All posts by Nivedita

About Nivedita

Two decades of exposure to social issues as a journalist, as a writer and as a socially conscious traveler. Currently working as an independent journalist, I write on water, environment, climate change and interests of India’s tribal population. I have earlier worked with the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, and the Hindustan Times, Delhi focusing on developmental and environmental issues. My special interests include writing about water, rivers, forests and India’s north-eastern states, especially Arunachal Pradesh. A University topper and a gold medalist, I have also won awards for environmental and health reporting. This is my personal space showcasing my professional work and also chronicling my musings and other interests such as photography

Just few good photos

Today’s post is going to be just few good photos …

Here is a wonderful banyan tree with a massive canopy. This is found at a place called Shukrataal in Uttar Pradesh.

So after Shukrataal, I go straight to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. Such a cute yawn, I just could not resist capturing it.

Mani myau … a cat jaw this

Again I go north, to be precise, to the north-east. This is a beautiful scene from the banks of Noahdihing river in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh.

Noahdihing river in Lohit district

That brings me to central India. This is a wonderful place, Narmada river cutting across mighty volcanic rock formations to showcase a veritable design, an absolute delight to our eyes. Unfortunately this place is submerged under waters of the Omkareshar dam downstream.

Dharaji, the wonderful place along the Narmda river

And the last one for today. A gem from the hypnotic Himalayas – the Bhagirathi I II & III peaks, who form the headwaters for the Gomukh glacier and then the holy Ganges.

Bhagirathi peaks @ Gomukh

Do send feedback.

Earth Day 2017: Are we doing enough for our Mother Earth?

This year’s theme is ‘Environmental and Climate Literacy’ which seeks to “empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defense of environmental protection.” Decide your own contribution when you celebrate ‘Earth Day’ on April 22

Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) institutionalized an innovative system for the betterment of environment in 2016. It officially promoted and made available cow-dung cakes for cremation at one of the ghats. It is almost one year since the facility was adopted by the NMC and the number of families choosing to go green when bidding good bye to their dear ones is increasing day by day. Using cow-dung cakes has not just proved to be cost-effective but also saves trees from being cut.

The brain behind this was Vijay Limaye of the Eco-friendly Living Foundation (ELF), who has been propagating the concept through his NGO at various ghats. In about 10 months, when more than 300 persons were burnt using the eco-friendly materials such as cow-dung and/or briquettes made from agro-waste. The initiative has received a huge response from Nagpur residents and the facility is in the process of being replicated at other cremation sites in the city.

Far away from Nagpur, in drought-prone Marathwada, a bunch of Jain people, mostly from Mumbai, were striving hard to bring relief to the drought-stressed farming community across 60 villages. Samasta Mahajan, an organization of few individuals from the business community, poured in its heart to de-silt scores of lakes, deepen hundreds of ponds and help large number of farmers dig farm-ponds in their land. This was followed up by plantation of lakhs of indigenous varieties of trees such as banyan, neem, peepal, mango, tamarind, baheda and karanj etc. to alleviate the drought related problems faced by the farming community.

Our Mother Earth

Recognising and acknowledging that Mother Earth is a common expression for the planet earth in a number of countries and regions across the globe, which “reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit”, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate April 22 as the International Mother Earth Day in 2009. The United Nations believes that “the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change in conjunction with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development holds the power to transform our world.”

The theme for 2017 campaign – Environmental and Climate Literacy – is an apt step to club the two major plans of action agreed upon by world leaders. Top leaders from 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement wherein they all agree to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and given the extreme urgency of the situation, to strive for 1.5 degrees Celsius. The changing climate has already started manifesting as there has been a steady rise in the number of climate related disasters.

Governments of the world, including the government of India, have announced to take several measures to combat disasters that are wrought on the humanity due to changes in the climatic conditions. India’s federal structure makes participation by the state governments necessary in all such endeavours. Maharashtra government too has charted out its Action Plan for combating Climate Change.

Rivers are important water resources and need to be conserved

For instance, among other sector-wise issues, the 300-plus page document mentions possible impact of climate change on water resources in the state – such as ‘projected increase in rainfall in the form of heavy precipitation events’ and ‘increase in surface run offs in certain catchments’. It then goes on to recommend ‘conservation and re-naturalisation of rivers and water bodies’, ‘enhancement of water storage and groundwater recharge’ and ‘improvement of water use efficiency’ and charts out a proper action plan for steps to be taken for mitigating this problem and also in adapting to the situations arising out of it.

Individual’s contribution

But more than what the governments are doing, it becomes imperative for each one of us to contribute in whichever way we can. (See box for what you can do?) Not just adults but even children/students need to be aware of what can be the consequences of the changes in climatic conditions, of its unprecedented threat to our Mother Earth. Awareness will come from education and empowerment through knowledge. Knowledge will inspire people to take adequate action. “Environmental and climate literacy is the engine not only for creating green voters and advancing environmental and climate laws but also for accelerating green technologies and jobs,” the United Nations has declared.

Each one of us is duty bound to first gain knowledge about causes that lead to rise in global temperature which in turn brings about disastrous climate changes. Next, we need to empower others with that knowledge so that each one of is aware of the pitfalls and can take a conscious decision to improve chances of a better world for our tomorrow.

“Ensuring adequate public participation is central to the design and implementation of any SAPCC,”, the Maharashtra state action plan to combat climate change states and declares: “Effective climate action on adaptation requires general public awareness and community involvement. There is potential for key roles to be played by women, the youth, NGOs and community leaders.”

Perfect opportunity for spreading ‘Environmental and Climate Literacy.’ Remember, you need to work to save yourselves, your future. Are you ready?

What can an individual do for his bit for Mother Earth?

Some simple and some not-so-simple steps for ordinary citizens

** Adopt sustainable lifestyle – e.g. reduce energy consumption as much as possible
** Build green buildings rather than opting for glass facades
** Cycle to your office or take public transport, discard your own polluting-fuel vehicle
** Make online bill payments, reduce paper usage
** Do not pollute the rivers and the mountains as citizens, as tourists
** Save every drop of water – in your kitchen, bathroom and in open/common areas
** Harvest rainwater falling on your roof top, in your garden, in your farmland
** Plant trees as often as you can and in as many numbers as you can
** Recycle things to reduce garbage/waste, turn waste into energy
** Shift to solar and/or other renewable energy

This write up was carried by Maharashtra Ahead, the official publication of DGPIR of Maharashtra Government in its April 2017 issue. The following images show how it appeared in the print edition.

