“Disasters happen when we do something stupid,” said Dr Ravi Chopra, a scientist and director of People’s Science Institute in Uttarakhand, referring to the floods that struck Chamoli district on the morning of February 7.

Twenty-six people have died and at least 170 people are still missing. Rescue operations are still ongoing as 35 workers of the National Thermal Power Corporation remain trapped in a tunnel. The force of the floods led to the destruction of the Rishiganga Power Project and damaged the Tapovan power plant.

Initially, scientists cited numerous reasons for the floods such as glacial lake burst, cloud burst and climate change in the ecologically sensitive state. While the investigations are still ongoing, Chopra said that there was little evidence to suggest the floods were caused by a glacial burst.

The floods have revived memories of a similar flooding that took place in 2013 when a cloudburst over Kedarnath caused flash floods which killed over 5,000 people.

Since 2002, Uttarakhand, where the Ganga originates, has been on a drive to build hydel power projects. The state, which currently produces 4,000 MW of hydel power from 98-odd projects, has since 2009 signed agreements to build another 350 dams. The power plant projects are situated high up in the mountainous regions, diverting the flow of the streams and rivers passing through tunnels to turbines to generate electricity.

To add to this is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Char Dham Pariyojana, a highway-building project that seeks to improve road connectivity to four sacred Hindu shrines. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled against the broad-width highways the government aims to build as part of the project. By then, however, the project had already caused substantial damage in the region, as Scroll.in reported: nearly 700 hectares of forest land had been lost, and 47,043 trees felled in the region.

Chopra is familiar with the situation. After the 2013 floods, under the direction of the Supreme Court, he was appointed as chairman of a committee to study whether the hydroelectric power projects exacerbated the flooding. The committee’s report, which released in 2014, explicitly recommended that no hydroelectric power plants be built in paraglacial regions.

The committee’s warnings more than six years back remain ignored, he said, adding that we should expect more such incidents if construction continues in tandem with climate change.

Excerpts from the interview:

What has caused the flooding in Uttarakhand?
To the best of our knowledge, on February 5 and 6, there was good sunshine and the fresh snow and ice began to melt. The mass of fresh snow, ice and water began to move down a steep slope in a small mountain stream called Trishuligad. That valley is full of rocks, boulders and as the mass moved downward, it gathered energy and a lot of matter, solid matter. By the time it came down to the base which was the Rishi Ganga river, it had become an avalanche. It caused a lot of destruction as it hit the river.

When you have a mass like this, if it strikes a barrier on the way it can normally smash that barrier. And each barrier that it smashes it gains more energy, moves with greater velocity downstream, and picks up more material from the bed of the river.

So first it smashed into a bridge, then it hit the dam – Rishi Ganga project of 13 megawatts – and then went into the Dhauli Ganga valley and there it hit the barrage of the Tapovan Vishnugad project of 520 megawatts. Literally, within seconds it destroyed that and moved downstream.

In the process, it has also affected a small village called Peng on the banks of the Rishi Ganga. What I was told by some scientists working there is that people in Raini village and in Peng have lost a lot of animals and livestock, and some houses may have been swept away.

News reports suggest it is a combination of climate change, glacier burst and construction in fragile areas. One report also suggested it could be the glacial lake outburst flood phenomenon. What have you found so far?
These reports came out initially and were even publicised by the government of Uttarakhand. Scientists that I am in touch with have been pouring over Google Maps of that area and I think that there is very little evidence to suggest that any of the glacial lakes may have burst.

We know one thing for sure that the avalanche descended down the Trishuligad. Gad means stream. We do not see a link between Trishuligad and a glacial lake which could have burst. But again, with a word of caution, we are still continuing with our investigations and while we are quite certain this is what happened, we still need to finish our investigation.

I have spoken to the IMD [Indian Meteorological Department] and it has confirmed more or less what I have told you.

This general view shows state-run NTPC hydropower project site damaged after a broken glacier caused a major river surge that swept away bridges and roads, near Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, on February 7, 2021. Photo: AFP

Could you please explain what makes the geography of Uttarakhand so fragile and vulnerable to such incidents? Are such incidents unusual?
No, they are not unusual. This is a natural event that occurred in the high Himalayan ranges. They happen every now and then. Except this one is closer to a populated area. Secondly, we would have never heard of it, if it had not led to a disaster. There is a natural event and that is okay. But disasters happen when we do something stupid.

In 2013, after the Kedarnath tragedy, the committee that I was heading put out a report which clearly said that projects should not be built in these valleys. They are called paraglacial zones – glaciers in the geological pass have receded from this area leaving behind a lot of debris, boulders, rocks, etc. And when there is heavy rainfall or snowfall, and there is melting of water, snow and ice – the combination of the three is deadly – then it is able to gather a lot of the solids lying in the path and move them downstream.

