Long before the scourge of commercialization took root, the Himalayan sanctuaries were places of pristine beauty and rich biodiversity, revered by followers of five major religions.
Ancient texts illustrate a deep ecological awareness. The Mahābhārata says, “The Himalaya is adorned with rivers, inhabited by lions, tigers, birds, bumble bees, swans and cakoras, in lovely lakes adorned with lotuses”.
4th Century poet Kalidasa in Kumarasambhava describes the Himalaya as a “treasure house of precious minerals, biodiversity, sages and the source of Ganga”.
On June 16th, the world watched in horror as flash floods decimated the Uttarakhand region of the Himalaya. Untold numbers were swept away or buried. Thousands of victims languished without food and water awaiting rescue, some dying before help arrived.
Within a matter of hours, the catastrophe transformed a region fabled for spirituality and pristine beauty to one of death and devastation. One month after the catastrophe, entire villages and towns remain buried in sludge and silt waiting for life and hope to return.
While bad weather and voracious construction activity appear to be the immediate causes, they are not the underlying factors. The prevailing narrative reflects that the calamity was a man-made disaster triggered by unbridled development. We believe that the calamity was the result of “violation of natural laws by selfish human beings” as warned by Kalidasa.
Looking deeper we see the progression of misplaced and unchanged priorities, prior warnings notwithstanding. Uttarakhand is reaping the consequences of ecocide perpetrated over decades by leaders who talk about conservation but promote harmful projects.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but this is no time to point fingers. Once the manic burst of media frenzy and political spats has subsided and the whirlwind slowed, the disaster should be a call to action.
An action plan drawn on the lines of World Bank and Global Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction (GFDRR) must be implemented. It must undertake an apolitical study of the region – including the impact of dam construction and unchecked growth-- to define standards and policy. This needs to be done on a war footing.
Back in the days of Kalidasa, the Himalaya was a “treasure house” of lush nature. If there were any buildings, they were simple, thatched huts. India's population was less than one percent of what it is today; there was no railway and the average Indian never ventured more than 50 miles from home.
The region now hosts an annual influx of foreign tourists running into millions. Natural landscapes have become unregulated concrete sprawls developing rapidly at the expense of local ecology. Unbridled hydropower mania too is trampling the region. Naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the region’s raison d'être.
The consequences are deforestation and loss of natural habitat, near extinction of the indigenous flora and fauna, leading to soil erosion, flooding and landslides. Had forests been maintained, death and destruction would have perhaps been significantly lower.
Indigenous people, coexisting harmoniously with nature for centuries, have long decried the encroachment into their habitats. Their cries have fallen on deaf ears. Nature warns us that it cannot indefinitely ignore the ravages of mindless pillage. India must designate the region as protected, halt construction and restrict visitors. Such a quota already exists for Amarnath.
Measures that appear to be bitter pills presenting political risks in the short term will yield rich political dividends in the future. The difference lies in the measure of vision and collective will. The painful images of the devastation must be the catalyst for change. The time to begin is now. Let us heed the tears of Kalidasa.
1. Kedarnath Yatra 2001
2. Embrace the sacred, dump the secular
3. Rudra tandava of Ardhnarishwar
4. Don’t blame nature for the Uttaranchal flood disaster
5. Report on Uttaranchal relief work and Appeal by RSS trust Dehradun
6. Flood relief work by the Ramakrishna Mission
7. Kedarnath - Wrath of the Devas
8. Divine Retribution in many ways