Missing evidence


`I did not have a government for 36 hours’

Bhakti divide in Brajbhoomi


Years of negligence have dried up several kunds in Braj area. Braj Foundation (in photo) is seen renovating the Rudra Kund where Lord Shiva is said to have prayed. The kund was also a source of drinking water for the communities in the region. Photo: Soma Basu

“Neither the cities, the cultured lands nor the villages or their houses are ours.
We are the forest people, dear father, and will always live in the forests and the hills”
— Sri Krishna (Srimad Bhagvatam, Chapter 10, Canto 24, Verse 24)

KRISHNA, the god in Hindu mythology, is said to have lived a simple life. He danced with peacocks, splashed in the rivers, played the flute that mesmerised humans and animals alike and spent his time in the forests herding cows. Srivatsa Goswami, a Vaishnava scholar, considers Krishna’s life to be “the greatest chapter in environmental history”. “One who is devoted to Krishna can never be callous towards the environment, because Krishna himself loves nature,” writes British author Ranchor Prime in his book, Hinduism and Ecology: Seeds of Truth.

Today, Krishna’s devotees are divided in their bhakti. While one camp wants to glorify their master through magnificent temples, the other believes in reviving the very forests where Krishna grew up, now lost to urbanisation. The former thinks erecting monuments dedicated to Krishna is the best way to spread his message; the latter says the right way to honour him is following in his footsteps and caring for the environment. What emerges from these differences of opinion is polarisation in Krishna worship and a debate on the idea of bhakti.

Does devotion demand temples?

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), a global Vaishnava spiritual institution with temples all over the world, believes architecture is one of the ways to propagate Krishna’s mission. During a lecture in Mumbai on February 25, 1974, Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, said, “Oh, there are so many skyscrapers. Why not construct a nice skyscraper temple of Krishna? That is Krishna consciousness.”

Taking inspiration from his words, ISKCON plans to build a large and swanky temple in Vrindavan dedicated to Krishna. “An imposing temple would proclaim the status of Vrindavan as one of India’s spiritual capitals and attract global attention towards Krishna and his message,” explains Suvyakta NarasimhaDasa, president of the Vrindavan unit of Akshaya Patra Foundation, a charitable body set up by ISKCON to look after the new temple.

An artist's impression of Chandrodaya Mandir in Vrindavan, estimated to be the tallest in the world
 An artist’s impression of Chandrodaya Mandir in Vrindavan, estimated to be the tallest in the world

On the other hand, Braj Foundation, a non-profit led by senior journalist Vineet Narain, focuses on rejuvenating the forests associated with Krishna’s life. “Krishna was a primordial environmentalist. This is my way of worshiping him. One who serves Braj serves Krishna,” Narain says.

Braj, spread across 5,000 square kilometres around Mathura-Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, is Krishna’s own body, claim vedic texts. Once upon a time, the region had 137 forests and 1,000 kunds or water bodies. Today, only three of the 137 groves, associated with the legend of Radha Krishna, remain, while the rest have been lost to rapid urbanisation. Most of the kunds have either silted up, been encroached upon or have become garbage dumps. Braj Foundation aims to rejuvenate the water bodies, forest groves and hills in Braj, in what it considers is the best form of Krishna bhakti.

If Braj is abundant in forests and kunds that find mention in vedic texts, it also houses brick monuments dedicated to Krishna. Vrindavan, where Krishna spent his childhood and adolescence, is called the “heart of Braj”. Today, the town has at least 5,500 temples and hundreds of dharamshalas (shelters) and hotels to cater to more than six million tourists who visit the town every year.

A swanky building for God

ISKCON’s proposed temple will be another addition to Vrindavan’s concrete jungle. The Chandrodaya Mandir is being built on the outskirts of the town in collaboration with the Kolkata-based Infinity Group. The glass-and-steel temple, spread over 2.2 hectares, is set to be the world’s tallest, measuring 210 metres with 70 floors. This is taller than the Qutub Minar in Delhi, which is 70 metres tall. The foundation stone for the proposed temple was laid in March this year and construction is expected to be completed in five years.