Maharashtra Ahead April 2017 – Page 1-2

All rivers require special status

Narmada in Madhya Pradesh

By Ritwick Dutta

If rivers are considered as living beings, we must recognise that in India today, they are an endangered species.
In his book, Animal Revolution (1975), Peter Singer popularised a term called ‘speciesists.’ According to him, “Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. Sexists violate the principle of equality by favouring the interests of their own sex. Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.”

The recent decision of the Uttarakhand High Court (Mohd Salim vs State of Uttarakhand) in declaring the river Ganga and Yamuna as living entity/legal person/juristic person, raises important questions similar to speciesists. It is important to point out that the HC has not recognised ‘rivers’ per se as living being/legal person. It has recognised only rivers Ganga and Yamuna and its tributaries as living entity/legal person.

This recognition is largely in view of the fact Ganga and Yamuna are regarded as sacred by Hindus and have a special place in the cultural ethos of the country. Though the HC has recognised that the two rivers provide sustenance to communities from the mountain to the sea, the main reason for conferring special status is the sacredness attached to the rivers.

Even at the national level, the Ministry of Water Resources has been renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development. The priority of the Central government is clear: water is a resource to be utilised, rivers have to be ‘developed’ (that is tapped and harnessed), while the river Ganga is the only river that needs to be rejuvenated. The Ganga has clearly been conferred a special status both by the courts and the government.

Notwithstanding the fact that the decision places Ganga and Yamuna on a higher legal pedestal than other rivers, the most significant aspect of the HC decision is that it does provide for a new perspective from which way decision/policy/law-makers should view rivers. It has held that Ganga and Yamuna are “breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to sea.”

However simplistic this statement may seem, the fact is that the present legal and policy framework does not consider the river as either a ‘breathing’ or ‘living entity.’ On the contrary, it is viewed as ‘natural resource’ whose ‘potential’ has to be realised. It requires to be ‘tapped,’ ‘tamed,’ ‘harnessed,’ ‘dammed,’ ‘dredged’ or ‘linked’ in order to realise its full ‘potential.’

A river which is not subjected to any of the above processes and allowed to flow into the sea/ocean is viewed as a national waste. The Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Tehri and the River Linking cases is a reflection of the mindset which emphasises on the need to tap this potential of rivers to attain sustainable development. In a way, the HC decision marks a fundamental departure from the ecologically myopic views held by the courts till date.

Having said that, the court decision does have its shortcomings. Having conferred the unique status, it has invoked the principle of persons in loco parentis (that is, in place of parents) and has appointed the chief secretary and advocate general of the state and director, Namami Gange as the ‘human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries.’ According to the court, “These officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well being of these rivers.”

Conflict of interest

The problem is that, this is bound to lead to conflict of interest. The chief secretary is the secretary to the Cabinet whereas the AG is the highest law officer of the state government. Though Article 165 of the Constitution may give an impression that the AG is answerable only to the governor, in reality, he/she is a political appointee and defends the action of the state government before the courts.

Neither of them is an independent authority like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or the Chief Election Commissioner. In such a situation, it is difficult to assume that either of them will be able to discharge their role as independent officers or representatives of rivers.

No judgement is perfect. A judgement is not a legislation and every word in a judgement need not be interpreted like letters of law. However, what is significant is that the HC judgement can be an important starting point for those fighting for the right of the rivers to flow uninterrupted.

If rivers are considered as living beings, we must recognise that in India today, rivers that are living and breathing, are an endangered species. They require special status and proactive conservation efforts. A ‘speciesist approach,’ however discriminatory, for all of the last free flowing rivers, and not just the Ganga and Yamuna, may be the last hope to save our rivers.

(The writer is an environmental lawyer and Managing Trustee of International Rivers, South Asia)

The above write up was first published in Deccan Herald on April 4, 2017 and can be read here

Are Ganga and Yamuna going to be ‘living entities’ only for Uttarakhand?

Allowing the river to be a legal entity means according it the right to live

Ganga at Jhala near Gangotri
Ganga at Jhala near Gangotri

“While exercising the parens patrie jurisdiction, the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers, are declared as juristic/ legal persons/ living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna.”

These were the words used by justices Aloke Singh and Rajiv Sharma of the Uttarakhand High Court on March 20, 2017 while declaring Ganga and Yamuna, two of the most sacred rivers in India, living entities.

On expected lines, the news break brought loud cheer from environmentalists and conservationists, not to mention even ordinary citizens who have deep aastha for Maa Ganga.

The Ganga is not only significant in view of the pride of place it occupies for its spiritual or cultural standing, but more so because it feeds almost 40 per cent of the country’s population.

From the lofty Himalayas to the Gangasagar, the Ganga basin – comprising the main river and its numerous tributaries – irrigates a large portion of the Indian subcontinent.

The slight change in water availability and the quality of Ganga, truly our national river, has a direct bearing on the economy of this region.

Treated/untreated sewage being dumped into Yamuna at Delhi
Treated/untreated sewage being dumped into Yamuna at Delhi

But, post-euphoria, reading the judgment by Uttarakhand High Court makes you wonder if the celebrations came a tad too soon.

Declaring the rivers, its tributaries and streams – essentially the entire basin – legal entities, the justices said: “The Director NAMAMI Gange, the chief secretary of the state of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand are hereby declared persons in loco parentis as human face to protect, conserve and preserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna and their tributaries. These Officers are bound to uphold the status of Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and also to promote the health and well-being of these rivers.”

Therein lies the catch.

The judgment is a major step in river conservation efforts, but it has a huge implication vis-à-vis the territorial jurisdiction of the high court.

In simple terms, it applies only to the state of Uttarakhand.

“(But) The decision can have persuasive value for litigants from other states to get similar orders for respective states,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.

The Centre, state governments, as also litigants from other states, can extend the judgment to their stretch of the rivers.

It is too early to know if the Uttarakhand government or the Centre will approach the Supreme Court against the Uttarakhand High Court’s decision.

But water being a state subject, the decision to accord similar status to the stretches in their territory will rest entirely with the states.

“Government of India – or for that matter, even the government of Uttarakhand – should not technically approach the Supreme Court. Else, all the talk of cleaning the Ganga river, the Namami Gange etc will be futile,” Dutta said.

Drains of Ganga and Yamuna

This was originally a case of removal of encroachment from the river’s floodplains – a common phenomenon in the hills of Uttarakhand, which had resulted in heavy loss of life and property in the 2013 disaster following the cloudburst.

