Calcutta Notebook


The cloudburst in Uttarakhand has left a trail of destruction. But there is a silver lining. It gives an opportunity to rebuild the society afresh in keeping with the changed circumstances. Grand cities like Kalibangan on the banks of the Ghaggar River in the Indus Valley were made by citizens in good old times. This river used to carry the waters of the Sutlej and the Yamuna. Then there was a tectonic uplift of the land between Panipat and Chandigarh. This led to the Yamuna flowing east and the Sutlej joining the Beas. The Ghaggar was deprived of most of its waters. Life in the Kalibangan and other nearby cities came to a virtual halt. The people did not persist in living at Kalibangan. They migrated to the Ganga Basin and rebuilt another grand civilization culminating in the Mauryan Empire of Ashoka. They recognized that circumstances had changed and built their lives afresh on a grander scale.

Other stories have not had such happy endings. The Banqiao Dam was made on Huai River in China in 1950 to control floods. A bigger-than-expected flood took place in 1975. The Dam broke leading to downstream failure of 62 smaller dams. A wave about 5 meters high and 10 km wide flowed down and the resulting flood led to death of about 170,000 persons. But the Chinese Government persisted in building yet more dams and embankments to control floods. Result has been a series of disasters. Dams continue to break and downstream rivers are dying leading to huge environmental costs.

That is how one must understand the disaster in Uttarakhand. Nature is saying it does not like the ways the people are using to tame it. Helicopters and evaporation from Tehri Reservoir were disturbing the microclimate of the area. Tourists posing as pilgrims had converted the Holy Shrine into a pleasure-making resort. Pandas were fleecing pilgrims. Hydropower companies were blasting into the mountains to make tunnels; and depositing muck into the river. More blasting was being done to make roads. All this was done for securing economic growth. But it has led in reality to economic disaster. Huge costs have been incurred by the people, the State Government and the Central Government in wake of the disaster. The economic gains made in the last many years have been wiped out in mere two days.

Unfortunately a section of  Indian scientists is trying to prove that the disaster was wholly natural and human beings made no contribution to it whatsoever. Regarding evaporation from Tehri Reservoir they rubbish the argument saying that studies in Brazil which showed that creation of water bodies leads to change in microclimate were made for 90 reservoirs and the conclusions cannot be applied to a single reservoir of Tehri. They ignore the fact that many studies of single reservoir such as the Three Gorges Dam in China have reached similar conclusions. Regarding blasting they say that it was being done as per norms made by Director General of Mines Safety. It does not dawn upon them that those norms were made for protecting houses whereas in the present disaster the damage has taken place due to loosening of topsoil. Regarding disposal of muck in the river they are making detailed calculations to show that the amount of muck disposed on the river was small. Such denial will only bring forth more vengeance from nature.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter had coined the phrase 'creative destruction.' He said that capitalism ever creates new technologies that lead to certain old sectors dying out. The assembly line led to thousands of blacksmiths engaged in making horse carriages losing their livelihood. The internet has led to end of the telegraph. Schumpeter said that these changes should be taken positively despite the suffering that it entails. By adopting new technologies people move to a higher plateau.

The old model of hill development has been destroyed by nature just as the trade of blacksmiths was destroyed by the motor car. The choice before people is to adopt new ways and create a new model that takes the society to a higher plateau; or persist in the old mold and bring more wrath of nature.

Uttarakhand is presently following the hydropower-cum-manufacturing model. Rivers are being harnessed to generate electricity. This electricity is being supplied to the industries that are being set up in the plains. Industries are also entitled to tax exemptions for 10 years. They are coming to Uttarakhand because electricity and tax exemptions are available. This looks fine for the present but this will not sustain after the tax exemptions come to an end. Experience of other states like Goa shows that most industries flee after this happens. Secondly, economic growth is increasingly coming from the services sector. The share of agriculture is declining, that of manufacturing is stable and that of services is increasing. In due time manufacturing will also begin to shrink as has happened in developed countries like the United States. Third problem is that Uttarakhand does not have a Unique Selling Point for manufacturing. An industrialist will find it easier to set up the same industry in Ghaziabad or Surat. Spare parts, financial facilities and skilled labour are more easily available there. Fourth problem is that destruction of the rivers will hit at the potential of the state in the services sector as well. Pristine rivers will no longer be available on the banks of which universities and hospitals could be established. Thus, after 25 years Uttarakhand will be left with empty industrial estates and broken rivers. Most importantly it would have lost the opportunity to emerge as a better alternative to Switzerland as a global tourist destination.

Vol. 46, No. 37, Mar 23 - 29, 2014