According to the project brief of Chandrodaya Mandir, the grand temple will be surrounded by 12 hectares of forest area to recreate the forests of Braj, including the 12 verdant forests, mentioned in Srimad Bhagvatam, where Lord Krishna is believed to perform his raasleelas (love plays). A Yamuna creek that will be recreated in the forests will provide boating opportunity to visitors. The building will also house a helipad, an amphitheatre, a hi-speed lift and a 4D theatre. The entire project area spreads across 60 hectares, equivalent to the size of six Akshardham temples in Delhi, and will also comprise residential villas and apartments with modern facilities.

The sarovar was restored by Braj Foundation and was opened to the public in 2009
 The sarovar was restored by Braj Foundation and was opened to the public in 2009

In its eagerness to serve Krishna, ISKCON seems to be indifferent to the troubles Brajwasis (people of Braj) might face from a grand temple in their vicinity. The water for the temple, toilets, kunds and the creek would be extracted from the ground. “The Yamuna is 5 km away from the project site. As it is difficult to lay a pipeline for such a long distance, we have identified a groundwater source 3 km away from the temple. Soon, boring will be done and pipelines will be laid,” Dasa says. He claims that the Foundation has already acquired environmental clearance for the project from the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority.

Manoj Mishra, convenor of YamunaJiye Abhiyan, a non-profit in Delhi, says, “This is another Akshardham temple in the making. In the name of God, natural resources are being plundered. Groundwater is already scarce in Vrindavan and its overextraction may further harm the environment.”

Dasa estimates that the temple will consume 5-6 megawatt (MW) of electricity per day, of which 2 MW would be generated from the solar panels in the temple’s parking lot, which can hold 2,000 cars, while the rest would be bought from electricity grids.

Reviving Krishna’s forests

Jagannath Poddar, head of Friends of Vrindavan, an environment non-profit, says that urbanisation and prolonged negligence have pushed the kunds, also known as sarovars, in Braj to extinction. These kunds once served as perennial sources of freshwater. “It is sad to see the resources of Vrindavan being destroyed by people who are promoting real estate business here in the name of Krishna,” he adds.

Braj Foundation has been striving to restore the ecological, architectural and cultural heritage of Braj, which it says reflects the “intertwined relationship between environment, people and the Supreme Lord”. Since its formation in 2005, the non-profit has restored 46 water bodies, three heritage buildings and two forests in Braj. The foundation has also been campaigning against mining on the hills. It plans to restore all 1,000 kunds in Braj associated with Krishna.

The water in Brahma Sarovar, one of the many kunds in Braj, was reduced to a trickle due to encroachment
 The water in Brahma Sarovar, one of the many kunds in Braj, was reduced to a trickle due to encroachment

In 2006, it took up work to desilt the Rudra Kund in Jatipura village in Braj, remove encroachments and restore the water body. But it faced opposition from encroachers, who went to the Allahabad High Court and got a stay order against the renovation of the kund.

The order was lifted after five years of legal battle. In June 2011, the Braj Foundation resumed its work and with the help of the district administration and police, demolished unauthorised construction around the kund. Once dry and filled with garbage, Rudra Kund now sparkles with clean water. “After we desilt the kunds and declog their recharge wells, we start working on their beautification so that people know the religious and historical significance of the place,” Narain says. He adds that the funding for their work comes from private sponsorships. The non-profit also focuses on planting trees like kadamba, radha and krishnachura associated with the legend of Radha Krishna. It promotes cow-based agriculture and organic farming too. “Butchers are stealing cows and killing them for meat. Most of the charitable gaushalas (cow shelters) do not have very goods standards of care. We aim to reestablish the economic viability of the desi cow,” he adds.

What is bhakti?