The court had insisted on encroachment removal and the authorities paid no heed.

Not only this set of encroachments, but the rivers Ganga and Yamuna have also seen a host of problems: dumping of debris, dumping of treated/untreated sewage, encroaching the flood plains, building dams that obstruct the flow, diverting the flow of rivers for hydropower projects and haphazard planning – rather the lack of planning and illegal sand mining.

In fact, barring a few pristine stretches, the rivers had stopped being rivers – not qualifying on two simple, universal aspects that make any living river: aviral (continuous) and nirmal (unpolluted).

“People along the river Ganga are already going away from the river. The river no longer provides irrigation, the fish catch is declining, it brings increased floods each year, thus complain those staying along the river. The same people who revered it as Maa Ganga, are now saying, ‘We don’t feel this is our river’,” Siddharth Agarwal of Veditum, who has been walking upstream along the Ganga from Gangasagar, told me over the phone.

Starting last year, Agarwal has already walked 2,300km and is now traversing the snaking route near Uttarkashi, about 100-plus kilometres before Gangotri and Gomukh, the origins of the holy Ganges. “They don’t have any hope from the river.”

The Uttarakhand High Court echoed what Agarwal experienced while interacting with a multitude of people along the Ganga’s banks as part of his project “Moving Upstream”.

“The extraordinary situation has arisen since Rivers Ganga and Yamuna are losing their very existence. The situation requires extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve Rivers Ganga and Yamuna,” the court said.

Outlook needs to change

In 2013, the Kedarnath disaster had jolted everybody out of wits. Government and the people took to some remedial measures.

Committees were set up, declarations made and prayers held in reverence of the Maa Ganga. But, obviously, it was not enough.

Those who suffered and witnessed the destruction first hand described it akin to mythological “pralay (excessive flooding)” .

Be it the mythological pralay or the disaster that wreaked havoc, the message was loud and clear: mere obeisance is not enough, mere rituals of aartis and pujas are not enough, mere slogans of Namami Gange are not enough.

In 2014, the new dispensation at the Centre took over and one of the major decisions in the initial days was to declare the integrated Ganga conservation mission called “Namami Gange” to arrest the pollution of Ganga river and revive it.

The Union Cabinet approved an action plan to spend Rs 20,000 crore till 2019-2020 as part of the 100 per cent central sector scheme.

This was over and above the humongous budget spent as part of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), with no result.

But the moot question is: Have we adopted the right approach?

Have we achieved the balance between environment and development or have we let development (read human greed) to rob the river – overpowered the need of the river to live?

Allowing the river to be a legal entity means according it the right to live.

Are we prepared to pull down the already-built dams that obstruct the aviral (continuous) flow?

While the intention of the Uttarakhand High Court is laudable, what is alarming is it indirectly relieved the ministry of water resources, the nodal front, of any task (perhaps again playing the jurisdictional card) to ensure the protection of the river.

“The presence of the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga rejuvenation is dispensed with,” the court said after tasking the “parent-ship” of rivers Ganga and Yamuna to the director, Namami Gange, the chief secretary of Uttarakhand and the advocate general of Uttarakhand.

Ganga at Varanasi
Ganga at Varanasi

In fact, it is the ministry of water resources, and in turn, the government of India, that should be the real parent of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna in the light of the new status.

Uma Bharti, the Union minister for water resources, had launched a “Save Ganga” campaign prior to her appointment in 2014.

“Mujhe Ganga ne bulaya hai (Ganga has called me),” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously declared soon after his victory from Varanasi in the 2014 general elections.

With such illustrious prodigies at the helm of affairs, Maa Ganga should be confident that Modi (by extension, the government of India) and Bharti (the ministry of water resources) would definitely extend the “Living Entity” status to the entire length of river Ganga? Will they?

(This story was first published by Daily O and it can be read here

Indus Waters Treaty must change for environment, not to choke Pakistan’s lifeline

The pact must bring riparian nations China and Afghanistan on board amid changing climatic conditions.

Ten days after the dastardly terrorist attack at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, much water has flown down the Indus. The Indus Water Treaty 1960 (IWT) that governs the water-sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan has suddenly hogged all the limelight with scores of people demanding its abrogation to choke Pakistan thirsty.

Under this treaty, India and Pakistan share the waters – Pakistan uses almost 80 per cent of the water from the basin – of six rivers that flow through India towards Pakistan. Of these, India has complete rights over Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, while Pakistan uses Chenab, Jhelum and Indus.

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was briefed about the options India can exercise vis-a-vis the IWT following which it was declared that India will be dramatically reconfiguring the usage of its share of the waters in an as-yet unexplored manner.

Apart from steps to increase/expedite its water storage infrastructure and carrying out “non-consumptive” use for its as-yet grossly under-utilised, under-exploited share as per the treaty, an inter-ministerial group will look into India’s rights on its share.

Without going into the technical details, grand as it may sound, and legally valid too, fact remains that the provisions for utilisation of our own water share are likely to take many years to materialise.The inter-ministerial group can do a better and faster job.

Time for a relook

To start with, the 1960 vintage treaty falls short on several counts. Shakil A Romshoo, professor and head of the department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University,advocates a relook at the Indus Water Treaty from the climate change perspective and maintaining ecological flow – points which are not part of the original agreement. The treaty talks of distribution of water only between India and Pakistan, but nothing about maintaining environmental flows.

India happens to be the middle riparian state for the transboundary Indus river system. The Indus drainage basin stretches over 1.1 million sqkm area across Afghanistan (9 per cent), China (8 per cent), India (38 per cent) and Pakistan (46 per cent).

While India and Pakistan remain the largest stakeholders due to the size and volume of the waters and vis-à-vis their usage, Afghanistan (a small area due to Kabul river) and China – as Indus and Sutlej originate in Tibet – too are part of the basin. The river system in the basin includes: Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Shigar, Shyok, Indus, Shingo, Astor, Jhelum, Chenab and Kabul.

The Indus Basin Knowledge Platform correctly unfolds the Indus basin scenario,: “The Indus Basin epitomises a grand challenge due to its high poverty rates, high groundwater extraction, increased environmental degradation and risk of floods and droughts due to climate change.”

Stating the direct impact of climate change on water, the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned in its report that changes in precipitation in a warming world will not be uniform. The intensified hydrological cycles will see fewer rainy days, but more intense rainfall on those days.

