Calcutta Notebook


A year has passed since the horrendous Kedarnath disaster took place last June, yet there is no respite. The char dham yatra has been repeatedly cancelled. The rains have been much less than last year but the mountains are angry because the Government has not taken any steps to rectify the policies that led to the disaster.

The India Meteorological Department holds that the exceptionally heavy rains were the culprit. The data tell a different story, however. The rainfall recorded in the measuring station in the vicinity of Kedarnath on June 17th was : Chamoli 76 mm, Joshimath 114, Tehri 169, Jakholi 108 and Rudra Prayag 92 mm. In comparison other areas of Uttarakhand received much heavier rain : Mukteshwar 237 mm, Bambasa 230, Champawat 222 and Uttarkashi 207 mm. Nearby regions of Himachal Pradesh received yet more rain: Chhachrauli and Bilaspur both received 270 mm rain on that day. So heavy rainfall was not the culprit.

The real cause of the disaster was the explosions made for making roads and tunnels for hydropower projects. These explosions loosened the topsoil of the mountains. Previously part of the heavy downpour would seep into the hills taking cue from the roots of the trees. The downstream flow would be both slowed down and reduced. The explosions changed this chemistry. The topsoil started to flow with the rainwater ard trees got uprooted and were carried into the Mandakini.

The River would have yet carried this soil and trees to the plains. After all, the Gangetic Plains from Haridwar to Ganga Sagar have been made by the carrying of such material by the Ganga and her tributaries. But this was possible only if the river was allowed to flow freely and was free of obstructions. Such was not to be. The sediment-and-tree laden water hit the 30 meter high barrage of the Phata-Byung hydropower project being made by LANCO. The gates of the barrage were blocked by trees and a reservoir quickly formed behind the barrage. This led to washing away of the bridge at Sitapur just above the barrage. The Ravi Chopra Committee set up by Ministry of Environment on orders of the Supreme Court tells that people coming down from Kedarnath were trapped on the other side. They could not cross the Mandakini due to the bridge getting washed away.

The Mandakini jumped over the barrage and started to flow again. But soon it faced another obstruction in the barrage of the Singoli-Bhatwari hydropower project being made by Larsen and Toubro. Once again the gates were blocked by stone and trees. Here the Mandakini cut the mountain on one side and by-passed the barrage. The water would normally flow straight in the channel. It started to flow like a snake hitting the two sides one after the other because it came out of one side of the barrage. The cutting action was aggravated by muck deposited by LANCO on the river bed. The river eroded this muck from the riverside and deposited it into the riverbed. This led to raising of the water level in the river. The combined impact of the snake-like flow and raising of water level led to villages like Chandrapuri getting washed away wholly.

This was not to be the end of the story. The Mandakini joined the Alaknanda at Rudra Prayag and then the two together faced the dam made by the Srinagar hydropower project of GVK. The Company initially reduced the opening in the gates to quickly fill up the reservoir. The water level in the reservoir reached its highest level around 4 am on 17th June. Then the Company suddenly opened the gates to reduce the level. This water flowed downstream like a huge Tsunami wave. The company had deposited huge amounts of muck on the riverside without taking adequate protection measures such as making stone walls and securing them with wire mesh. As a result the water scoured the river bank and carried the muck with it and deposited downstream. Once again the water level rose. Water and muck entered hundreds of houses and people were displaced. The National Highway 58 was closed for 2 weeks. These devastations took place not because of the rains or the bursting of Chorabari lake but because manmade obstructions to the flow of the Ganga made by hydropower companies.

It is possible that the rainfall in the immediate region of Kedarnath was higher than the larger region though this cannot be conclusively established because there was no gauging station here. The Tehri Reservoir appears to have contributed to this. Across the world it has been found that large reservoirs lead to an increase in rainfall. The Aswan area in Egypt had its first rains after the Aswan dam was built. A report by National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States says that the ‘Three Gorges Dam’ in China has led to less rainfall in the immediate vicinity but more rainfall in mountains some distance away. A similar heavy rain appears to have happened at Kedarnath which is located a short distance away from Tehri. Note that the heavy local rainfall occurred in the middle of June which is the hottest period of the year and evaporation was at its maximum.

The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation has claimed that the Tehri Reservoir captured a large flow coming from Bhagirathi River. It has calculated that the flow at Haridwar would have been 21500 cusecs if the Tehri Reservoir had not been there. This would be higher than the previously highest recorded flow of 18,700 cusecs in 1924 and would have caused huge damage to Haridwar. The contribution of Tehri Dam in moderating the flood cannot be denied. But the bigger question is that this huge flood itself appears to be a result of the increased evaporation from the Tehri Reservoir. To claim that Tehri has moderated the flood after having caused it in the first place is like a doctor claiming to have saved the life of a patient after he went into a coma due to wrong drugs administered by the same doctor earlier!

Vol. 47, No.7, Aug 24 - 30, 2014