Several retired engineers and officials have joined the Braj Foundation to show their love for Krishna. “To seek God, one needs eyes bereft of any worldly attachment. God does not need memorials,” says a monk in Chaitanya Gauriya Mutt in Vrindavan. On Srila Prabhupad’s message to build a skyscraper for Krishna, he says that Prabhupad’s words must have a deeper meaning. When this reporter tried to verify the same from Dasa, he said, “Religious texts are interpreted in two ways; symbolic and literal. We are literalists.”

Swami Sivananda of Matri Sadan Ashram in Haridwar believes people have misinterpreted Hinduism. “While temples and memorials to mark sacred places are necessary, building a 70-storey temple in a place where there are a thousand others is showing off,” he adds.


Flood warning: lost in translation?


An NDRF official said not a single warning was issued before the devastating floods

After the extreme rains that caused floods and claimed over 200 lives in the state, Jammu and Kashmir got some respite on Tuesday as floodwaters began to recede. But the Met office has now forecast more rains in the region in the next 48 hours, which may hamper ongoing rescue efforts.

Even as people fear another spell of heavy rains, questions are being raised about their not being warned sufficiently in advance about the extreme weather event last week. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) had warned the state of “very heavy rainfall” from September 2. The warning indicated that rainfall would continue for several days.

However, a senior official of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), on condition of anonymity, said there was not a single warning issued before the floods. And since the force was caught off-guard, the rescue has been challenging.

It turns out that IMD did issue a warning through its seven day forecast much before the heavy rains started on September 2. But evacuations and rescue operations started after September 4. The question is why did the message not reach the departments concerned?

The broken link

According to protocol, the warning issued by IMD reaches the State Emergency Operation Centre (SEOC), which functions under the state’s disaster management department. SEOC then alerts the line departments, such as Cabinet secretariat, home department, police department or commissionerates, district administration, state disaster management authority and the district emergency operation centre (DEOC) set up in various districts.

It is the role of the DEOC to disseminate the alert at the district level. This is how the warning should reach gram panchayat pradhans and patwaris who can carry out the evacuations with the help of district administration and police. These people have to evacuate residents by announcing warning over loudspeakers so that lives can be saved before disaster strikes.

Once a warning is issued, SEOC and DEOC have to operate for 24 hours so that there is not even a slightest delay in spreading information. The state disaster management authority (SDMA) has to ensure coordination between the state administration, defence forces and the NDRF. The problem is that the SEOC in J&K is non-functional unit without the infrastructure that is required to perform its function.

The work towards disaster preparedness in the state started only in February this year by the state executive committee when it approved setting up of four SEOCs—one each in Jammu, Srinagar, Leh and Kargil districts—and released Rs 18 crore for purchase of equipment required for carrying out rescue operation during natural calamities and for post disaster relief and rehabilitation.

The SEOCs were set up in late April with Rs 4 crore additional funds for the centres in Jammu and Kashmir and Rs 2 crore additional fund for the other two centres. The rest of the districts were supposed to get DEOCs in the next financial year. These centres are directly under the control of deputy commissioners of Jammu and Kashmir.

When IMD issued the warning for heavy rainfall in first week of September, SEOC was but a small disaster management cell  functioning out of the divisional commissioner’s office.
“The people in disaster management cells hardly have the expertise needed to understand the warning. It is a new set up and not-fully functional,” said an official in the divisional commissioner’s office who did not wish to be named. He also said that the warning from the IMD also reaches various state departments but they are so “general” that it is difficult to understand how critical the situation could be.

Blame game

After every disaster, IMD is blamed for issuing a general warning, which does not tell how severe the implications could be. Even after Uttarakhand floods,  IMD was blamed by the disaster management department for issuing warnings that do not look “serious enough”.

Puthumai A Nazarene, United Nations consultant on emergency and disasters, says that it is not the role of IMD to interpret data or implications. IMD’s role is to issue warnings. It is the role of the disaster management departments in every state to interpret the warning and alert various departments. For example, in hilly areas, if it rains heavy, there are possibilities of landslide and damage to roads and highways. “How can we expect IMD to say that roads are expected to be broken? It is the job of the SEOC to understand how much rainfall is heavy or very heavy rainfall and how it could affect infrastructure in the state and, accordingly, warn the departments concerned,” he says.