This directly leads to floods, something similar to what Kashmir Valley witnessed in September 2014. Since 2010, Pakistan has had a number of alarming floods causing huge loss of life and damage to agriculture land/property.

Beyond the India-Pakistan binary

With such extreme climatic events predicted to occur in greater frequency, it makes more sense to take a holistic look at the entire basin. Going beyond the geo-political strategic conditions, it becomes imperative to look at the whole basin through changing climatic exigencies, which will mean the involvement of Afghanistan and China.

Glaciers in the Kashmir Himalayas and Karakoram ranges contribute to the majority of water flow in the basin while the contribution from China (Tibet) and Afghanistan is far less. But involving China becomes important also because of the gaping hole – a dark zone when it comes to knowledge about geographical and climatic conditions in the Tibet Autonomous Region from where both Indus and Sutlej originate, even though not many are aware about the exact developments taking place in the region.

The many stakeholders of Indus River System
The many stakeholders of Indus River System

China has managed to keep a lot of secrets there. In fact, there is lack of transparent mechanism on data sharing. Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, River and People explains: “In June 2000, Siang area in Arunachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. Similarly, in August 2000, Sutlej river area in Himachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. In both cases, there was no record of heavy rainfall. So where did that water come from? China totally declined any hand in it.”

He points us to a medium-scale dam on Indus, which China built without informing the downstream users, near Demchok in Ladakh. As per a report in the April 2010 issue of Journal of Defence Studies, the dam was located by Alice Alibinia, a British journalist and author of Empires of the Indus , while tracking the source of the Indus in Tibet.

China has huge economic interests in the region due to the Northern Route of the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) falling in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune
What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune

So, on one hand, the actual portion of Indus (both the river and the basin) is very less in Tibet, on the other, China indirectly gets a say in the much larger area – including the Ladakh ranges of Aksai Chin occupied by China and the PoK portion of Karakoram.

Remember, the Indus – starting in Tibet – after passing through Ladakh travels through Gilgit and Baltistan in PoK, and then flows through the Pakistani plains before finally draining into the sea near Thattha in Pakistan. China also conducts a lot of military activity in the Ngari area of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where it has also been promoting large-scale tourism in the Kailash Mansarovar region, an area that lies directly northeast of Himachal Pradesh and where Sutlej too originates.

Given the geo-political situation in the region, bringing China and Afghanistan on board sounds a far-fetched idea for many. The reasons are obvious. An expert at a recent dialogue on the Indus basin described the four countries of the river system as a “Matrix of Paired Opposites”. Hostile: Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-Pakistan; Friendly: China-Pakistan, India-Afghanistan; Neutral: Afghanistan-China. Of these, India and China are convergent on global issues, but divergent on regional issues.

It may indeed seem a far-fetched idea at this juncture – and China has not shown any interest in any kind of data sharing, and refused as yet any bilateral treaty with India vis-à-vis the rivers shared by the two countries. But considering the fast-changing climatic conditions, a collective data set (including data about precipitation – snowfall/rainfall, melting of snow, soil erosion, dams and storages on rivers and other spatial and temporal weather aspects) for the much-needed water balance in the region is missing. Work is in progress at many levels, but the efforts are isolated and scattered.

The Indus Water Treaty does not have an exit clause, but there are provisions for making changes that are mutually agreeable. While Pakistan may not agree to change the provisions as it gains a massive 80 per cent share of the water as per the treaty, Indus is the country’s lifeline – it will have to sooner or later take into consideration the changing climatic conditions and hence a need for a comprehensive arrangement.

Perhaps, India – as a middle riparian country – can act as a bridge between the upper and lower riparian countries.

This story was first published by DailyO portal of the India Today group on September 28, 2016. It can be read here

Arunachal hydropower project halted to save black-necked cranes

The decision by the National Green Tribunal is likely to lead to more comprehensive impact assessment studies for other hydropower projects proposed in the Brahmaputra basin

Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]
Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]

Hopes have resurfaced on saving the nesting grounds of endangered black-necked cranes in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh after the National Green Tribunal in April suspended the environmental clearance given to the proposed 780 MW hydropower project in Tawang district. The decision also indicates that other hydropower projects proposed in the sensitive region– part of the transboundary Brahmaputra river basin which straddles China, India and Bangladesh –might have to carry out cumulative impact assessment studies.

As many as 13 large hydropower projects with a total installed capacity of 2,900 MW have been proposed in Tawang district in western Arunachal Pradesh. The district has two main rivers, the Tawang Chhu and the Naymjang Chhu that together have 10 main tributaries. These two rivers meet each other before exiting the district in a southwesterly direction.

The barrage for the 780 MW Naymjang Chhu hydropower project is proposed to be located near Zemithang village in Pangchen valley, about 90 kilometres northwest of Tawang district headquarters. It is near the international border, with Bhutan to the west and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north. The location of the barrage coincides with the nesting site of the endangered black-necked cranes. The tribunal was critical of the fact that the environmental clearance made no mention that the project will have an adverse impact on the habitat of the black-necked crane.

These birds migrate from Tibet during the winter and lay eggs on the riverbed. They are classified as vulnerable in the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and figure in India’s schedule I list under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India of 1972.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which runs a conservation project in the area, the Pangchen valley is one of the few places in India that is a wintering habitat for the black-necked crane. These birds, a flagship species in the Himalayan high-altitude wetlands, are found only in Bhutan, India and China. Already affected by climate change – their nesting habitats require river levels to be stable and low during the winter – such disturbance to their habitat would have heavy consequences.

Naymjang Chhu - 6

In 2007, the government signed a slew of agreements to build hydropower projects. The state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation Ltd would construct some of these projects and private firms will build the others. The proposals ran into a wall of protests by the Monpa, an indigenous tribe with a population of some 50,000 in Arunachal Pradesh. The Monpa constitute about 97% of Tawang’s population. After initial protests at different places, eight lamas (Buddhist monks) and two villagers came together to lead the social movement and formed the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF). They started creating awareness across the district, protested at public hearings and approached the green tribunal to challenge the environmental clearance given to the Naymjang Chhu project.
SMRF has members and volunteers from all villages likely to be affected by hydropower projects. They get information from the government using the Right To Information Act, and hold meetings and protest rallies. “The establishment tried to break our movement. Bribes were offered, members were lathi-charged and I was sent to jail,” said lama Lobsang Gyatso, general secretary of SMRF. See: Two anti dam activists killed by police in Arunachal.

