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Himalayan Floods: Warning Shot or Prelude to a Perilous Future?

Kusum Vyas

On June 16th, the world watched in horror as flash floods and landslides upended thousands of lives in India’s Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Untold numbers were swept away, buried or died in collapsed, flooded buildings. The catastrophe transformed the Himalayan mountain state from a place fabled for spirituality and pristine beauty to one of death and devastation.

By any measure, the floods are a national calamity. Similar to the images of grief and destruction from the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the images of suffering and despair from Uttarakhand are forever seared into many hearts and memories. Those painful images must be the catalyst for change.

Newspapers claim that most people were heartened by acts of initiative, perseverance, and heroism by the Indian army and the air force but to add bewilderment and outrage to their sense of tragedy, they were horrified when the response to the Uttarakhand catastrophe revealed – all too often, and for far too long – confusion, delay, misdirection, inactivity, poor coordination, and lack of leadership at all levels of government. Meanwhile, thousands of victims languished without food and water while waiting for rescue, sometimes dying before help arrived.

For now, there is plenty of blame to go around, but pointing fingers isn’t going to solve the problem. Once the manic burst of media frenzy and political spats has subsided and the whirlwind has slowed, the floods and the devastation should be seen as a warning shot.

The Uttarakhand calamity unfolded nearly a decade after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December, 2004 long after changes in disaster policy and creation of new organizations. Policy changes include the enactment of Disaster Management Act in 2005 and development of the national disaster management response framework. The National Disaster Management Authority was established to spearhead aculture of disaster resilience. The National Institute of Disaster Management along with Disaster Management Cells in the states is supposed to provide training opportunities in disaster management.

Sadly, in Uttarakhand, despite the disaster management policies, both the state and the nation were found to be unprepared for the catastrophe rendering these policies impotent. The landslides and the subsequent sustained flooding of Uttarakhand exposed significant flaws in national preparedness for catastrophic events and its capacity to respond to them. It is not known if emergency systems at all levels of government -- including the National Disaster Management Authority were put to the test and came up short. The floods are a deadly reminder that the government can and must do better in responding to emergencies.

The flooding and its aftermath must provide the nation with the imperative to design and build a better response system. This needs to be done on a war footing. A “Lessons Learned Report” would confirm the importance of integrating and synchronizing the nation's disaster management policies, strategies, and plans across central, state, and local governments, as well as the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), faith-based groups, communities, and individual citizens.

India must implement corrective and long-overdue actions to preserve and protect the Himalayan region. An extensive review, led by a team of experts must prepare a report of lessons learned that will identify deficiencies in the government's response and lay the groundwork for transforming how the Nation -- from every level of government, to the private sector, to individual citizens and communities -- pursues a real and lasting vision of emergency preparedness and response.

An environmental action plan drawn on the lines of World Bank and Global Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) standards must be developed and implemented. The plan must identify the region’s major environmental concerns, the principal causes of problems, and formulate policies and actions to deal with the problems.

To do this, the impact of rampant, uncoordinated development, mining and spiraling construction of massive power projects in such ecologically fragile region must be understood in its proper context. Objective analysis and a thorough exercise in “Lessons Learned” will show how the folly of man can compound the fury of nature.

Back in the early days, many of the Himalayan sanctuaries were surrounded by forests and wildlife and if there were any buildings, they were simple, biodegradable, thatched huts. India's population was less than one percent of what it is today; there was no rail system and the average Indian never ventured more than 50 miles from his home. Absent from the equation were the millions of “spiritual” tourists who now come from abroad making India home to some of the largest pilgrimages on earth.

Alarm bells must ring because excessive numbers of visitors have created a demand for supporting infrastructure and urban expansion, often at the expense of the natural beauty and ecology of the Mountain region. The pressure from growing influx of uncoordinated development and unchecked growth of visitors to the area without careful management is particularly visible in Uttarakhand, which is developing at a speed and manner that overtakes the capacity of local institutions to control the situation. What used to be spiritual sanctuaries in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem are now unregulated sprawls of rampant and unplanned development, some built without the required studies and permits, particularly in flood plains where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the region’s raison d'être.

Without a doubt, this uncontrolled development has caused near total deforestation and loss of natural habitat, leading to near extinction of the indigenous flora, fauna and biodiversity. The result is reduction in soil cohesion leading to erosion, floods and triggering landslides on steep hillsides as witnessed in Uttarakhand. Had forests been maintained, the death and destruction toll would have perhaps been significantly lower.

The hydropower projects, underground tunnels and hydropower plants have a profound negative impact on geology and hydrology of the Mountain state. Increasing numbers of environmentalists and helpless locals have looked on aghast as the region’s fragile ecology is trampled under an out of control construction mania for hydroelectric projects.  The indigenous people of the region, who have coexisted harmoniously with the natural environment for centuries, have long decried the encroachment of commercialization into their formerly pristine and natural habitats. Their cries have fallen on deaf ears and the plunder continues unabated. This is the paramount concern in the minds of conservationists. Can the fragile Himalayan region bear the ravages of such rampant and mindless pillage in the name of development? Is there a will on the part of the government to do what is right for the future of this mountain region?

For starters, the government must designate the region as a protected area and put a moratorium on all new construction including institutions, guest houses, hotels and dams. Second, government should restrict the number of visitors allowed per year. It may not quite be the political suicide that some suggest because such a quota already exists for Amarnath, one of the holiest shrines of Hinduism. The government could use the current tragedy to cogently argue for such a restriction in the interest of the pilgrims and the holy sites.

Some mandatory measures are bitter pills that come with political risks; however this is no time for political mish mash. People of India and the world, especially the victims of the Uttarakhand tragedy, deserve better from the government in the future. At the end of the day, the magnitude of the floods and landslides does, by no means, excuse the inadequate preparedness and response by the authorities. These catastrophes must serve as a catalyst for far-reaching reform and transformation and ignite change in government policies. The time to begin is now.

Kusum Vyas

Kusum Vyas is a graduate of Nairobi and Texas A&M University and Distinguished International Visiting Professor, Universitas Mahendradatta in Bali. Kusum is the founder of the Green Kumbh movement and she is the Hindu Climate Change Ambassador for GYAN (Green Yatra Action Network), an initiative nurtured to give roots and wings to a global Hindu response to climate change and biodiversity loss. GYAN is focused on religion-based environmentalism that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes as “the world’s largest civil society movement on climate change”.  Both GYAN & Green Kumbh are initiatives of Living Planet Foundation, a Texas based non-profit organization which Kusum founded in 2004. Kusum was voted number one Environmental Hero followed by Al Gore in a recent poll conducted by Earth Protect.

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