History of warnings ignored

Jammu and Kashmir has a long history of disasters. The rainfall that the state received last week was the heaviest in 60 years but it was not unprecedented. The state had been facing floods quite frequently—1905, 1909, 1912, 1918, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1932, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1957, 1959, 1973 and 1992. The memory of Kashmir floods 2010 was still fresh when disaster struck this year and claimed 200 lives.

In 2010, the Jammu and Kashmir Flood Control Ministry had issued a warning and prepared a report that the state is likely to face a major flood catastrophe in next five years and the department is ill-equipped to save lives and property. The department expected a water discharge of around 150,000 cusecs if flood hits Srinagar city.

The flood control department has proposed a Rs 2,200-crore project to put the required infrastructure in place in anticipation of the devastating flood. The report was submitted to the Union water resources ministry, requesting Rs 500 crore immediately to have “at least basic infrastructure”. However, nothing happened after that.

But despite having been reminded of J&K’s vulnerability to disasters, there is no state disaster management plan or flood monitoring stations.


Unplanned urbanisation, encroachment blamed for Srinagar flood

In flood-ravaged Jammu and Kashmir, the streets of the state’s summer capital, Srinagar, resemble surging streams. River Jhelum has been flowing 1.5 metre above the danger mark. Chief engineer with Flood Control and Irrigation Department, Javid Jaffer, says that the state’s river and flood channels could carry 65,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water, while the current discharge is over 90,000 cusecs.

Scientists say that since the drainage channels of the city has been blocked and the link between the lakes has been cut off due to unplanned urbanization and encroachment, the lakes have lost their power absorb water the way they used to a century ago and save the city from floods. The wetlands and lakes act as sponges during floods.

According to a Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report, the catchment area of the Dal lake is 314 sq km, of which 148 sq km was identified as prone to soil erosion. The open area of the lake had been reduced to 12 sq km from 24 sq km and its average depth also reduced to three metre because of siltation. For this reason the lake’s ability to naturally drain out flood waters has greatly suffered.

At present, with continuous rain for two three days, Srinagar city is flooded by water from the Jhelum river. This would not have happened a few decades back, say Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem of directorate of ecology, environment and remote sensing, who have studied loss of  extent of lakes and wetlands in Srinagar and its effect on the city.

They explain in the study (pdf) that Srinagar’s natural drainage system has collapsed due to the degradation of the network of lakes. The study notes over the years it has been observed that continuous rains for two to three days in Kashmir valley raises flood threat in the Jhelum river. No such risk arose with this much of precipitation two to three decades back. Further, it has also been observed during the last decade that residential areas which never got flooded in the past are getting inundated during floods in the Jhelum. This is because there are hardly any wetlands to hold the excess water, the report states.

50% waterbodies of Srinagar lost

In their research paper, Rashid and Naseem explain that deforestation in the Jhelum basin led to excessive siltation in most of the lakes and waterbodies of Srinagar. The comparative change analysis of the two maps based on the year 1911 and 2000 reveal that wetlands like Batmalun Nambal, Rekh-i-Gandakshah and Rakhi-Arat and Rakh-i-Khan and the streams of Doodganga and Nalla Mar have been completely lost while other lakes and wetlands have experienced considerable shrinkage during the last century. The Mar Nalla was lost to a road, Doodhganga nalla was converted into buildings and shopping malls, and Bemina and Batmalo wetlands have been converted into residential colonies. The study also reveals that Lake Anchar , Gilsar Lake, Khushalsar Lake and Brar-i- Nambal water bodies lying in the core area of the city are ecologically degraded and under tremendous pollution load.

