Prime Minister Modi at Kedarnath: What was said; what was left unsaid

The central theme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji’s 40 minutes speeach at Himalayan pilgrimage centre of Kedarnath in Uttarakhand on Oct 21, 2017[i], was that we need to come out of the shadow of a disaster. It was to chart out new design, development and reconstruction of the temple, the road, the banks of River Mandakini and its tributary Saraswati and the memorial of Shankaracharya. The reconstruction was required since the disaster had destroyed all this and more.

PM took the opportunity to actually chart out a development road map, not only for Uttarakhand but the entire Himalayan region spanning from Kashmir to Sikkim. There were several welcome elements here, including the call for making the entire Himalayan region free of chemical agriculture and the move towards indigenous medicines.  The narrative provided several chest thumping moments for the speaker, some figurative, one literal!

Typical of Modi ji, he left a lot unsaid. Most crucially, the disaster that was at the root of the entire visit, remained unnamed even though the PM used the word disaster several times. He did not say he was referring to the June 2013 flood disaster of Uttarakhand. When did the disaster happen, why did it happen, what happened, what factors played a role, what lessons we have learnt, if any, found no place even in passing in the speech.  It was a rare disaster about which it was agreed that climate change played a role, by both a Govt of India secretary and United States Geological Survey. Is it even possible to get out of the shadow of the disaster without understanding the disaster?

In fact, over four years after the disaster we do not have a single comprehensive document that provides an overview of what happened at the disaster and what we have learnt from the unprecedented rainfall, floods, landslides, so many dimensions of the disaster, our response, where officially over 6000 people lost lives, unofficially several fold more. In any other country there would have been several official reports, studies, reviews of the disaster and what needs to be done to reduce the proportions of the damage.

Several elements of PM’s speech tells us that the government has learnt no lessons from the disaster. For example, PM laid foundation stone for the widening of road to Kedarnath. Many analysts including well known senior geologist Prof K S Valdiya have shown that the current unscientific and indiscriminate road building practices in Uttarakhand, which disregard hydrology, need for cross drainage etc have contributed to significantly increasing the proportions of disaster. The Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre of Uttarakhand Government has warned through several of its reports, some even before June 2013 that the use of explosives in development activities in Uttarakhand should be banned. But explosives are openly used even in road building in Uttarakhand.

The PM proudly mentioned that this year over 4.5 lakh pilgrims have visited Kedarnath, and next year, he assured his audience, the number wont be less than 10 lakhs. The trouble is, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, questions about carrying capacity of fragile Himalayan ecology were raised by several experts. At that time no one had any clue how many pilgrims were present where, when the disaster struck. There is so much we can learn from our neighbor Bhutan about regulating the number of tourists to achieve sustainable development and greater happiness index.

In his speech PM mentioned Hydropower potential of the Uttarakhand. Following the 2013 disaster, on Aug 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to set up a committee to review the role of existing and under construction hydropower projects in the disaster. The multi disciplinary committee headed by Ravi Chopra, set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) showed clearly how the construction and operation of hydropower projects had increased the proportions of the disaster. In Aug 2016, the National Green Tribunal slapped order on the company operating the 330 MW Srinagar Hydropower project to pay Rs 9.26 crore compensation to the people who were affected due to the project.

Unfortunately, there have been series of attempts to dilute implementation of the Ravi Chopra committee recommendations, now leaving the issue to only 24 hydropower projects. These projects were in fact asked to be scrapped by the report of Government of India’s Wildlife Institute of India even before the June 2013 disaster. The Prime Minister’s office has been trying to get even these 24 projects restarted. It is only because of contradictions between changing stands of Judiciary, MoEF and MoWR that these projects are still stalled.

The biggest hydropower project that Modi ji’s government is pushing in Uttarakhand is the proposed 5040 MW Pancheshwar multipurpose project on Mahakali (called Sharda in India, part of Ganga basin) river along India-Nepal border. The project involves much bigger dam than the controversial Tehri dam, in an area that is seismically more active, and more vulnerable to landslides, flash floods and geological uncertainties. The seismic energy has been building up along this Indo-Nepal border area for several decades, without any release. Seismologists have been predicting that the built up energy can lead to a quake of magnitude 8 or even 8.5 on Richter scale.

Environment Clearance for the Pancheshwar is on agenda for the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects for its meeting on Oct 24, 2017. The project is already hugely controversial, with worse than usually dishonest Environment Impact Assessment. Public hearings for the project in Almora, Pithoragarh and Champawat districts were held in complete violation of most statutory norms, and had such huge presence of armed police personnel that the local people had to stand outside the hall. Most of the people critical of the project were not even allowed to speak.

The project is controversial even in Nepal. Mahakali agreement with Pancheshwar project as centre piece was signed in Feb 1996, but there is not even agreement for the Detailed Project Report over 21 years later. Nepal hopes to sell power generated from its 50% share of installed capacity to power surplus India. But the over Rs 50 000 crore project is expected to generate less than 2 Million Units electricity per MW installed capacity, which means the cost of power will not be less than Rs 8 per unit. This makes the project economically unviable even at current prices, when power is rarely traded above Rs 3 per unit in recent years at power exchanges in India. Piyush Goyal, till recently India’s Power Minister, has repeatedly told the Parliament that over 11 000 MW of hydropower capacity remains stranded for reasons of non viability. It’s a mystery why is the government pushing such a project in fragile Himalayas.

Bholenath or Shiva, the presiding deity of Pancheshwar temple, is also the presiding deity of Kedanath. PM has a remarkable capacity to connect with his audience. At Kedarnath, he started his address with the chanting of Jai Bholenath slogan. But we may well remember that Bholenath, as his attire declares, is closer to nature and rivers than possibly any other God, and cannot be fooled forever in spite of the name we have given him.

Himanshu Thakkar(ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

NOTE: This was first published at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/unlearnt-lessons-of-2013-as-pm-modi-promises-new-kedarnath-4900733/.


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFQcfHOr2W0

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