Breaking a 50-year-long record, sixty hours of relentless rainfall in Himachal Pradesh submerged the state under extreme floods, washing away bridges, roads, National Highways, buildings, and vehicles, and leaving behind a trail of deaths and devastation.
For a while, it looked as if the swollen mountain rivers were taking revenge against the human absurdities of interfering with nature and the fragile Himalayan ecology. The DPR-based development, which tends to shift the paradigm of evolution of mountains, glaciers and rivers, has taken a hit—a lesson to be learnt here.
This is quite evident from the fact that the maximum destruction occurred in the areas where mega infrastructure projects, road widening, and the four-lane activity were undertaken in recent years. Experts attribute the devastation to soil vulnerabilities, failed drainage systems, dumping of huge debris in the rivers, and unchecked illegal mining at the river beds. They describe it as a ‘man-made’ devastation of the Himalayas, a planned disaster indeed.
Several viral videos on social media showed massive riverside hotels, multi-storey buildings, trucks and cars being swept away by the fury of the Beas River. The 16th century Panchvaktra temple at Mandi was submerged under water but survived even as the 100 year old Pandoh bridge was washed away. The fifty-year old Aut bridge in Kullu collapsed to the river’s fury. The Sainj river took its toll on Sainj town. Manali—the tourist’s destination was ravaged, wrecked and turned into a ghost town.
Tikender Singh Panwar, a former Deputy Mayor, and expert on climate change, says that the rainfall has broken numerous records, possibly spanning the past 50 or 75 years. There is meteorological data to support this claim. Himachal Pradesh received 249.6 mm of rain between July 7 to 11, which accounted for almost 30 percent of the total monsoon rainfall in the year. Eventually, the floods were also unprecedented, accompanied by massive landslides.
The underlying issue here, he says, is why there was such a colossal loss to the state, which is not new to disasters and calamities like rains and flash floods.
“The answer is simple. It’s a human induced catastrophe, not a natural disaster. Our development model is terribly wrong, ill-conceived and completely misplaced. The mountains stood as a guard to our rivals and natural resources. We have sliced down the stable mountains at 90 degree angle (not step/terrace cutting) to widen roads and built NHs and four-lanes to cater to the state’s needs for tourism and economic mobility. Lakhs of trees were felled for Parwanoo-Shimla four-lane project and Chandigarh-Manali project,” he points out.
Further, the entire debris generated was dumped on hill slopes and rivers. The course of rivers was diverted to build dams for hydro-power projects. This was like playing with nature. The course of the rivers has narrowed down and the surface usually filled-up with silt, raising the water level. Thus, the rivers flowed over its man-defined boundaries and breached the habitations washing away whatever came in its way on July 8 and 9.
“I admit climate change is also a factor but not the sole factor if one studies the pattern of calamities in the right perspective. There is a linkage between the illogical development and perpetual disasters, whether in Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand,” Panwar told Outlook.
Hundred and twenty two people lost their lives. The state's ‘robust’ infrastructure, water supply schemes, power supply lines and telecom system was majorly disrupted. As a result, hundreds of families are rendered homeless, landless and penniless in Kullu Mandi, Solan, Kinnaur, Lahual-Spiti and Kangra—the worst hit districts.
Chief Minister Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu says the loss to the public and private assets is estimated to be upto Rs 8,000 crore. He has asked the centre to declare the situation as a national disaster and provide immediate help of Rs 2,000 crore for emergency relief and restorations. The centre, so far, has released Rs 260 crore from the National Calamity relief fund.
Till now, the restoration work, which started after the Chief Minister himself camped at Kullu, has only helped to temporarily restore Chandigarh-Manali NHs. But, the Kullu-Manali road, which also connects Leh, has been swept away due to the flood fury in the Beas. It might take months to re-create the new alignment and cut down the mountains again.
Chandigarh-Shimla National Highway too has proven to be a disaster. Heavy landslides and rocks breaking down from the critically wounded mountains reduced the road to 10-12 feet passage, severely restricting vehicular mobility in the state.
More than 1,000 roads are still closed as electricity and power infrastructure lay damaged or only temporarily restored. Nevertheless, the government rescued and evacuated 70,000 tourists stranded in Kullu-Manali and Lahaul-Spiti.
“There are also several anthropogenic factors such as deforestation, unsustainable construction resulting in maximum damage in the rain-related events. We should not always see climate change as a factor to natural calamities,” says Anand Sharma, a former Director, MeT centre, Dehradun.
Officials in the state Disaster Management authority admit that the experts had warned the authorities repeatedly against mega development projects including four-lane projects that involved massive cutting and destabilization of mountain strat. The governments of the day ignored the warnings justifying the need to build road infrastructure to promote tourism, transport horticulture produce and build dams for power generation.
State’s Principal Secretary (Disaster Management) Onkar Sharma says that haphazard development is certainly a reason behind the state facing the worst natural calamity with the continuous cycle of cloudbursts, rains, landslides and deaths.
“We have seen even worse kinds of rains lasting for six to seven days. The rain water used to flow down as flash floods. Now just note how the rivers take a toll and hills crumble down after rains. It’s only because we have interfered with natural resources. Why do the rivers get muddy when rain water is so clean? It’s debris changing colour of the river water,” he says.
The young cabinet minister Vikramaditya Singh, son of former chief minister Virbhadra Singh also claimed that the rivers changed course due to damages incurred by 'illegal mining'. After visiting flood affected areas to assess loss to the NHs and roads—a charge he holds, Singh said, “This cannot be only blamed on God or nature. River changed its course due to banks damaged by illegal mining. One may like it or not, but it’s the truth. I am sure the CM is aware of it.”
The minister offered to take up the matter with the Chief Minister and Industry minister and raise it in the Vidhan Sabha to ensure that concrete steps are taken to prevent such level of destruction in the future.
Environmentalist Manshi Asher, who works in the Himalayas says, "It is unfortunate that the state which had done so well in its social welfare indicators, is in crisis now. Himachal Pradesh has a rising fiscal debt of Rs one lakh crore. Over the last two decades, in its struggle to generate revenue and employment pushed extractive growth-up. For sale are its rivers and scenic greenery. Ironically, this business in itself is eating up the proverbial Golden Goose. Apart from the domestic policy mess up are the vulnerabilities induced by global climate change. Common people's aspirations are easy to blame but the political class, courts, technocrats and regulatory institutions all should be held accountable."