The study involved mapping of nearly 69,677 hectares in and around the city centre of Srinagar. The analysis of the historical data set reveals that nearly 13,425.85 ha of land was marshy area while nearly 4,000.50 ha was covered by open water surface in 1911,  making up for a total of 17,426.36 ha. It is the period when Srinagar’s lakes and wetlands formed a network. The built-up land was mostly on either banks of the Jhelum and running north to south of the city centre; its spatial extent was estimated to be 1745.73 hectares.

Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during 1911

Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during 1911
Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during 1911

Similarly, analysis of satellite data by Rashid and Naseem of the year 2004 revealed that there has been tremendous growth in the built-up category during this period which was estimated at 10,791.59 hectares running north-south and towards east of the city centre.

Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during  2004

Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during  2004
Spatial extent of Lakes and wetlands of Srinagar during 2004

The analysis of the changes that have taken place in the spatial extent of lakes and wetlands in the city during the period 1911-2004 reveals that nearly 9,119.92 ha of open water surface and wetlands has been totally lost to other land uses during the period. This shows that more than 50 per cent of the lakes and wetlands of Srinagar have been lost to other land uses.

Spatial  change analysis map of lakes and wetlands of Srinagar and its suburbs (1911-2004)


lake lake

The report highlights that Srinagar city, a century earlier, had a unique ecological setup with extensive areas under wetlands, lakes and water channels. Siltation in the lakes and wetlands especially during floods was natural, but subsequent encroachment, earth filling, planting, and constructions by individuals and converting water channels into roads, presents a living example of how these valuable assets of natural landscape of Srinagar were destroyed.

Pie diagram showing changes in spatial extent of water bodies of Srinagar and its suburbs (1911-2004)

Pie diagram showing changes in spatial extent of water bodies of Srinagar and its suburbs (1911-2004)

Average temperature of Srinagar rising

The loss of water bodies of Srinagar has, in fact, a bearing on the microclimate of the city as meteorological data recorded during the past century suggests a rising trend in the mean maximum temperatures during the summers. On July 15, 1973, the highest temperature ever recorded in Srinagar was 35.5 ºC; on July 7, 2006, it rose to 39.5 ºC. It is suggested that the rise in mean annual temperature in the area is mainly due to loss of water bodies, since a considerable amount of evapotranspiration with a cooling effect might have been taking place in the past due to these valuable ecological assets during summers. What’s more, the increase in the built-up land leads to increase in the temperatures during summers due to creation of urban heat islands.

The study does a comparative analysis of mean monthly maximum temperature during the period 1901-1950 and 1979-1996. It shows that mean maximum temperatures have increased from 30.8º C to 32.4ºC in the months of July in the city. This is perceived to be mainly due to loss of water bodies as microclimate of the city stands altered due to undesired land use change.

Other lakes affected, too

Dal lake is not the only lake to be affected. Wullar, one of the largest freshwater lakes in South Asia, also poses a risk of flooding for Srinagar. According to the National Wetland Atlas, the lake reportedly lost 88 per cent of its surface area due to unchecked encroachment over the past few decades. Since all rivers and drains of the valley drain into Wullar, environmentalists fear that the clogged lake could become a cause of a major flood in Kashmir.

Last week, with rising water level in the Doodhganga stream in Srinagar, residents broke a bund to deviate floodwater to the Jhelum.  Both the sides of the Doodhganga are heavily encroached upon and to save the flood water of Doodhganga from entering the Barzulla locality, people had to break its bund. The Doodhganga stream used to accommodate flood water and save areas from getting inundated, but heavy encroachment has blocked its channels now.

Jhelum encroached

Activists question why the river channel was narrowed and the administration allowed people to stay so close to the river? It seems states have hardly learnt lessons from the Uttarakhand disaster in 2013 after which the erstwhile chief minister Vijay Bahuguna reiterated court orders directing the state not to allow construction within 200 metres of rivers.