Questioning hydropower rationale

The Tawang district has a total of 31 mini- and micro- hydropower projects. Most of them are either dysfunctional or running below capacity because of poor maintenance or changing river flow. “We are not outright against all projects. But first let these (existing) projects run smoothly. Then, of the 13 planned, we can go for at least one, less than 100 MW project, and see the impact,” Gyatso said. “Given the fragile seismic zone, there needs to be checks and balances.”

The protesters say that the entire district’s power requirement, including those needed by the army and paramilitary forces, who have a substantial presence, is currently less than 10 MW. The aim is to eventually export the power to others states, but Tawang currently is not connected to the central grid. As many as 80% of the 378 villages and hamlets in the district do not have electricity, official data from 2013-14 show.

In fact, as electricity prices have come down and solar power has become more cost-effective, a number of private firms have backed out of their agreements to build hydropower projects. The uneven rain patterns over the last few years, attributed partially to climate change, have also led to low efficiency of hydropower dams, bringing into doubt the economic logic of investing in large dams. See: Private dam builders back out of Brahmaputra dams.

Inadequate ecological studies

The federal environment ministry in New Delhi had asked the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) to conduct environmental and cumulative impact assessments for the Tawang Basin. Arunachal Pradesh’s chief conservator of forests C.D. Singh admits that Naymjang Chhu was not part of the cumulative impact assessment for the Tawang basin.

Tawang is a hilly district with deep gorges, beautiful valleys and lofty mountains. There is limited land for farming or grazing. The local villagers and activists feel threatened by the possible damage due to tunnelling for transporting water from the barrage to the power house. The proposed tunnel locations run right below the most fertile stretches of the agricultural land and some of the more populated villages. Local villagers have given a no-objection certificate (NOC) – mandated by law for all new projects–for the New Melling (90 MW) and Mago Chhu (95 MW) hydropower plants. In these cases, little grazing land and no agricultural land would be affected, and the project sites are far from human habitation.

“Why isn’t the government going ahead with these two projects where the people have no objections? Why is the government pushing the (Naymjang Chhu) project to be run by NHPC which will directly affect 75 villages?” asked Tashi Lama, another activist monk.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) points out how the argument that the Naymjang Chhu is not part of the Tawang basin is faulty. “Tawang and Naymjang Chhu rivers meet downstream and hence the basins are the same. All projects on Naymjang Chhu should to be included in the cumulative impact assessment for Tawang,” he said.

Way forward after the green judgement

While suspending the environmental clearance granted on 19 April 2011, the National Green Tribunal asked for a fresh appraisal of the project, and a separate study by the central environment ministry to determine the flow requirement for protection of the black-necked crane and for their conservation by the Wildlife Institute of India headquartered in Dehradun in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

There has been no official reaction from either the state government’s forest department or the federal environment ministry after the tribunal’s decision. The people in Tawang district are jubilant but cautious.

In the meantime, the SMRF and its volunteers have conducted meetings in two villages, Kharman and Kyaleteng, near the proposed barrage site and one at Kumba, a village near the proposed powerhouse. The villagers passed a resolution to not allow the project in their areas. The state government’s pollution control department too is likely to conduct a fresh public hearing, the date for which has not yet been announced.

“We suspect the company might go to the Supreme Court. If it does, we are ready to take our fight there too,” Gyatso said. “This is just one project. We are fighting for the entire district.”

This story was first published by The Third Pole.net and can be read here

More people should use this zero sewage discharge toilet

The three-decade old ‘Gramkranti Eco-Bio Toilet’ doesn’t pollute or need a septic tank or a sewage network. In fact, its output is a nutrient-rich liquid that can be used as a pesticide!

Daryapur 1

Toilets need a septic tank or a connection to a sewage network, enough water to clean and flush, and regular maintenance to ensure proper functioning–except if it’s the ‘Gramkranti Eco-Bio Toilet’. It looks just like a conventional toilet but needs none of these. Designed by someone with no formal degree in science, it even uses much lesser water when compared to the ones with a flush tank.

55 year old Sanjay Joshi, originally a small land holding farmer of Daryapur town in Amravati district, Maharashtra, developed this unique toilet which uses a bacterial culture to eliminate the need to dispose or treat human waste. In fact, its only output is a colourless, odourless nutrient-rich liquid that can be used as a pesticide!

The man behind the game-changing idea

Joshi had an inherent interest in science but poverty prevented him from pursuing a degree and he had to abandon his studies midway. But his sense of curiosity would not let him sit still.

“I once saw a mistry (mason) building a septic tank and asked him about the two chambers. He was unaware and said that he was just doing a job. That made me think about the actual process of making toilets”, Joshi says. How many years will it work? How much can its capacity be? Will it stink? Will it need scavenging, especially manual scavenging? He read a lot of scientific material–in the 1980s pre-Internet, pre-Google days. In fact, at one point of time, it became difficult for him to find a bride as no father would agree to marry his daughter to a person who sold toilets for a living.

After some time, he finally zeroed in on the successful formulation of the bacteria.

The ‘Gramkranti Eco-Bio Toilet’ is born

The innovative toilet has a conventional toilet seat with a small size tank (2 x 2.25 x 2.25 cuft). The tank design is configured to attain highly efficient in-situ decomposition of excreta with the help of a patented bacterial culture. What remains as an output is a reusable liquid–basically a micro-nutrient–that can be used as fertilizer/pesticide spray.

“The work is done by this culture. To put it simply, this bacterial culture eats the human excreta, and the colourless, odourless water that we get is that bacteria’s excreta”, Joshi says. Also, unlike output from a urinal or open sewage, this by-product prevents flies and mosquito larva from breeding. Those who don’t want to use it as pesticide can either sell it or simply drain it away in conventional drains. A toilet seat from the market is added to the specifically built tank which has the trade secret culture inside after which the unit is ready for sale.

A winning duo

Joshi’s friend Ravindra Ganorkar, a large-scale land holding farmer and a social worker from the same village, joined him a few years ago. The duo experimented with the make of the toilet tank and the look in general. It is thanks to their research that the output liquid is being used as a pesticide. Joshi is the brain behind the concept while Ganorkar helps in the logistics and management.

The first such toilet was installed almost 30 years ago. Earlier it was pretty difficult to convince people to use such a toilet. All it needed was one person from a village to start using it. Within months, Joshi would get orders for more toilets from the same village. Over the last three decades, Joshi has installed almost 12,000 such toilets across Amravati district and neighbouring areas. Publicity has been through word-of-mouth till date, which Joshi and Ganorkar now plan to change.

