South Asia Citizens Web, February 25, 2021

We, the Core Group members of the Vikalp Sangam, are completely shocked and anguished by the recent Uttarakhand tragedy. We do consider that the events of 7th February 2021 in the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga valleys in Uttarakhand are yet another grim reminder of the fact that Himalayas as an ecosystem are getting stressed and sick by the day. Climate Change and its impacts are no longer a matter of debate or contestations. It is here to stay.

We have to learn to live with the hard facts and ugly face of Climate Change becoming worse especially in vulnerable regions like the Himalayas, the youngest and restive mountain system in the world. Within the Himalayas itself, there are regions more vulnerable than the rest due to receding glaciers, glacial lakes, steep slopes and sparse vegetation. Such vulnerable regions can do with minimum anthropogenic interventions.

Against the above, the facts are that an avalanche of manmade structures like dams and hydropower projects, barrages, tunnels, wide roads and even railways are either operational, under construction or planned all across the Himalayan region in the country. This can be suicidal as has repeatedly been experienced in 2012, 2013, 2016 and again now in 2021. We cannot waste any more time before preventive and definitive steps are taken on a priority basis to reverse the damage already done to fragile Himalayas.

Following the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, an expert Body headed by Dr. Ravi Chopra was constituted which assessed the overall hydropower development in Uttarakhand and its role in the disaster. The Report “Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects during the June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand”, dated April 2014, recommended scrapping of 23 hydropower projects in the region. There are many who believe that if the recommendations of the report had been accepted and comprehensively acted upon, the tragedy on 7th February probably could have been avoided.

We, the Core Group members of Vikalp Sangam, demand the following:

Scrap the two damaged hydropower projects – Rishi Ganga and Tapovan – and remove the debris from the river courses.

Institute an immediate independent enquiry into the disaster that would throw light on possible causes of the tragedy, the lacunae in dealing with it, and the lessons learned. The committee should also fix responsibilities at various levels for the loss of innocent lives and property, institute action/s against the culprits and establish protocols and processes to prevent any recurrence of such tragedies and/or minimize their impacts.

Constitute an independent multi-disciplinary expert group to carry out a comprehensive review of existing developmental programs and projects in the Himalayan region in a time bound manner on the lines of the 2014 Expert Body headed by Dr. Ravi Chopra and/or the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP). The review should be a comprehensive, cumulative, regional one (as against standalone, project-based reviews) that takes into account the combined impacts of all the projects (including roads, dams, tunnels, tourist centres, colonies, townships, and so-called afforestation) and existing threats of climate change and seismicity.

Announce a moratorium on all infrastructure projects like dams and hydropower projects, barrages, tunnels, road widening and construction of new ones, railways, large scale tourism infrastructure etc., till the above mentioned review is completed and a social consensus is built around the same.

Initiate a participatory process to develop an alternative development policy/strategy for the holistic protection, preservation of the Himalayan Rivers and the ecosystem and livelihood security of local people. Rampant development in the Himalayan region should be banned; instead, the Himalayan region should be protected as a natural heritage with minimum human interventions approach. The approach should incentivize protection and conservation of ecosystem services, organic and biodiverse farming, sustainable pastoralism, decentralized water systems, local/indigenous forests and biomass-based manufacturing, crafts, and community-led ecotourism, at the same time removing disincentives such as subsidies for ecologically harmful agriculture, mass tourism, etc.

Core Group, Vikalp Sangam (several organizations co-signed this letter)

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