HP Upreti, an ex-serviceman, lives in the Shakti Vihar locality of the Srinagar town of Uttarakhand. He vividly recalls the day, five years ago, when one of the worst natural disasters struck his hometown. “The water came rushing in. It was everywhere. It’s a scene I will never forget.”

Srinagar was one of the worst-hit areas during the devastating June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. Low-lying areas of the town, like Shakti Vihar, were inundated and houses were filled with muck deposited by floodwaters.

“Nearly the whole colony was underwater,” Upreti recounted to Mongabay-India while showing the restoration work he carried out. “The whole area was filled with muck brought in by floods. All houses were filled with muck and in some cases, the water had completely covered the ground floor of the house. I suffered heavy damage and everything was destroyed.”

“I got only Rs one lakh (Rs 100,000) compensation and that too after a lot of haggling. I didn’t want to shift from here and so, since 2013, I have spent over Rs 14 lakh (Rs. 1.4 million) to restore my house,” added Upreti, who is now fighting a case for enhanced compensation.

Over 18,00 days have passed since the June 2013 floods that brought widespread tragedy to Uttarakhand. But its scars remain fresh.

Some structures in Srinagar, Uttarakhand still remain submerged and serve as a constant reminder of the tragedy. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Some structures in Srinagar, Uttarakhand still remain submerged and serve as a constant reminder of the tragedy. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The disaster that shook the hill state

Uttarakhand, a highly disaster-prone state, witnessed one of the biggest natural disasters in independent India’s history when it was hit by heavy rainfall and flash floods across the state. It has been estimated that about 6,000 people were killed, found missing or presumed dead, 4,200 villages were affected, 9,200 cattle/livestock were lost and 3,320 houses were completely damaged due to the floods.

A report by the National Institute of Disaster Management said that though all 13 districts of the state were hit, five districts, “Bageshwar, Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi” were the worst affected. The disaster coincided with the peak tourist and pilgrimage season which led to significant increase in the casualties and damage.

Since then, extensive relief and rehabilitation work has been carried out across the state but the scars of the tragedy are hard to go past.

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H.P. Upreti suffered heavy loses due to floods and continues to fight the government to get his claim. He is confident that the construction of the dam and the improper muck disposal was the main cause of Srinagar flooding.

Experts, both private and from government-funded institutions, unequivocally agree that the magnitude of the disaster caused by the June 2013 floods that ravaged a part of the hill state had increased manifold due to unabated illegal construction on river floodplains and the government’s relentless pursuit of hydropower projects.

Currently, the state plans to develop 450 hydroelectric projects across the state to harness the potential of generating 27,039 MW of power.

Battles for compensation

Thousands of Uttarakhand residents suffered major losses in the floods. In many cases, the apathy of the government added to the woes of people who have spent savings accumulated over decades to rebuild their lives after the floods and many are still pursuing legal battles to seek their dues.

Back in Shakti Vihar in Srinagar town, there are visible remnants of the damage as the muck brought in by floods can still be found in gardens or verandahs of homes. While Upreti has spent most of his savings restoring his life and home, many of those living around him do not possesses the resources to recover from the disaster at their own cost. One of Upreti’s neighbours refused to clear any muck from his house and is still fighting a case against the Uttarakhand government for enhanced relief.

A house that has been intentionally left unrestored since 2013, by the owner, who is demanding additional compensation from the government. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
A house that has been intentionally left unrestored since 2013, by the owner, who is demanding additional compensation from the government. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The area adjacent to Shakti Vihar, which includes the training ground of Sashastra Seema Bal, a paramilitary force of the Indian government, also suffered heavy damages. Hriday Ram Kotnala, whose house is adjacent to the training ground, explained that before 2013, the training ground was several feet below the level of the locality but now it is several feet above the ground level of their colony due to muck deposition.

On the other side of the colony, there is an industrial training institute and its condition speaks volumes about the poor relief work carried out by the Uttarakhand government. The institute has not been restored to its pre-flood state as yet. The classrooms and the training halls are still filled with the muck. Machines worth millions of rupees and several vehicles (cars and trucks) are still under the muck.

The stretch of river Alaknanda between Srinagar and Rudraprayag in the Garwhal region of Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
The stretch of river Alaknanda between Srinagar and Rudraprayag in the Garwhal region of Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Local communities in Srinagar town believe that the 330 megawatt Srinagar hydroelectric power project built on Alaknanda River amplified the damage. Their fears were confirmed in the 2014 report of an expert committee, formed on Supreme Court’s order and led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra. “The Srinagar hydropower project officials appear to have been unable to retain the muck which got washed into the river and assisted in aggravating the damage in the lower reaches of Srinagar town,” the report had noted.

Improper management and disposal of muck was attributed as one of the reasons that aggravated the floods in 2013. Currently, there is a stay order on muck dumping but the activity still continues. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Improper management and disposal of muck was attributed as one of the reasons that aggravated the floods in 2013. Currently, there is a stay order on muck dumping but the activity still continues. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“Local people are not benefiting from these projects. This is not planned development,” said Vijaya Laxmi Raturi, a Srinagar-based activist and also member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “I agree that electricity is our need but big dams are not needed. Rules are not followed in such projects and in many cases government collude with these private corporations. We have not learnt any lessons even five years after the 2013 tragedy.”

