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Home > Environment, Health and Social Justice > India - Uttrakhand: Gautam Bhatia on Disaster in the Mountains

India - Uttrakhand: Gautam Bhatia on Disaster in the Mountains

24 June 2013

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The Sunday Times of India, 23 June 2013

Building tragedies
by Gautam Bhatia

Today Darjeeling looks like Solan, Solan like Kausali, Mussoorie like Ghaziabad. The long arm of Indian commerce has invaded every unique setting, and left a trail of devastation in its wake.

Once while designing a hotel in the mountains of Uttarakhand, I had proposed using local pine for constructing the building. But the builder scoffed at the choice. "Arrey bhai, don’t you understand", he said, "the cost of felling a pine is the same as a deodar". The value of a two-hundred year old deodar forest could be seen only in commercial terms by a man of business.

Forest resources were cheap, readily available and often difficult to quantify. Today, the nexus between builder, politician, bureaucrat and forest official has left large swathes of mountainsides empty of tree cover. All across Uttarakhand large scale transfers of land are taking place. Whole mountains are bought by Mumbai and Delhi businessmen, who then sell luxury villas around Almora, Ranikhet, Mossourie and Nainital. Some builders find it more lucrative to build nine-ten storied apartments, then sell them off through agents in Delhi and Lucknow. High rises of two and three-bedroom flats used only in the summer, lie in squalid heaps, all along what were once pristine mountain settings - monsoon stained and empty for most of the year.

In the past 30 years, the continual expansion of the population deeper into the hills has already left a passive trail of devastation - tourist hotels some as high as six-eight storey perch on cliffs, empty summer houses of the Delhi rich; an expanding road network on unstable hillsides, commercial activity along new tourist routes, loss of tree cover, expansion of agriculture into forests, and a rain of garbage along hillsides. It is a wonder that environmental disasters don’t happen more often. The river’s force within minutes can alter the topography of an area, as it did along the Kedarnath Gangotri belt last week. A sudden deluge engulfed religious sites at Kedarnath, Govindghat and Pandukeshwar, the tragedy occurring at peak tourist season, leaving hundreds dead, washing away cars and people.

Certainly, there is no doubting the ferocity of the flood, but then why was a 3,000-capacity car parking on the river at Govindghat allowed to be built? Why were structures around the Kedarnath shrine constructed without embankments? Given that the state Disaster Management Authority has formulated no plan, guidelines or regulations, why were hotels and private houses allowed to be constructed on the flood plain?

Limit tourists, outsiders

Tourism has to a great part contributed to the excessive and unchecked development around shrines. Most religious places are littered with make-shift shops, hotels, sarais and dhabas that come up as temporary shelters for quick commerce, but because of their endorsement by local religious authorities, become ’regularized’. The ramshackle and putrid air of many religious sites is in part due to the laxity of local government who refuse to interfere in matters of religion. If indeed states are serious about ’ecotourism’, there needs to be a restrictive strategy that limits tourist numbers, creates more equitable public modes of transport and creates clearly defined precincts for food and lodging.

Moreover, a recognition of the merits of hill topography needs to be carefully factored into any form of building legislation. The development of a pedestrian lakefront in Nainital, guides for construction on ridges in Shimla and Mussorie, stringent controls on building material and roof types in Kumaon and Garwal - all require individual consideration. Today Darjeeling looks like Solan, Solan like Kausali, Mussoorie like Ghaziabad. The long arm of Indian commerce has reduced every unique setting into a suiting ad. Land, building, wall space, air rights, sidewalks, everything is on sale.

Lessons from Bhutan

Just look at our small neighbour. In the low spreading hills of Bhutan, as you negotiate the streets of Paro, it is hard to believe this is a 21st century city. It has cyber cafes, coffee bars and a populace as intensely urbane as any in the world. But the cityscape speaks a different story. All around is architecture so historic, schooled in the strictest tradition of the mountain kingdom, it appears as if no new building has been added after the 19th century. No glass beauty parlours, no malls, no row upon row of public housing. All you see are the coloured cornices and window trim of traditional Bhutan. Guided by the urge to suppress the visibility of individual places, city facades are merely swallowed up into a neutral background.

Barely a mountain range away, Gangtok in Sikkim speaks an entirely different language. Born of the same cultural heritage, Gangtok’s lineage is now hidden behind Raymond Suiting hoardings, bleak shopping arcades of marble, hotels of Rajasthani sandstone in stylized windows of tinted glass. On the hotel balcony in the evening, a visiting businessman looks out onto the streetscape. As evening turns to night, the buzzing neon of the main bazaar begins to glow - Bengali Sweet House, Delhi Cloth Mills and Moti Mahal light up the streetscape; the familiar noise of commerce reaches his ears. A comforting picture book reminder of his hometown of Meerut, a mere 800 kilometers away.

Think local

Obviously the demands of rapidly expanding hill towns can hardly be met by old solutions. Filthy bazaars, choked rivers, water shortages, power cuts are in themselves enough reason to seek some radically new way of living. What would our mountainscape be like were it to resort to a more imaginative resolution of its many problems? Development itself could be seen under a new set of public aspirations: the replacement of the demand for road, electricity and water with track, solar power and water harnessing has for some time been only a paper alternative promoted by local NGOs, but so far inadequate in making sustainable mountain communities. The thrust of tourism as a local industry was once promoted to draw outsiders into home-stays in the village, thereby also providing for the upkeep of the area. Yet 90% of the tourism is of the four-star variety, places duplicated from the plains for people from the plains. More than ever now, the ownership of second homes for outsiders needs strict curbs, through rigorous disincentives and taxation. Their location - when allowed - should be limited to specified zones within urban areas.

In matters of ecology and policy towards development, the government should be relieved of its duties for sanctions and environmental approvals, which ideally should be passed on to local citizens groups.

Amongst the many that are now participating in the tragic blame game, politicians and bureaucrats have remained largely immune to public accusation. The resource pot of forest reserves, income from legal and illegal mining, and the issue of building permits, is too precious a source of party income to be easily swayed by considerations of ecology and geography. In a statement to press to sound the horn of political correctness, Jayanti Natrajan, the environment minister, proposed that parts of Uttarakhand be declared ecologically sensitive. Which parts, the minister didn’t say. The way rivers behave, change course, flood, the way soil erosion occurs, or the way forests affect wind patterns or create catchment areas, is a matter of careful science. Without sound scientific knowledge and a deeper appreciation of natural conservation, the government is in no position to make policy statements.

In China, after the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that leveled many government schools and killed thousands of children, the government inquiry naturally laid blame squarely on the high Richter scale. A Communist state was under no obligation to offer explanations. The tragedy of Uttarakhand is far too complex an affair to be merely covered by a government report.

Beyond Uttarakhand

Doubtless the government of the hill states will be blamed for not taking environmental precautions against natural disaster. But that is so merely because Uttarakhand is the focus of a fresh tragedy. Few states in the south have created natural buffers against the tsunami, Maharashtra still continues to devastate its mangrove protections against floods, and little work is done in Rajasthan or Gujarat to guard against continued desertification. Sensitivity to ecology at a time of global warming is both a necessity against disaster and a new way to forge a different, less destructive form of development.

— - Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect, artist and writer.


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use