Five years after flash floods ravaged the picturesque Kedarnath valley in Uttarakhand and brought focus on illegal construction in the flood plains, big hydropower dams on the Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Mandakini rivers and massive infrastructure development in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, no lessons seem to have been learnt.The state continues to pursue policies that aggravated the disaster in 2013. Mega infrastructure projects are being undertaken without assessing environmental impact and experts believe another disaster is waiting to happen. Authorities have turned a blind eye to numerous reports warning about the fragile nature of the Himalayan ecosystem and predicting similar extreme weather events.
The continuing push for dams and the increasing pressure from religious and adventure tourism have compounded the problem.Earlier this month, Uttarakhand High Court stayed all construction activity, including hydropower projects and road construction, till proper muck disposal sites are identified. But work continues.In June 2013, the entire Kedarnath valley and several adjoining districts were devastated by flash floods. Thousands of local people and tourists were washed away, the Kedarnath temple suffered much damage as did houses, shops and hotels on the banks of three rivers.
Since 2013, the Uttarakhand government has revamped the facilities at the holy shrine but the scars are hard to miss. One can still find the imprint of the devastation five years ago. There are trails of the washed-off old Kedarnath yatra route, a patch of mountain bearing the scars of the gushing floodwater that destroyed the area around the temple, which is otherwise surrounded by greenery.
At Sonprayag, which is the starting point of the arduous 16-km trek to the Kedarnath temple, there are posters of people who went missing five years ago. Their family members have promised rewards as high as Rs 5 lakh for any information.Many people have still not found their loved ones who went missing but that has not affected the flow of pilgrims. Since the doors of the temple opened on April 29 this year, a record number of over 600,000 visitors have paid obeisance.
According to administration officials, the number of visitors to Kedarnath this year is higher than that to the Badrinath shrine, which is a record in itself. Badrinath gets more visitors due to better road connectivity right up to the temple. Reaching Kedarnath involves a trek of 7-8 hours one way or a pony ride of 5 hours.
“We have now started tracking the yatra live with 10 cameras. The feed is sent to the Chief Secretary and the PMO. There are sector magistrates at regular intervals on the route to handle the management and disaster teams to be pressed into service immediately,” said Khushal Singh Rawat, Senior Manager, photo-metric counter at Sonprayag. The photo-metric facility to keep a record of the number of pilgrims was started after the 2013 flash floods.
The Uttarakhand government has taken up the responsibility of developing Kedarnath as a tourist attraction. A light-and-sound show has been launched at the temple. At least 10 private companies provide chopper services half a km from the shrine. During the May-June peak season, choppers fly 300 sorties, ferrying 1500-1800 passengers every day.
Environmentalists and local people have raised concerns about the development work and efforts to promote tourism, both of which are bound to pile pressure on the mountains. The Centre is constructing an all-weather Char Dham road linking Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamnotri and Gangotri, said to be a dream project of the Prime Minister. Since the project was begun, there has been massive cutting of mountains and chopping of thousands of trees, with all the waste being dumped in the rivers. This is alarming as muck disposal in rivers was said to be a reason why the 2013 floods were so bad.
Work on under-construction hydropower projects on the banks of river is proceeding at a fast pace. All this is happening while the decision on the proposed projects is still pending, with several expert committees opposing it. A case against these projects is pending in the apex court.Meanwhile, there are attempts to dilute the 2012 Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone notification. “The government is trying to dilute the 2012 Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone notification and seek permission for hydropower projects. The committee has submitted its final report on May 2 and now it is for the government to decide,” said Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and member of a committee formed to finalise the master plan of the 2012 Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone.
The local people have been protesting against building of dams because they believe existing dams had compounded the damage wreaked by the 2013 floods in adjoining districts.“Dams and other infrastructure projects are being constructed without consent of the local people, and despite awareness of the damage they will cause us, our houses and agriculture. Construction companies are flouting all environmental norms and construction is happening on the banks of the rivers,” said Sushila Devi, a petitioner in the case at the National Green Tribunal against the illegal muck disposal for the Char Dham highway project.
The tragedy has united the people and many have taken the state government to court over compensation. In many villages, people have spent money from their pockets to clean the muck deposited by the floods while in others places houses of the poor are lying closed.
According to villagers, the state’s apathy and brazenness can be seen from the fact that the oldest ITI in Srinagar -- in Pauri Garhwal district -- has been non-functional for five years with several machines and the entire campus still under the muck left by the floods. Some ITI courses were shifted to a makeshift campus while others were discontinued. Renovation work with World Bank funding has begun but it will be a while before the campus is fully functional.