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Lessons from Uttarkhand

The Uttarkhand disaster ought to sound the warning bell for the states across the country, which are undertaking various major developmental projects without a proper evaluation of environmental and ecological impacts. For the north eastern region of the country which shares a similar topography with Uttarkhand and more, in terms of river based development projects and infrastructures including dams, barrages, highways etc. and where there have been other disasters as a fall out of ecological imbalances; it is time to sit up and learn from what has happened there. This is not to say that the region has not been touched by the fall out of nature being overtaken by the development track. In fact, the region has seen recurrent flash floods and landslides every monsoon while the threat of major earthquakes looms large owing to the region’s location in a high seismic zone. Over and above the region’s topography, there is no doubt about the impact of large scale dam constructions in terms of ecological disturbances that can accelerate for the worst in the future. The earthquake in Sikkim; the landslide-induced dam outburst flood in Arunachal Pradesh`s Siang district  triggered by a breach in a dam on the Yigongzangbu river, a tributary of the Yarlung Zhangbo, the upper stream of the Brahmaputra and repeated flash floods in Assam are proof that climate change and development induced disaster is a reality in the region. Assam interestingly, is the focal point of climate disasters with floods augmented by drought or near drought like situations with river islands disappearing into the mighty Brahmaputra river. In Arunachal Pradesh, which is increasingly becoming the dam destination of development projects, no amount of public protests have been able to stop the ruthless pace which may wreak havoc in the years to come. Even in the debate following the Uttarkhand disaster, it is unlikely that national attention will be drawn to the amount of dams that are being planned in Arunachal Pradesh or even in the North east region, and whether any environmental studies and impact assessments have been taken or likely to be taken up. The lack of attention and focus is of course centered around the fact that the North east region is a source of power, oil and coal for the rest of the country while the people, their needs and issues faced are far removed from the great national consciousness. And because not much attention is paid to the voices on the ground, every indicator is that over 100 dams commissioned in the region may take off which in the long run can herald in unimagined impacts for people.

Over and above the twin factors of climate change and development induced factors impacting the environment and the safety of people, the rapid urbanization of cities and small townships that have led to concrete jungles, depletion of forests and green cover, rise in pollution levels and carbon emissions because of a rapid growing traffic on the roads and highways in the region and the lack of unpolluted river and drain water flow aids in the changes in climate that is unfolding before us today. Over and above these factors, the growth of buildings, colonies and other infrastructures including waste dumps along river banks and river siltation are also contributing to man made disasters like flash floods and acute water logging. The response to flash floods and water logging by the common man and authorities of course is to turn a blind eye and at the most, grin and bear with the slush and the mud. Not many linger on, to think about the long term impact of the water from flash floods and water logging over infrastructures like buildings, roads and drainage systems.

The writing on the wall is not clear when it comes to an either or call between choosing development over environment for this country since the tendency is to make a point of one over the other unlike what is happening in various countries of the world today where development is being carried out, but not at the expense of the environment and the fall outs of tampering with it. For Manipur which is fast getting under a concrete cover while the greenery is depleting, where oil rigging is being carried out, where barrages are being constructed to hand out tenders for contract work without benefitting the lives of people, where a major dam is already being commissioned, the writing on the wall is clear: we may be running towards a massive environmental disaster waiting to happen. What happened at Uttarkhand must serve as a warning for the state Government to learn lessons and to learn them well.



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