Inspired by the Central Government’s Swachch Bharat Mission, the duo has decided to go big and expand. This toilet has been installed at about 50 government schools in Daryapur tehsil. The first toilet was sold for Rs 840. Today it costs Rs 6,000 for one unit with the tank and seat. Convincing people 30 years ago was an uphill task but by now, scores of people in the area know about his product, so getting orders is easier. “My only dream is to make open defecation free India a reality”, says Joshi.

Besides this, Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialisation, Wardha, has certified that the tank used is hygienic and suitable for low-cost latrine usage. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur has examined the tank output and certified that it is safe for human health. Panjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola has certified that the output liquid has sufficient NPK contents and micro-nutrients to be used as organic pesticide.

Happy and satisfied users

Rajani and Rajesh Vasantrao Deshmukh from a nearby village Yevada, needed something compact for their small house. The couple, which has a four member family, installed this toilet about six years ago and since then has entertained guests during two marriages and one death. Another resident of the same village Kiran Jayantrao Deshmukh went in for this toilet about five years ago when she decided to re-construct her old house. “With the new house, I neither wanted a septic tank toilet which would need more space, nor a paver-block toilet which would need manual scavenging”, Kiran said as she proudly showed the combined toilet-bathroom in her compact courtyard.

Savita and her husband Uddhav Sadashivrao Hirulkar from the same village, installed one unit 19 years ago. Their kitchen and pooja ghar is about 5 feet away from the toilet beyond a half-wall/half-grill partition. “There is no smell whatsoever even though we cook our food close by. The best part is that there is no need of manual scavenging”, says Savita. Vouching for the efficiency of this toilet, Uddhav says, “We are a large family with regular flow of relatives and friends coming over. I got three of my daughters married from this home and we always had some 30-40 guests at a time. This toilet has worked perfectly all those times”.

Savings, savings and more savings

The advantages are innumerable. The use of the output liquid as pesticide spray, both before sowing and mid-crop cycle, reduces use of chemical fertilizers by 25%, the duo claim. When the toilet seat is fixed on the tank, there is no P-trap (it is a u-shaped or s-shaped plumbing arrangement that prevents odorous gas from drains/sewers from rising up through the toilet, sink or drains into homes). “Because we have done away with the P-trap and introduced a sloping smooth tile instead, very less water is needed. As against 12-16 litres of water needed during one flush in modern toilets, this uses just 5-6 litres of water,” Joshi adds. The team has provided a pipe for gas escape instead.

Open Defecation Free villages under Swachch Bharat Mission

Satish Shankarrao Sakhare, sarpanch of Maholi (Dhande) Grampanchayat has stepped in to bridge the gap. Among the 3,000 people of Maholi, there are about 350 households that do not have a toilet. A model of the Gramkranti Eco Bio toilet unit with a fabricated room-roof cover has been kept right outside the Grampanchayat building for prospective users to see. “We have decided to make our village ‘Open Defecation Free’ by December 2015. We will install the Gramkranti Eco Bio Toilet in all these houses. The government has already sanctioned Rs 12,000 per dwelling”, Sakhare says.

The government has identified 11 of the 115 villages in Daryapur tehsil under the Swachch Bharat Mission. Joshi-Ganorkar duo sells the tank-and-seat installation for about Rs 6000 plus transportation cost. The user needs to build a room over it. Certain experiments – as one model installed in front of Maholi Panchayat office – have been estimated to cost Rs 17,000. But despite the seemingly prohibitive cost for small land owners, their toilet has found takers. “There is lot of willingness to use a toilet,” Joshi adds.

But it is not only the Panchayat office bearers who have taken it upon themselves to contribute towards Open Defecation Free villages, but also other individuals. Pramod Joshi, a restaurant owner, and his family members are inspired citizens. When Pramod’s grandmother died about three months ago this year, it had rained heavily. “The route towards the smashaan (funeral place) went from near the godhari (designated open defecation place of the village). Pouring rain had already made the area muddy, slippery and the stretch near the godhari was stinking afresh after the rains. “I felt too bad that day. I thought, a person has to undergo this painful open defecation while alive but even when dead, he/she is not free from this trouble. There and then, I decided to help people build toilets and make my village Open Defecation Free”, Pramod says.

He had already known about the Gramkranti Eco Bio Toilet. Soon he paid for several units of these toilets. His family members too were inspired and started contributing. Till now, the family has helped build 50-odd toilets in the three months since. “There are about 500 houses in our village (population 10,000 approximately). We have decided to make our village Open Defecation Free by my grandmother’s barsi (first death anniversary),” he added.

Main advantages:

No solid waste output
Only colourless, odourless liquid output
Needs barely 5-6 litre of water
No need of sewer network
No need of septic tank, soak pit etc
Prevents water contamination in any form
Saves infrastructure cost for sewage network and treatment cost
Output liquid can be used as pesticide spray
Hygienic conditions prevents diseases
Can be used as public toilet catering to 250 people/day
Can be used in all terrains

This story first appeared on www.indiawaterportal.org on Nov 13, 2015. It can be read here

Are we going to wait till nature says — ‘I told you so’ !!!

Amid clamour for development, there are warnings for even the blind persons to see and deaf to hear. But is the government hell bent on pursuing a “wrong model of development”?


Garhwal Himalayas witnessed widespread destruction in June 2013 deluge (Photo: www.uttarakhandpanorama.com)

Suddenly all the headlines of the stories I had done and read cautioning about a looming earthquake to hit the Valley flashed right in front of my eyes. What we had dreaded for years but only gave thought on Earthquake Safety Days and anniversary of the great earthquake of 1934 was unfolding right in front of us now.”

Bhrikuti Rai, my journalist friend from Nepal wrote this on April 25 in the middle of the night as she kept vigil with her brother in wake of the 7.8 magnitude disastrous earthquake that had hit the Himalayan Kingdom. “This was the big earthquake we had all dreaded for years,” she had written in her blog.

It was a déjà vu moment for me. In June 2014 – a year after the devastating 2013 cloudburst followed by flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand – I had exactly these thoughts swell up in my mind as I drove up the winding road parallel to the Bhagirathi. Travelling towards Gangotri, as I passed the site of the now-stopped Lohari Nagpala hydro-power project, the rubble that still lay strewn along the approach road to the project site still reminded of the last year’s fury. The scratched mountain faces as portions were swallowed by flash floods made for a horrible spectacle in the otherwise scenic Bhairo Ghati, one of the worst affected areas around Harsil, near Gangotri, as the vehicle made a steady climb up on the precariously narrow newly built road.

