Uttarakhand glacier ITBP
Rescue operation after a broken glacier caused a major river surge that swept away bridges and roads near Tapovan dam in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India Image Credit: AFP

“Turn back! Turn back!”

It was July 2011. I was visiting the Hindu shrine of Badrinath, located high up in the Himalayas in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand with my family. We were on the way from Rudraprayag to Joshimath, when suddenly, a bunch of urchins started shouting those words and frantically waving us back.

While we were confused as to what was going on, Amrit Singh, our driver, was swift to react. He immediately put our rented SUV on reverse and sped back about 200 metres. As the car came to a halt, we heard a strange rumbling sound.

It started growing louder and louder until we saw a great mass of rocks, mud, trees and debris gushing down the mountainside. In less than a minute, the spot where our car would have been was washed away by the landslide.

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With the road now shut, we retraced our journey back to a village called Mayapuri, where we put up at a small hotel for the night. As we were settling in, other pilgrims, similarly stuck as us, started trickling in. One of them was a member of the local panchayat (village council).

As we fell talking, I came to know about the developmental projects being undertaken in the region, prominent among them being the plan for building hydroelectric projects in the state.

Last week, as like millions of others, I stared at my screen, watching the horrific onslaught of the Tapovan glacier breaking through the mountainside, I remembered that night in that quaint little Indian village, and the dreams of that council member.

With Nature taking its toll on the countryside, is it probably time to ponder about the effects of such projects on the environment and people’s lives.

Let’s keep the larger discussions away for the moment and focus on the basics. To build this sort of a project, the first thing you will need to do is to cut down a huge number trees to make space for the facilities that would be built.

Thus, the very act of the development project begins with an act of deforestation. With the limited amount of land available in the hills, it is unlikely that it will be possible to plant a number of trees in the same area to make up for the loss.

Moving mountain

Along with this, take into account the issues of diversion of the water flow into the hydel channels for power production, and the consequent impact on aquatic life and the other lives that it supports. The sheer scale of such an enterprise involves, literally, ‘moving mountains’.

As we know, geologically, the Himalayas are among the youngest mountain chains on our planet. As a result, the mountains are themselves quite unstable, as several earthquakes have shown. Add to this the burden of mega-projects, and the instability of the entire ecosystem of the mountains is accentuated. My personal experience with that landslide still haunts me sometimes.

Eight years ago, in 2013, Nature had once before unleashed her fury on human activity in the region, with the devastating floods in Kedarnath.

I remember comparing the photographs of the floods with the ones I had taken on my journey in 2011. It was clear from the comparison that all the river did was to retake its original course, which had been taken over with human settlements over the course of time.

While causes for the glacier break are being looked into — climate change being the prime suspect, the pictures that we have seen clearly show that the floodwaters ravaged the entire stretch of the hydroelectric project that was coming up there. Thus the impact of human intervention has to be taken into account in the severe loss of life that has come about.

Which brings us back to the old question of environment vs development. The issue again is one of finding the right balance. Since electricity still remains a luxury to millions in India, hydroelectric projects may provide the answer to light up their lives.

But the scale of such projects is now in question with the devastation that we have seen in Tapovan. Because even if we assume that the break in the glacier was a natural phenomenon, it is clear that the loss of human lives would have been much less if the project was not being developed there.

In view of the fragile ecology of the Himalayas, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at an alternative development model, one that would lift the economic situation of the region and its people, without harming the environment. Sustainable tourism is the first thing that comes to mind.

Large parts of Uttarakhand are commonly termed as ‘Devbhumi’, considering the large number of Hindu pilgrimage sites all over the state. Each is connected to some mythological event, and draws huge numbers of pilgrims from all over the country each year. Of course, this was the situation before COVID-19 hit, and hopefully will begin again soon.

Pilgrim tourism has thrived in the hills for centuries. Perhaps that is the reason why planners have not yet given it a concrete shape.

As of today, while facilities keep growing, except for a few roads, everything else has grown haphazardly, with scant regards to aesthetics and the environment. As another ‘Himalayan blunder’ unfolds in our hills, authorities would perhaps learn some lessons and plan the region’s development accordingly.

On my part, I hope to meet that village councillor someday again to see whether he has changed his ideas about development.