But, are we over it already?
Let us not get calm about this calamity. Remember, there may be more Uttarakhand like catastrophes if corrective measures are not taken.
The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), in one of its first reports on the Uttarakhand floods, has blamed “climatic conditions combined with haphazard human intervention” in the hills for the disaster. Yes, climate change-related extreme weather events made the already vulnerable region more hazardous, but what really made the disaster man-made is the scale of ‘development intervention’ in the past decade or so. As Sunita Narain, Director General, Centre for Science and Environment says, “This is the deadly and painful cost of environmental mismanagement.”
The deadly destruction has prompted the Uttarakhand government to announce six eco-sensitive zones in the State. It is noteworthy that in 2012, the present Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, had resisted doing the same. He did not agree with the central government’s decision to declare the riverfront area of the Bhagirathi as an eco-sensitive zone.
This brings us to the central point of this story.
What are eco-sensitive zones?
They are the ecologically important areas designated to be protected from industrial pollution and unregulated development under the Environment Protection Act of 1986.
A Centre-state conflict has been at the core of all eco-sensitive zone talk. While the Centre releases orders, the states resist their implementation.
The casualty? Environment.
Wondering why several state governments have resisted the demarcation of eco-sensitive zones? The answer lies in the fact that they are under ‘pressure’ from various ‘quarters’. Let us revisit Uttarakhand for a brief moment.
Chief Minister Bahuguna was opposed to the proposal of declaring a 130-km stretch from Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone because he believed the move would rob the local people of the much-needed infrastructure development and deal a blow to the state’s tourism industry.
This is where the debate on development and environment comes in.
Can one be given preference over other? And can one be neglected at the cost of other? Can local people be alienated while planning a region’s development? And can an economic boom be envisaged at the cost of the environment?
The eco-sensitive zone framework in its present form faces many problems. “The inability to enforce implementation and the size of the monitoring authority in the case of huge areas are two major problems of the framework. At the same time, the state government cannot be given a free hand because it has not been particularly sensitive to ecological concerns,” explains Sunita Narain.
So, what should be the call to action?
The eco-sensitive zone framework needs to be reviewed so that it can lead to the desired results. The stakeholders — development of a region, involvement of its local people and the ever-so-crucial environment concerns — are all on the deck. The verdict is awaited. But one thing is clear. We cannot afford to play with fragile ecologies...