We had described the process of how destruction takes place and we had clearly said not to build them. This valley had six projects planned. To ignore this warning is foolhardy.

Are there any specific features of this incident that are similar to or different than what we saw in 2013?
There was a barrage called the Vishnu Prayag Hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda river approximately 20 kms upstream from Joshimath going to Badrinath. Exactly the same thing happened – a small stream called Khiro Ganga which meets the Alaknanda river one kilometre upstream of the hydropower project. It brought down a lot of debris, demolished the highway across the river, went and dumped all the rocks and boulders into the dam, in the pond of the hydropower project, and smashed the power project.

It is the same sort of thing. As the crow flies, this distance isn’t very much.

Your report in 2014 clearly stated that the dam construction exacerbated the 2013 floods. How does that observation hold in light of the recent events?
It shows that our warning was correct. That is what it shows.

In the light of this incident, what do you think of the hydel power projects and dam construction taking place in Uttarakhand?
We said very clearly not to build them. Abandon them.

Who is paying the price? The real price is being paid by all the families of the labourers who died. The labourers who could have had a better life, the villagers…all these people are paying the price. Whereas the decision makers, the sanctioning authorities, the executing authorities, they go scot free.

What is the distance between the area of the flooding and the Char Dham Pariyojana?
The Char Dham Pariyojana goes along the Ganga river from Rishikesh to Badrinath. At Devprayag, it enters the Alaknanda valley, 70 kms upstream from Rishikesh and from there it continues all the way up to Badrinath in the Alaknanda valley. And Joshimath is located at the confluence of Dhauli Ganga and Alaknanda. So it is all along that route.

Rescue operations underway at Tapovan Tunnel on Monday. Photo: PTI

So with the numerous ongoing constructions, what do environmentalists anticipate in the region?
They have been warning time and again that this kind of development in this sensitive region should not happen. And that we need to look at a different pattern of development in order to avoid these kind of disasters. We really need to look at sustainable development ideas.

For example, let us believe the government is meant to take tourists to the four shrines. The government is doing this primarily because it anticipates a lot of revenue. After the 2013 flood, I had written a monograph on environment and sustainable development in Uttarakhand, in which I pointed out that if you are going to concentrate everything on four routes, you will not spread the wealth around.

Whereas Uttarakhand offers so many innumerable opportunities for tourism. Somewhere you can see the mountain landscape, somewhere you can see beautiful forests, somewhere you can see streams, there are wildlife reserves…if we could spread all this tourism around the state and give a fillip to the homestay business then it would spread the wealth around. And the state could still earn its revenues.

The second approach is if we say we are going to protect our forests, our rivers, we are not doing it for our own good. It is for the nation. So let the nation pay Uttarakhand people for the ecological services that they are rendering. I will make it more practical. Women give up going to the forest to collect firewood. They are giving up a source of energy so you distribute free gas cylinders to them. It is a very direct payment. That is the kind of development we need.

What are the lessons we learnt from the 2013 floods? Do you think the recommendations made in the Chopra Committee report were taken seriously?
It is a very funny situation. When the report was submitted, there was a very sensitive secretary of the department, Shashi Shekhar. He read through the whole report and he liked it. He said he was accepting all the recommendations. He spoke to his minister Prakash Javadekar and submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that the Ministry of Environment had accepted all the recommendations. And very soon, Mr Shekhar got transferred to Uma Bharati’s ministry [of drinking water and sanitation]. She had supported him in the case that was being fought at the Supreme Court.

So initially, the ministry accepts the recommendations but immediately it is opposed by the dams lobby and the state government. The case is still going on in court. So nothing happened about the recommendations we made.

We did not learn any lessons from 2013. Soon after that, since the visual images were very strong, there were court orders that there should be no construction within 50-200 metre of the river bank, but that never happened.

With the onset of climate change, what can we expect in the region with ongoing construction work?
You can expect many more disasters. We just had this rainfall in the first week of February, and there is the effect of this disaster over there. And on the national highway 58 from Rishikesh to Badrinath, there is a place called Totagathi which has been closed on and off since widening of the road started on that stretch. And that had a landslide last week, on February 6. So, it is happening all the time.

At this point, what would you caution against in context of such incidents in Uttarakhand?
The first thing is that forests are absolutely critical to the wellbeing of mountain slopes. Forests need to be protected. Minimal tampering with the slopes, absolutely minimal. There are certain well identified stretches like there is this major earthquake fault called the main boundary thrust and another one called main central thrust. These two are extremely sensitive and one should void fiddling around in these areas. Blasting is supposed to have been banned and yet it goes on.