As if, the nature was mocking at every passing human being: “I told you so.” It was during June 15-17, 2013 when Uttarakhand, especially the Kedarnath region witnessed massive flash floods and landslides due to cloudburst leading to large-scale devastation downstream killing more than 5,000 people, destructing properties worth crores of rupees and above all, altering the topography of the region in a large scale.

Much water has flown down the Bhagirathi and the other tributaries of the Ganga. Post Nepal earthquake, the debate of having hydro-power projects in the seismically sensitive Himalayas is being re-ignited, mostly by environmentalists, who want the authorities to take cognizance of the empirical evidence available to prevent similar disasters even as the powers that be choose to ignore the warnings and pursue pro-hydro-power companies’ policies.

The free-flowing rapids of the Himalayan rivers bring down with them muck, debris and varied flora along with it. The existing series of hydro-power projects have already reduced the carrying capacity of the rivers and anthropogenic activities in and around the reservoirs only add to the potential of the possible disaster. It is nobody’s guess as to why should the government pay heed to the numerous studies and committees that have time and again suggested how more hydro-power projects can be suicidal for the ecologically fragile Himalayas, how these are destructing the aviral (continuous) flow of the rivers.

April and May’s Nepal earthquakes have only added to the list of don’ts for the hill state. As per a report published by The Third Pole, the 110 MW Rasuwagadhi Hydropower project on the Nepal-China border was destroyed by the Nepal quake prompting China to evacuate more than 200 of its construction workers stranded at the site. The incident had prompted fresh doubts and debates about the viability of hydro-power projects in the seismic zones.

The Expert Body (EB) lead by senior ecologist and director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehra Doon, constituted in October 2013 in wake of the June devastation earlier in that year, had in its report ‘Assessment of environmental degradation and impact of hydroelectric projects’ submitted in April 2014 had clearly said the existing and the under construction hydro-power projects had indeed increased the proportion of the disaster.


Devastation like these would be common if we fail to respect nature (Photo: www.uttarakhandpanorama.com)

The Centre has changed its stand much often on the issue of allowing hydropower projects in the Himalayan belt. The Uttarakhand government too has been a partner in crime, if not for anything else, for a simple reason of not having a clear policy on the issue. It is high time the state took a call and made public its stand about what kind of development model it wishes to pursue?

The state would do good to recall another Himalayan disaster that had unfolded in the Kashmir valley in September 2014. Excessive rainfall over a week had led to one of the worst floods of the century killing more than 150 people and causing huge losses to property and goods as large areas remained inundated for more than one month. Even though the government authorities, especially the India Meteorological Department, were reluctant to term it as an impact of climate change, the fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already talked of changes in precipitation in high altitudes, which it warned is set to increase.

Intensified hydrological cycle means fewer rainy days but those with more intense rainfall. Same is applicable for Uttarakhand. There are warnings for even the blind persons to see and deaf to hear, but the government seems to be hell bent on pursuing a wrong model of development.

So, do the hills which reverberated with the pioneering Chipko Andolan few decades ago, want to continue on the self-destructing path of ‘power’ oriented development model as pursued by conventional logic leading to pro-Corporate policies? Or, does the relatively younger state wants to vote for an ecologically sustainable model, which may not bring in the green notes for the cash-strapped economy (tourism and pilgrimage have suffered because of these natural disasters) but will help live up to its moniker of Devbhoomi.

This article first appeared on September 1, 2015 on www.uttarakhandpanorama.com and it can be read here

The three wonders of the ancient world solving modern water problems

In Peru, Kenya and India, NGOs are helping communities overcome water scarcity using wisdom from the past

 

Chand Baoli at Abhaneri in Rajasthan (Pic by Sagar Kulkarni)
Chand Baoli at Abhaneri in Rajasthan (Pic by Sagar Kulkarni)

Across large swaths of the Thar desert in western India, traditional techniques for harvesting the little amount of rain that falls has helped people survive the powerful effects of the sun for centuries.

The most beautiful of these are step wells – known as baolis in Hindi – large, stone structures built to provide water for drinking and agriculture. Baolis have existed for at least 1,000 years and were constructed in towns and alongside serais (travellers’ inns), across the desert and into Delhi.

Baolis exist in all shapes and sizes and are essentially reservoirs built into the earth. Groundwater is pulled up from a circular well at the bottom and rainwater is collected from above. A set of steps – on one or more sides of the structure – lead down to the water level, which fluctuates depending on the amount of rain. More recently, electric pumps have been installed in many baolis to help retrieve the water.

“Step wells are etched into people’s collective memory so deeply, they are now part of their DNA, passed on from one generation to another,” says Farhad Contractor of the Sambhaav Trust, an ecological conservation group.

Today, many baolis have fallen prey to rapid urbanisation and neglect. In Delhi only around 15 survive but local groups are fighting to protect and preserve them. While 700mm of rain falls on Delhi every year, half of the city has been declared a dark zone – where the groundwater level has depleted so much that the rate of recharge is less than the rate of withdrawal – by the groundwater authority. Rainwater harvesting, therefore, is key to a secure water supply for India’s second-biggest city.

One such baoli restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) was built in the 14th century in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, a medieval village in Delhi named after Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. In 2008, parts of the baoli walls collapsed due to sewage water seeping into the structure and the local residents using it as a rubbish dump. The pool was drained and the rubbish, garbage and sludge that had accumulated over the past 700 years was removed to reach the foundation of the baoli some 80 feet below ground level. While the water in the baoli is still not potable, it can be used for cleaning and agriculture.

Experts say the baoli model can be replicated anywhere in the world with similar climatic conditions and physiological features. Contractor has been invited to Morocco where he is working on a project to build baolis and smaller wells, known as beris in Hindi.

Agrasen Ki Baoli in Delhi has gone dry since last few years as its catchment has been concretised.
Agrasen Ki Baoli in Delhi has gone dry since last few years as its catchment has been concretised.

But large baolis need large catchment areas, and in Delhi space is an issue. While the majority of the physical structures of baolis are protected – some by being sited inside historic monuments – urban development in Delhi has had a greater impact on their water levels; storm drains divert rain away from baoli catchment areas.

