Could the Uttarakhand tragedy have been avoided, or at least minimised?
There is no simple answer.
Environmentalists describe the death and damages as a man-made disaster while geologists say the extent of destruction could have been far lesser if stricter regulations were in place and authorities were equipped to deal with the situation.
Importantly, the events focus attention on the debate on the December 18, 2012 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which declares the entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarakashi along Bhagirathi as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, in practice banning all construction activities in this area, and how the State government has been opposing it stoutly, arguing that such an order will adversely affect all development activities and economic progress of the region.
The notification, if implemented, would result in the closure of hydropower projects of 1,743-MW along the Bhagirathi and a ban on mining and construction, especially hotels and resorts, and land use conversion. Power projects and mining and construction activities are the main causes of preventable environmental degradation.
The Assembly passed a resolution, and Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month to urge him to cancel the notification.
The former Deputy Director-General of the Geological Survey of India, V.K. Raina, told The Hindu that while natural calamities such as cloud bursts and flash floods could not be prevented, but deaths and damage could be contained if there were laws to regulate construction along rivers, and authorities were prepared to deal with the situation. “Construction in Uttarakhand is not planned. The owners have taken a calculated risk and paid for it.”
Had India Metrological Department alerted the State government, authorities should have...