Nature’s fury: Development narrative destroying environment and ecology
Battering of Himachal; floods in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi expose chink in the armour
It is a matter of few days. After the relief and rehabilitation following the devastation caused by heavy rains in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, and flooding of the plains in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi is completed, it will be business as usual.
When I say business as usual, I am not meaning that life will be back to normal.
Of course, it will be, but more importantly we would have forgotten the lessons that an angry nature tried to deliver by way of pounding the mountains with incessant rains for just four days. While 60,000 stranded tourists have been evacuated, the provisional loss has been put at Rs 4,000 crore.
Reports say that heavy rains caused innumerable landslides and damage to the roads blocking 1,321 roads, affecting 750 water schemes and rendering 4,500 power transformers non-functional. Such was the fury of the swollen rivers that several bridges were washed away, along with numerous vehicles parked on the sideways. It also led to the debris from the mountains flowing down at several places.
The visuals were certainly disturbing.
In short, the battering that Himachal Pradesh received and the large-scale inundation of the cities, towns and the farm lands downstream in Punjab and Haryana certainly resulted in mayhem. During the four days of heavy rains, many towns and cities looked like large pools of water with cars submerged or floating in flood waters.
We know that Yamuna is at an all-time high and low-lying areas of New Delhi are on an edge. Meanwhile, in Punjab, army had to be called in at several places, and the exact loss will only be known after the waters recede. Already, more than 10,000 people have been shifted to safer places.
When asked as to what I thought was the reason that led to the deluge, I told a TV Channel: “This was perhaps nature’s way of expressing its displeasure.” To the supplementary question, why I thought so, my response was that the concretisation of Himachal Pradesh over the years has led to haphazard development throwing all ecological safeguards to the winds.
With rapid deforestation, and reckless blasting of mountains to build 4-lane or 6-lane highways, the fragile hills have become shaky. Although it is known that all the 77 blocks of the state are fragile and prone to landslides, all technical norms are set aside when highways are laid out. In addition, as of 2019, Himachal Pradesh had 153 hydro projects, which have resulted in blocking the natural flow of water and at times flash floods led to diversion of the water course thereby leading to further damages.
Unfortunately, the importance of trees is waning at a time when a dominant development narrative has taken over. The way trees are mercilessly axed for building highways is a price too heavy, but little appreciated.
When Fred Pearce, formerly of the New Scientist, wrote in an essay in Yale Environment 360 that “every tree in the forest is a fountain, sucking water out of the ground through its roots and releasing water vapour into the atmosphere through pores in its foliage’ -- it should have been essentially a lesson for the policy makers. Since tree roots bind the soil, increasingly the absence of trees is leading to the hills becoming susceptible to landslides. Cutting down trees in large numbers for highway expansion and infrastructure projects has just become a number. In India, 43.9 thousand hectares of primary forests disappeared in 2021-22.
People do not even realise that trees also have the ability to cool down temperatures, each tree having a cooling effect equivalent to two air-conditioners. So when temperatures go high, the same people who are okay with trees being chopped off in the name of development crib about higher temperatures.
It is easy to blame climate change.
Although I am not ruling out any possibility of the extreme event being linked subsequently to climate change by scientists, the extent of destruction we have seen is the outcome of flawed development policies that are being deliberately pushed in the name of economic growth. Add to it, human greed and rampant corruption and you have all the reasons to know why the hills have become so vulnerable.
Some call it anthropogenic – caused by humans, but this too obfuscates the real reasons that led to the severe environment blow. In other words, it is a simple way of shifting the blame to escape the finger of suspicion pointed at you. In fact, it has become so easy to blame climate change for every weather anomaly that we witness.
Nevertheless, coming back to the reasons behind the massive devastation that the heavy rains brought, the way housing, roads and infrastructure projects have been constructed, the water bodies and natural river flows have vanished. Multi-stories apartments have come up where once the river beds existed. And yet I find people, who were responsible for pushing the State governments to forgo all environmental norms to set up residential colonies, find it so easy to blame the climate instead. We forget our own role in acerbating the destruction that we see all around.
Passing on the buck has become an easy norm.
Take for instance the upcoming Kharar town, adjacent to Chandigarh. Water bodies and natural drainage outlets have been blocked as a result of which the town appeared to be a vast lake during the downpour. In the millennium city Gurugram, for instance, around 153 water bodies are beyond revival.
Real estate projects have killed the natural outflow channels for flood waters. While drainage is low in priority whenever a city’s expansion is being planned, the huge influx of tourists too leaves behind their dirty footprints. Most of the sewerage outlets are blocked with plastic thereby inundating the streets and residential houses.
Will there be any lessons drawn? I doubt.
Take the contentious Shimla Development Plan as a test case. Will the State government draw any lessons from the havoc the incessant rains caused just a few days back or will it go ahead with renewed construction activities that are expected to gobble 17 green belts around the city?
Similarly, will the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) that cleared the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill without any amendments, and on a day when the heavy downpour began, call back the draft for reconsideration? Your guess is as good as mine. The development narrative will take precedence over people, environment and ecology.
As I said it earlier, it will be business as usual.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)