This week’s flood in Kashmir, the worst in half a century, has left a trail of devastation so extensive that from the aerial pictures it is hard to imagine there was ever life below the watery landscape. With river embankments breached, agriculture eroded, cities flooded, roads and bridges washed away, the flood was too devastating a natural act to be easily averted by manmade defences. Obviously the government’s initial task is to save lives. But beyond the relief efforts, the eventual thinking on rebuilding would require a whole new environmental turn. Future construction in the state would need to take into account existing flood plains, earthquake possibilities, and stiff regulations for building in river valleys and on mountain slopes.
As the monsoon progressed across the country, other stories of distress were cited: 40 killed in a landslide in Pune, 30 trapped under building debris in Mumbai, villages destroyed in flash floods in Uttarakhand, Bihar and Assam. These are all clear and ominous signs that nature becomes destructive when abused, indeed when increasing habitation in fragile ecologies reaches saturation point.
Travel anywhere in the mountains in North or South India, and one sees roads tear away large swathes of hillsides, leaving exposed gashes of earth; new housing developments have been made in imitation of city houses. In places remote and inaccessible, hotels called Himalayan Heights and Valley View rise five to six storeys; apartment blocks, even higher, are placed on mountain peaks and sold as ‘your home in the hills’ by local builders. In Coonoor and Ooty, tea and cardamom estates are converted to luxury housing for residents of nearby Bangalore and Chennai. A similar story is repeated along the coastline. Delhi and Mumbai’s elite have built beach cottages in Goa and Kerala, an extravagant practice of owning second homes in a country where more than half its population doesn’t have the first. Why are India’s most precious preserves of natural environment being so viciously plundered and sold? Why do major tragedies occur with such regularity in fragile, environmentally-sensitive regions? Indeed why are land and building regulations lax — or missing — in places that need stringent development controls.
Enter any of the valleys along Himachal’s urban belt, in Shimla or Manali; or drive along the river in Garhwal to its religious sites, and the destructive power of overbuilding is visible everywhere. Vast stretches of land around old cores of habitation are stuffed with ramshackle brick and plaster construction, jammed against each other in a claustrophobic compaction, leaving little or no space for green. What was once sloped, forested mountain terrain is now artificially flattened ground and a desolate repetition of Delhi’s Paharganj. Sadly, the Kashmir flood is a grim reminder of a similar tragedy at Kedarnath. More than a year after the disaster, illegal construction along the riverbank continues. No action has been taken on the safety recommendations of the Geological Survey to build riverbed walls, remove buildings and relocate hundreds of villages from within flood-prone areas. Moreover, the government continues to treat religious pilgrimage as just another form of tourism. By opening up roads and hotels, building helipads to Badrinath and Gangotri, it makes no distinction between a family vacation and a religious pilgrimage. The importance of physical ardour and the personal devotion required for any pilgrimage can help limit numbers and restore religious sites to their former pristine state. But torn between the revenue generated by mass unregulated tourism and people’s safety, the Uttarakhand government continues to vacillate, and hope that nature will be kind this year.
Unfortunately, when places are buckling under the pressure of overbuilding, there is still no debate on local bye-laws or revision of land policy. Some years ago, when a landslide caused a section of Nainital’s hill to collapse, instead of seeking alternatives, the government merely sealed all future building. A similar action was taken by Rajiv Gandhi’s government, when on a coastal visit, the then prime minister proposed that no construction be allowed within one kilometre from the sea. Wasn’t that like saying that since certain foods cause a stomach upset, stop eating altogether?
Kashmir now, Kedarnath last year, Nainital even earlier, and annual instances of coastal deluge — all indicate that state governments need to take land and construction policy seriously and not merely treat it as an instrument of tourism. Many countries, especially in Scandinavia, have developed lighter forms of building for their mountain and riverside terrain. Others forbid construction in all geologically unstable ecologies. Only a savage and inert bureaucracy continues to allow conventional construction on difficult environmentally sensitive terrain; it may take several natural disasters to remind people of the consequences of illicit building actions.
The writer is a Delhi-based architect