by Heeya Firdaus
Image: Uttarakhand Information Department
Eight years after the devastating Kedarnath floods, the North Indian state of Uttarakhand once again finds itself battling turbulent natural disasters that are tearing through populated villages, reducing all that comes before it to rubble.
On February 7th, a violent flash flood swept through the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. A part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off, triggering a flood into the Rishi Ganga river which surged to dangerous levels.
Reckless construction of energy projects near endangered rivers of the Ganges river-system has caused millions living in the villages on the slopes of the Himalayas, where these rivers originate, to live in constant fear of the lethal effects of floods, landslides and other disasters triggered by unsound human practices and global warming. Despite petitions from locals, neither the central nor the state governments have paid any heed to the magnitude of disastrous consequences the locals have to endure.
While the numerous Himalayan hydroelectric plants like the Rishi Ganga Power Project, Tapovan, and Vishnuprayag increase the amount of “sustainable” energy sources in the country, its unregulated construction is counterproductive. The presence of manmade energy projects in environmentally sensitive areas disrupts the area’s natural ecological balance and triggers disasters. Hence, the very step taken to prevent such natural disasters becomes its cause.
The government’s approach towards such projects seems to be fuelled by a profit motive and the belief that the region is nothing but a resource frontier devoid of ecological value. In recent years, the government has gone out of its way to adopt a pro-business agenda that extends into the sphere of environmental policies and privatises construction while easing the process of obtaining clearance.
India’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a legislation meant to protect the environment by prescribing specific rules and requirements for construction in various regions. During the pandemic, the Indian government hastily passed a highly contentious amendment of this law which eases the restrictions and certification requirements and essentially makes it extremely easy for corporations to undertake large projects in protected regions, allowing them to exploit valuable resources and vulnerable regions. The amendment legitimises some of the practices which were previously not allowed and provides for greater industrialisation of protected lands. “Development” projects like dams, pipelines and roads within protected reserves have also been cleared by the government at an alarming rate and without any discretion. No attention has been paid towards the damage it will cause as endangered species lose key habitats and millions of people are put in harm’s way as their villages become prone to floods, landslides and earthquakes.
Anish Andheria, president of the Wildlife Conservation Trust says, “While the government is trying to maintain its GDP, it’s having a cascading effect. I don’t think the government is anti-environment, but development is part of its agenda, this should not be happening at the cost of our ecosystem as these linear intrusions impact biodiversity. What they need to understand is that you cannot liquidate natural resources as you cannot go back in time and make up for these losses.”
The inevitable results of such reckless endangerment of the environment has already started to make itself visible. The government has consciously ignored reports which indicate that the temperature in the once frigid Himalayas is increasing at an exponential rate resulting in incidents such as the recent floods which occured due to a glacier breaking in the middle of winter!
In the name of “development” the government has stealthily given the go-ahead to more than 130 environmentally lethal projects across India. This includes the extension of the Sevoke-Rangpo railway track through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary which has resulted in over 40 elephants being brutally mowed down by trains in the last 12 years and the construction of a national highway through the famous Jim Corbett National Park (a tiger habitat). The governments has also forced through parliament the construction of numerous dams, causing massive submergence of wildlife habitat and villages, roads that destroy the only breeding ground of flamingos in the country and the construction of a hydroelectric plant, permanently damaging a one-of-a-kind and ecologically sensitive habitat, the Loktak Lake. What makes the BJP government’s attitude towards environmental safety even more clear is the fact that it has re-commissioned several projects which were shut down by previous governments because they were environmentally damaging. Under Prime Minister Modi’s regime, laws like the Wildlife Protection Act enacted by previous governments have been diluted to make it easier for companies to bypass them without any consequence continuing to engage in unsound environmental practices.
The government continues to treat the environment as a “novelty” issue that need not be prioritised. It is seen as a frilly, ‘westernised’ social cause that is only to be used as redundant decoration to make policies seem palatable to young and liberal voters.
The tweaking of environmental laws to benefit big corporations has become a typical characteristic of the BJP Government which continues to favour industries at the cost of not only the common people but crucial environmental safeguards as well. What they fail to realise is that they might not share the villages that are getting washed away with the impoverished population but they do share the land, the air and water. It is only a matter of time before corporate money is no longer able to shield them from the crumbling environment and its ferocious forces.