Further up in the mountains, in the Kedarnath temple area, which was among the most damaged areas in the 2013 tragedy, one can see the signs of suffering too. The town around Kedarnath temple and the downstream area were heavily damaged due to the collapse of the Chorabari Lake that lies around 1.5 km upstream of Kedarnath.

Though the route that pilgrims used to trek up to Kedarnath shrine till 2013 was destroyed, some isolated patches can still be seen while going up the mountains.

A comparative map of the change in river Alaknanda’s flow near Srinagar, Uttarakhand, post the tragedy in 2014 and then in 2017 as the hydroelectric project continues to function. Credit: Google Maps
A comparative map of the change in river Alaknanda’s flow near Srinagar, Uttarakhand, post the tragedy in 2014 and then in 2017 as the hydroelectric project continues to function. Credit: Google Maps

Push for dams

Despite several expert committees questioning the role of a large number of dams spread across Uttarakhand, the state government has not slowed its push for more such dams as it believes hydropower is an important source of revenue and will bring development to the state.

In terms of the hydropower potential, Uttarakhand is next only to Arunachal Pradesh and has an ambitious programme.

According to data from the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, the nodal corporation of the Uttarakhand government for managing hydropower generation at existing power stations and developing new hydro projects, the plan is to develop 450 hydroelectric projects across the state to harness its potential of 27,039 MW.

Over 250 of these projects are still on the drawing board and growing concerns about the effect of dams on biodiversity and riverine ecosystems have not helped their case either.

If completed, more than half of the 450 hydroelectric projects will have an installed capacity of five MW or more and majority of them will divert rivers through tunnels to powerhouses downstream.

In its 2013 report, the Ravi Chopra committee had suggested dropping of 23 of these hydropower projects but the issue has been pending with the apex court.

Experts believe that the development of these projects will irreversibly affect the landscape of Uttarakhand.

Pradeep Srivastava, a scientist at the Dehradun based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, said the region is disaster-prone and has seen similar disasters since the 1890s but the magnitude of the damage has increased.

“River connectivity has become an important parameter. The entire Ganga, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Saraswati plains have been formed due to the interaction between the river systems and mountains. If in between this, such dams are created, it means we are playing with the natural water flow. We will not understand the effect now because these things act beyond human time scales,” said Srivastava.

Local villagers too fear another disaster. “We saw what happened in 2013 and all those mistakes are being repeated again. The dam that is being built near our village has a huge tunnel inside the fragile mountains. There will be a constant danger to our lives,” said Sushila Devi, an activist from the Banswara area.

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Sushila Devi is actively fighting for the rights of her village near Banswara, against the under construction hydroelectric project. She’s also one of the petitioners in the case against muck dumping in NGT.

More harm than good?

A 2015 report by the Comptroller and the Auditor General of India had noted that the “natural terrain conditions combined with climatic/ weather conditions and haphazard human intervention resulted in the unprecedented disaster in the Kedar and Mandakini Valleys and in other parts of the state”.

But it seems no lessons have been learnt. In 2012, the 100-kilometre stretch of Bhagirathi River, which is a tributary of Ganga River, from its origin in Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, was declared as an eco-sensitive zone as a result of which the setting up of any new hydroelectric projects in the stretch was banned.

Since then, the Uttarakhand government has been making efforts to get the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone notification amended, seeking permission for constructing 10 hydropower projects on Bhagirathi River with a total capacity of 82.5 MW. The government has argued that they were allotted prior to issuance of the 2012 notification and were under different stages of development and implementation. The latest plea to the union environment ministry was made in December 2017.

“The attitude of the Uttarakhand government, the ministers and the bureaucracy, is most disappointing. Despite several admonishments from the courts and the central ministries they simply avoid implementing the notification in its participatory and environmentally friendly manner. It is obvious that the government is in the hands of the vested interests,” said environmentalist Ravi Chopra, who is a member of another expert committee, appointed by the National Green Tribunal, to draft the zonal master plan for the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone.

“The unrelenting insistence demanding approval for the 10 hydropower projects of the total capacity of 82.5 MW is simply incomprehensible,” he added. “The actual power available to the state will be about 38 MW which is less than 10 percent of the current installed capacity inside the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone. This can be easily made up by more efficient power generation and transmission.”

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra at his residence in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Environmentalist Ravi Chopra at his residence in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

More than 60% of Uttarakhand is covered with forests and they are huge storehouses of biodiversity. These forests are home to about 4500 plant species, of which 116 are endemic, representing an invaluable genetic resource.

Construction of dams requires huge forest area too which in-turn posing a danger to this biodiversity.

A final decision about the amendment of the 2012 Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone is yet to be taken.

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Pradeep Srivastava, Scientist at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, emphasises on the urgent need of a mountain-centric infrastructure in order to truly develop Uttarakhand.

Meanwhile, even as impacts of big dams are being debated, India is looking at building the country’s highest dam in Uttarakhand. The mega hydropower project, the 5,040 megawatt Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project is planned on the India-Nepal border. It is planned on the Mahakali River, known as Sarada in India, at a location where the river forms the international boundary between India and Nepal.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.