself is a large disaster potential. For instance, in case of Uttarakhand disaster, when there was a great deal of water accumulation in the 400 MW Alaknanda Project, the water was not released, possibly with an intention of maximizing power generation. This led to massive buildup of boulders behind the dam. The rising water level of the river eventually led to the river finding a way by the side of dam which resulted in a massive amount of water released in a manner that caused a deluge downstream.

The Cost of Disasters

The losses in the state of J&K are estimated to be Rs. 100,000 crores. Over 300 people lost their lives. A preliminary survey estimates that floods damaged over 3.50 lakh structures including 2.5 lakh residential houses. About 12 lakh families of 5500 villages have been affected. The death toll in the Uttarakhand disaster was far higher with over 5,700 people presumably dead. The losses have been estimated at Rs. 30,000 crores.

But more than these monetary losses, there are people whose lives will never be the same again. The tourism industry in both these states is badly hit and the effect is more pronounced in Uttarakhand where a large section of the local population was dependent on tourism for their living. Others have been rendered homeless and landless and are forced to take up alternative occupations.

Have we really learned a lesson?

Forests are crucial to our survival and provide a host of physical and environmental benefits, as  the text books of primary classes teach us rightly. But this is a basic fact about which the policy makers are seemingly and blatantly ignorant, or there may be “compelling” reasons for them to do so. Sample this. Government of India constituted the committee in 2011 to study development in hill states, including the management of forest lands with special focus on the creation of infrastructure, livelihood and human development. Pressured by the Uttarakhand calamity of 2013, the committee submitted its report to the Planning Commission in October, 2013. The report included a concept paper titled ‘Disaster Risk Reduction and Sustainable Development’. However, no one among the decision making authorities in J&K found it worthwhile to go through the report. It is therefore not surprising that no committee has yet been formed by the Center or State Governments to look into the causes of the J&K flood.

And this is not all. A Disaster Management Policy (DMP) was framed in J&K in 2012 outlining the legal framework, institutional mechanism and systems in accordance with the Disaster Management Act of 2005. However, these mechanisms failed miserably at the time of the calamity. The disaster of J&K comes in the face of the report of the CAG in October, 2012 which pointed out that 1883 ha of forest land was diverted for non-forestry purposes without taking any land in lieu and also not A temple stands amid the waters of the flooded river Tawi after heavy rains in Jammuundertaking any compensatory afforestation for mitigation effect. Further, it was pointed out that possession of the land was transferred to user agencies without clearing payments from them in contravention of the rules. In 2013 again, the CAG pointed out that the Government of J&K diverted 10,800 ha of forest land for non-forestry purposes between 1991 and 2012 which included 680 ha of a wildlife sanctuary in Shopian for construction of Mughal Road without mandatory clearances. What was more alarming was the finding of the CAG that the funds for afforestation were diverted for purchase of office equipments and furnishing, vehicles etc.

The situation in the State of Uttarakhand was not any better either. Within a month of the calamity which took place in June, 2013, environmentalists shot a letter to Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) demanding suspension of the environmental clearances given to hydro electric projects in the state and carrying out a thorough evaluation of their role in the disaster. But the concerns raised in the letter failed to move MoEF. It was only after the Supreme Court of India took suo moto cognizance of the matter and passed directions on August 13, 2013 that a committee of experts was formed to look into the impacts of the hydro-electric projects. The committee eventually recommended scrapping of 23 out of the 24 proposed hydro electric projects proposed within or in vicinity of 10 kms from protected areas (national parks and sanctuaries) and ecologically fragile areas.

By and large, the state of management of the country’s environment and forests need a serious consideration. While the police force and other paramilitary forces have undergone modernization over the years, the Forest Departments of the states who are the custodians of our valuable forests of the country, both in terms of the value of timber they harbour as well as umpteen ecological benefits, are very poorly equipped. There is severe dearth of vehicles in the forest divisions and to carry out even basic patrolling and infrastructure, available resources at the disposal of the department are paltry. The staff strength is reduced to less than two-thirds of its sanctioned strength due to lack of fresh recruitment and a majority of its field staff is more than 45 years of age and highly demotivated.

The Forest Conservation Act was enacted in 1980 to check uncontrolled diversion of forests for non-forestry purposes. In an overall paradigm shift in perception, this very Act created for preservation of forests in the country is suddenly being perceived as the greatest hindrance to “development”. The other perceived major hindrance Trees on the slopes of Totu forest burn during a forest fire, on the outskirts of the northern Indian hill town of Shimlato development is the notion of “Protected Areas”, National Parks and Sanctuaries of our country. As per the orders of the Supreme Court, any project falling within 10 kms from the boundary of the Protected Areas needs clearance from the National Board of Wildlife. The reason for this paradigm shift is quite simple to comprehend. Very large tract of forests are available to be taken up for development projects and do not involve any land acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R), which is not only a costly process but is also very cumbersome and sometimes, takes years. Forest lands, on the other hand, can be acquired over a relatively short period of time by paying a nominal Net Present Value (NPV) and cost of compensatory afforestation. It is not surprising that there is a huge degree of pressure from the development lobby for clearance of forest lands for development.

It is indeed ironical that conservation of forests and wildlife are being majorly executed by various courts of the country. The state of affairs pertaining to conservation has come to such an end that departments and ministries responsible for protecting the forest and environment for the benefit of the nation can be seen strongly advocating the cause of private parties whose projects of high environmental impact over forest lands have been cleared by them and are due for scrutiny before the courts.

The impacts of climate change are making their presence felt more strongly with each passing year. Changing weather patterns and rainfall is already creating havoc on the agricultural productivity of the country as in other parts of the world. Eventually, it is the people who suffer and pay the price for devastation of forests that is nonchalantly and irresponsibly allowed by a handful of government servants at the helm of affairs. The precarious balance between conservation and development needs to be understood and achieved. Only time can tell whether we choose to be green….. or pay the price for it!

The author has chosen to stay anonymous for his professional, personal and ethical reasons. 


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