Diwan Singh, an activist with non-profit Natural Heritage First, says that even though many baolis in Delhi are surrounded by buildings, the wells can still be recharged. “Catchment area management is the key. In the small areas of land between the baolis and buildings, rainwater harvesting pits could be built to divert rainwater away from the storm drains,” he says. “Once in the pit, water will percolate through the soil and recharge the nearby baoli, allowing modern development and ancient structures to co-exist side by side.”

(This was one of the three parts of the original longer story published by The Guardian, which can be read here)

Nepal Quake Underscores the Need for Updated Resource Inventory

An incomplete and non-updated resources inventory from almost 25 states on IDRN can undo the meagre preparedness and prove hindrance in the daunting relief and rehabilitation work in case of natural disaster in India

A devastated house  in Srinagar stands in dilapidated condition six months after it remained underwater for over a month in September 2014 Kashmir floods.
A devastated house in Srinagar stands in dilapidated condition six months after it remained underwater for over a month in September 2014 Kashmir floods.

 

“All they needed was a long enough rope to divert the falling tree to the desired spot. But no one knew where they could find a rope or a strong wire,” Dr G M Dar from the Disaster Management Centre at Srinagar, recently narrated a telling incident from the devastating Kashmir floods of 2014.

A weakened embankment of a spring on Srinagar outskirts would have breached if the water flew over it. The local administration wanted a nearby tree to be felled to divert the strong current of water so that sandbags could be piled on to strengthen the embankment to save the area from flooding. A rope holding that tree to nearby trees would have meant a directed fall at the desired spot. That was not to be.

That’s why resource inventory is a must at all levels right up to districts and even block level, Dar, a faculty at the Disaster Management Centre of the J&K Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, said. The inventory has a range of equipment and availability of trained manpower.

Apart from the loss of lives (150 plus), there was an estimated loss of over Rs 5,000 crore due to J&K floods, a PTI report had quoted ASSOCHAM. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/over-rs-5000-crore-loss-to-jk-economy-due-to-floods-assocham/article6409726.ece). Uttarakhand in 2013 had similarly witnessed huge loss of life and damage to property arising out of a natural disaster and still paying the price with severely decreased tourism/pilgrimage.
The Nepal earthquake last month should come as a rude reminder for India. Rampant unauthorized construction across cities has made Indian urban centres such as Delhi and Mumbai most vulnerable to natural disasters such as quake or floods. Much has been written about what would have happened if a 7.9 magnitude on Richter scale quake hit Delhi and how the national capital will be flattened in absence of any structural stability measures etc. But it is not just the immediate natural disaster that kills or injures people. Much also depends on how fast or slow is the response of the authorities. The reason: Mismanagement of resources and manpower that further leads to huge loss of life and property.

When will India learn lesson?

Even as the term disaster management is gaining currency year on year, it has not percolated to the lower most rung, usually the first responders in case of a natural calamity. Kashmir floods 2014 or Uttarkhand 2013 should have been lessons well learnt. But a local engineer of the flood and irrigation department or for that matter a hospital’s medical superintendent remains unaware about the availability of resources that can prove valuable at the time of providing relief and rescue.

Way back in 2004, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had initiated a web-based platform, the India Disaster Resource Network (IDRN, http://idrn.gov.in), which is basically an online inventory of resources, both men and material, that is hoped to be useful in times of emergencies.

A quick glance through the inventory – state-wise, district wise, neatly segregated region wise AND available to public free of cost – tells us, you have fibre boats, wooden boats; you have fire-fighting teams for high rise buildings or a nuclear plant; you have JCB machines and you have ambulances; bolt cutters or cold cutters; you have radiologists and you have a Ham radio operator. You name it and the list has it.

And it is here that the legendary Indian babudom has failed to meet the expectations. Data that needs to be updated for each district has not been updated for scores of states and Union Territories. Forget remote districts, even the national capital Delhi does not fare any better.

Following table makes it clear how Delhi, the seat of power, has not done poorly. For instance, Central Delhi district has not bothered to update data since August 2005; North Delhi has not done it after June 2008 etc. But the most important is the fact that Shahdara and South-East Delhi districts – both relatively newer districts – have no data whatsoever. Unfortunately, these are the two district on either side of the Yamuna, with dense population, most of it unauthorized colonies, and the area is hugely prone to flooding.

DELHI

District             Data last updated

Central                          Aug-05
East Delhi                    Feb-15
New Delhi                   Nov-14
North                            Jun-08
North East                 Mar-15
North West               Apr-06
South delhi                Feb-15
South West               Jan-15
West                            Jan-15
Shahdara           Data Not Available
South East        Data Not Available
(Source: IDRN)

Mumbai, the financial capital that has once suffered massive loss of life, property and trade after 26/7 (2005) has no record updated after December 2008. Andaman and Nicobar Islands that had witnessed the terrible Tsunami (2004), has not updated the list of inventory since 2003.

But then, according to Anupama Sethi, administrator with the IDRN, “There are honourable exception. Most districts of Orissa, often ravaged by deadly cyclones, have updated inventory till February or March 2015. Other states with updated inventories for almost all districts are Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Punjab and Kerala.”

Awareness is the key

Main problem is lack of awareness. Although IDRN is monitored and maintained by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), the data collection and updating it is essentially done at the district level. But many at the district level – for instance the district collector – are not even aware. That is where Sethi and her team chips in with training for different states.

But surely, something somewhere is lacking. A review meeting in September 2014 of the IDRN received valuable suggestion from across stakeholders. For instance, infrastructure data such as locations of schools, hospitals or even the community bhawans need to be added to the inventory. Orissa has done a wonderful job of creating stilted shelters for people evacuated from flood prone areas.

The IDRN data is available only in English right now. But for a diverse country such as India, obviously the need is to have the same data in all regional languages. Also, the data is accessible only online right now, there is an immediate need of making provisions for off-line availability too. After the Ladakh cloudburst in 2010, the entire BSNL network had collapsed and there would have been no way to access the ‘online’ resource inventory.

Keeping in tune with the increasing penetration of smart phones across stratas, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook for information dissemination can prove timely and necessary for generating awareness too. India surely cannot afford repeats of Uttarakhand 2013 or J&K floods 2014 when resources were indeed available with the respective states but the authorities concerned, the first responders, had no information about the availability of such resources, which delayed the response. The key is awareness, knowledge.

This was released on the PTI Feature service, a mailer service, on May 9, 2015 and reproduced by The Asia Digest on May 16, 2015. It can be read here http://www.theasiadigest.com/feature-disaster/flood-/earthquake/12394/nepal-quake-underscores-the-need-for-updated.htm#.VVxeRfmqqko