By B.G. Verghese
Whether a second cloudburst forecast in Uttarakhand matures or not,this is a time for sober reappraisal of how to manage natural disasters in future. Climate change augurs not less rain or discharge but new weather patterns and related parameters to which we must adapt through better warning and disaster management systems, improved development designs and standards and other defensive measures. Less development as advocated by some could well mean more trouble in future.
It has been passionately argued that a rash of roads, buildings, mining, industrialisation and dams, with consequential blasting and deforestation, have destabilised the mountains. Is this so? Limestone and sand mining have been regulated and the rules need to be properly enforced. Industrialisation has mostly occurred in the sub-montane foothills and not in the higher altitudes that were devastated by the recent floods. Which dam has caused a problem?Indeed, the much criticised Tehri dam proved a blessing in protecting Rishikesh and Haridwar from disaster. Many dams are still projections or in early stages of construction. Quoting bogus numbers can only create baseless scares and fashion grand arguments and policy formulations on baseless assumptions.
New dams in upper catchments in Uttarakhand, Himachal and Arunachal are being discouraged on grounds of their fragile and, in the case of the Ganga-Yamuna basin, sacred ecology.Yet, unregulated pilgrimage in terms of numbers and duration hasput considerable pressure on these landscapes, as by the AmarnathYatra. Much road building, construction of hotels, hostels, lodgings, and bus stations, truck movements, repair shops and markets must be attributed to the increasing requirements of yatri traffic. Has prudence been overtaken by piety?
Less development would entail greater unemployment, distress migration and poverty, which is an enemy of environmental sustainability. Well-deserved kudos is given to the women-led Chipko movement of the 1970s to save the forests. But where were the men? Lack of local development and employment generation had caused them to seek a living in the plains resulting in deserted villages, the feminisation of agriculture at the cost of education and health and a remittance economy. Development per se is not wicked. It is the pattern of development and its management that matters.The hills are suited to hill agriculture – horticulture, herbiculture, floriculture, trekking and tourism. Roads and ropeways can provide connectivity and market access and change land-use patterns by ensuring food security through uninterrupted grain supplies from the plains. The locals would not need to cultivate unsustainable slopes and,given power supply, first stage cooperative agro-processing units could be set up with cold storages in a modern market chain.
The opposition to hydro development in Arunachal is also very short-sighted. Assam’s fears of adverse downstream impacts are exaggerated and overlook its desperate need for flood cushioning to lift the North Bank in particular from the ravages of annual floods, a depressed, low-risk agriculture, poor infrastructure, low employment opportunities, and ethnic strife that, at bottom, translate into a lack of jobs and opportunities for aspiring communities. Few appreciate the urgent need for cheap commercial energy in the hills from micro-hydel and other sources in whose absence villagers pillage the forests for fuel and fodder.
Flood fury from cloudbursts, the formation and breaking of debris or glacial dams, and increased sedimentation from enhanced weathering in conditions of climate change constitute natural phenomenonto which adaptive and mitigative remedies must be found. These must be built around scientific flood forecasting, flood routing and warning systems and construction of flood detention structures within and across basins. We have just experienced a terrible human disaster and must be prepared for more such aberrant weather events. The job in hand is to be better prepared for the future rather thantrade blame and keep repeating tired environmental slogans that provide cover to sundry vested interests to keep playing games.
In the midst of these events, J&K witnessed a great day when the Bannihal rail tunnel was opened with a trial run from Qazigund to Bannihal. The new all-weather tunnel is over 11 km long and 1500 feet lower than the existing Bannihal road tunnel that is periodically closed on account of snow and landslides. The new tunnel has reduced the distance on this stretch by 17 kms, with both fuel and time benefits. The Katra-Bannihal section and Chenab bridge now await completion.
The full significance of the new tunnel connection has not registered on strategic thinking and planning. Apart from being a travellers’ boon, the new Baramulla-Jammu rail link will by next year politically bond Jammu and Kashmir and end the Valley’s seasonal isolation. It will create huge new investment and employment opportunities, taken together with better utilisation of Srinagar’s international airport, and availability of more power with the construction and commissioning of more hydro-power projects. Here is opportunity to consider converting the new rail route into an investment corridor with the construction of farm processing, industrial , IT and cold storage hubs en route, open to national and international investment with an inviting land policy, with local safeguards, in place of the present stultifying beggar-myself land regime. The Jammu-Baramulla line could have spurs linking Jammu with Sialkot, Baramulla with Uri and Muzaffarabad, Srinagar with Sonamarg and a Zoji La road-rail tunnel to Kargil and beyond, in a 10-15 year framework.
The Pandit refugees in Jammu and outside and the wider Kashmiri diaspora that is doing well commercially in every part of India will, with trained J&K youth, find investment and employment opportunities in the proposed rail corridor hubs. Few will have time or the inclination for fatuous jihadi propaganda , let alone seeking “martyrdom” and paradise in another world. This is the time to bring together the best minds in J&K and India to think through these possibilities. Opening up to Pakistan will greatly strengthen the peace process. Islamabad could well become a co-partner in what could be a cross-border enterprise to mutual benefit and enormous gain to the people of J&K on both sides of the divide.Lazy, inhibiting, wasteful one-step-at-a-time sequential action is doomed to failure. Strategy is best when it reinforces success.
In Delhi, a modestly bold decision has been taken to liberatethe CBI from official clutches and in deciding to legislate the Food Security Bill through an ordinance after persistent parliamentary obstruction by the Opposition, which cannot now plead violation of “democratic norms”. More disconcerting is the reported official opposition to extending RTI to political parties regarding electoral funding and accounts. Why should slush funds be protected and electoral financing, the font of national corruption, not be cleaned? Thieves banding together does not confer democratic virtue on fraud such as that confessed by GopinathMunde (BJP) and Ashok Chavan (Congress).
Finally, the CBI’s chargesheet on the IshratJahan fake encounter case in Gujarat, sounds another knell for NarendraModi. The BJP is fear-stricken at the increasing exposure of Modi’sculpability in in the post-Godhra killings in 2002, then ably assisted by L.K. Advani, Union Home Minister. Parrikar, the BJP chief minister of Goa, has called the Goa pogrom a “clear-cut administrative failure” and “bad governance”. What next?