Roads are considered as the lifeline of a nation. For the 7th biggest country in the world, roads are the paramount necessity for the nation’s development. Since Independence, various regimes at the helm have tried to connect North-South and East-West. But with unaccountable money slipping down the drain due to rampant corruption and mismanagement, we have lost our way in between. The road project was dragged on for decades. Finally, in early 1990’s the trade borders were liberalized for international trade. This gave the much-needed impetus to the development of roads across India. The ingenuity of former P.M. Atal Behari Vajpayee paved the way for the connection of four corners through golden quadrilateral.
Since then, after a decade, the country is almost connected with roads, forming a maze around every village across the country. The villages have been mainstreamed with the outer world through roads. The roads have opened umpteen possibilities for villagers who earlier had to travel miles to sell their produce. Now the produce reaches the nearest mandi on time, which fetches a good return to the farmers for the time and money they had invested in the crop. The government too is able to penetrate into villages to render development initiatives through its programmes. Roads seem to have become a harbinger of development.
In an interaction with Mr Anil Pandey, a middle-aged man tells that “Roads are no less than the incarnation of God in this distant village of Bageshwar”. Tucked at remotest corner of the Indian Territory, the villages in hills were once completely inaccessible for the outside world. Local dwellers travelled miles to reach cities/towns to meet their basic necessities which were really costly. The price of commodities was usually high due to the transportation charges. Donkey’s and Horses were the only feasible options for transporting good to the far-flung villages. Due to the dearth of affordable transport and local mandi’s, the farmers were exploited. They had no other option but to sell their agricultural produce at cheap prices to the middlemen, who had their own transportation arrangements.
The neighbouring state Himachal Pradesh (HP), which shares almost the same physiographical features like Uttrakhand have always been miles ahead in road construction. Almost two decades back, the local economy of HP was connected with roads and electricity and its tourism sector was witnessing an escalating growth. At the same time in Uttarakhand, there was a big struggle for separation from suppressive Uttar Pradesh Raj. The concept of electricity and roads was still not in the picture. While we were indulged in self-loathing, our neighbours left no stone unturned to harness their natural resources.
For the younger generation, the unavailability of transport meant that they had to travel long distances to reach their schools and colleges. The possibility of the constant threat of wild animals always loomed over them. Fearing for their ward’s safety, the parents were discouraged to send their girls for higher education. The lack of roads even affected the cultural processions. Earlier the marriages were not a one-day affair. The villagers traversed mountains to reach to their in-laws. It was an excruciating journey. In Rastadi village of Uttarkashi, Mohan Rana, an interesting personality in his late forties jokes “Shaadi karna dandi march se bhi zyada bada tha. Phir bhi dandi march to desh ki azadi k liye tha par hamari dandi march to ulta hamesha paharo k bandhan mein bandhne k liye tha”.
After separation from Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand embarked on a mission to highlight itself on the map of India’s economy. To begin with, the state focused on building its existing tourism sector i.e. its milch cow. Hence began the blind construction of roads across the state. The engineers, technicians and modern machinery constructed roads which left the onlookers astonished. Cutting down mountains, the roads kept on expanding. The government meanwhile never missed a chance to brag about its achievements. In this entire charade of road construction, the people forgot the repercussions of this blind construction on the fragile ecology of the hills.
Umpteen trees were sacrificed, the monstrous rocks were drilled, and the big heaps of debris were left on the roadsides or thrown down into rivers. Roads not only harmed the ecology but it became a serious threat to people’s lives. The hasty construction of roads became prime reason for deaths across the state, particularly in the Char Dham region, where pilgrims flock in many numbers. In the aftermath of 2013 Kedarnath flash floods, there was a significant dip in tourist arrival in the state. Of many reasons, the poor construction of roads was found to be a major contributor to the loss occurred to man and property.
To aggravate the issue, the villagers started construction near the roadside to establish their small enterprises. In the aftermath of these anthropogenic activities, another global problem was knocking at our doors, the climate change. It further left the hills vulnerable and debilitated. The government and its contractors flouted with environmental guidelines and kept on authorizing road construction.
A large number of development activities have been carried out in the hills which enhance the scale of the disaster (Kala, 2014). Most of these infrastructural activities have no prior impact or risk assessment. The government have haphazardly approved a plethora of projects that include the widening of roads, dam construction etc. Eventually, the state is now vulnerable to frequent disaster than ever before. Most of these have devastated the hills in the recent times. The table below gives a brief idea about the troublesome situation perpetuating in the recent times.
Table 1.1: Disasters in Uttarakhand till 2016 (Flood and Landslide)
|1978||Bhagirathi Flash Floods||Devastating impact on region|
|1980||GyansuNala landslide||Claimed 24 lives and destroyed several Houses|
|1991||Uttarkashi Earthquake||Caused loss of 653 human lives, injuries to about 6,000 people and the death of 1,300 head of livestock in addition to damage to buildings, other structures and the infrastructure|
|1998||Malpa Landslide||Devastating Impact on the region|
|2001||Phata Landslide||Devastating Impact on the region|
|2003||Landslide Triggered by a cloud burst in Varunawat Hills, Uttarkashi||Engulfed three 4-story hotels and damaged several building, roads and other infrastructure. The estimated damages were to the tune of about 50 million dollars.|
|2009||Landslide disaster on Kuity village on Berinag-Munsiyari Road, Pithoragarh District||Wiped out two Villages namely Jhakhla and Lah, claiming 43 lives.|
|2010||Floods, cloudburst and landslide||Haridwar and Rishikesh were submerged. 42 Died in Almora and Nainital District|
|2013||Flash Floods and Cloudburst in Kedarnath||More than 10,000 lost their lives. 110,000 pilgrims were stranded.|
|2016||Heavy Rain in Pithoragarh and Chamoli District||At least 30 People were killed|
Sources: HESCO (for 1978-2009) & (for 2010 and 2013)
The central and state bonhomie might put roads as its high priority but there is an immediate need to complement the development by balancing it with Mother Nature. With political will, the situation can be mitigated. There is a need for stringent environmental impact assessment (EIA) which is also ironic to the fact that most of the existing functioning projects got their clearance through EIA. The primary stakeholders of this development, the local communities must be made equal partners in decision making. Sadly in past, they have been neglected and kept isolated from such developments.
The incumbent regime at the helm of state affairs has further proposed an ambitious project to connect the Char Dhams with train connectivity. If existing methodologies are still followed without prior scientific and environmental assessment, then we might foresee a further increase in catastrophes akin to Kedarnath flash floods of 2013. There isn’t just an imminent threat to the serenity of hills but also to its booming tourism industry.
Note: This article has been written by Rajender Bisht