Encroachment of river banks along the Jhelum had been a bane for Srinagar for several years. A large number of illegal structures had mushroomed along the banks of the Jhelum in north and south Kashmir in Anantnag, Srinagar, Bandipora and Baramulla districts. Illegal construction was rampant in Khanabal bridge, Bijbehara, Sangam, Halmula, Kakpora, Samboora, Guru and Padhgampura. This is despite the fact that J&K Water Resources Regulation and Management Act 2010 strictly prohibits any encroachment on flood control land.


J&K was unprepared for flood fury



Photo: Indian Army


The devastating floods in Jammu and Kashmir that has so far claimed 150 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands was unforeseen. The state, because of its history of conflict, was not as privileged as the other Indian states to have a flood forecast system or a disaster management plan in place.

While rivers in spate continue to engulf homes in the state, the Central Water Commission says “lack of pre-requisite requirements” is to be blamed for absence of flood forecasting system in the state. Even when the state falls in highly active seismic zones IV and V, the state administration sat on the plan for disaster management.

The scale of damage to infrastructure and crops in the state due to floods and landslide triggered by heavy rainfall is still being assessed. Since the roads and highways were blocked, 25,000 pilgrims headed to Vaishno Devi shrine were trapped in Katra.

“The question is not whether Jammu & Kashmir had a disaster management plan or not. The question is did the state ever realise that it is vulnerable to floods,” says a senior official of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).


According to National Institute of Disaster Management’s profile for Jammu and Kashmir, the state is prone to flashfloods. The region was ravaged by floods in 1992, but with the increased scale of damage, it seemed like a recap of 1959 floods, the worst recorded in the state in recent history.

River Jhelum, that is flowing five feet above the danger mark, has inundated over 100 villages. The most affected districts are Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian, Pulwama, Ganderbal, Srinagar and Badgam.

According to Skymet, a private weather forecasting agency, September is the least rainy month for the state. But in the past two days, places like Banihal and Qazigund witnessed over 200 mm of rain. The normal rainfall for September is only 26.6 mm for Srinagar, but the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir has recorded 51.8 mm of rain in the past 24 hours. It is the highest amount of rain in Srinagar in a span of 24 hours during this month in the past one decade. The situation is similar for Qazigund, which received rainfall of 156.7 mm over the past 24 hours. The city has crossed its 10 year high for a span of 24 hours, which was 151.9 mm in 1992. The monthly rainfall for the city is, on an average, 56.4 mm.

According to V D Roy, director of flood forecasting, Central Water Commission, the state has a hydrological observatory which shares data with the state government, but it does not have a flood forecasting network. Roy says that till date CWC has established 175 stations for flood forecasting, but none of them are in Jammu and Kashmir. “We plan to extend the centres and soon Jammu and Kashmir will have additional flood forecast station,” he says. Asked why the state did not have a single station till date, he said that to establish stations, some pre-requisite requirements are there. “Since, we could not get that, stations could not be established.”

Disastrous management

The state government had approved a three-tier Disaster Management Policy in February 2012 to put in place a proper mechanism for rescue, relief and rehabilitation of disaster victims. But, according to sources, the state government could not create a separate department which would only deal with disasters. Sources say that disaster management in Jammu and Kashmir is not managed by an autonomous body, but managed by respective divisional commissioners or deputy commissioners of the area. In absence of full time members, proper policies to handle disaster and risk reduction are not in place,” says an official of NDMA.

Divisional commissioner of Kashmir, Rohit Kansal, and joint secretary of disaster management in ministry of home affairs, G V V Sarma, could not be contacted as their phone was out of reach due to collapse of phone connectivity in the region.

Meanwhile, Indian Army has rescued about 15,000 people in the state. Seventy boats and five teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) have been deployed for rescue and relief of flood-affected people. Control rooms have been set up at Srinagar, Jammu and New Delhi to monitor and coordinate the rescue and relief operations. Indian Air Force airlifted about 180 jawans from flood-hit border posts along flood-affected India-Pakistan border in Jammu sector.

Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a special assistance of Rs 1,000 crore for the flood-hit state besides a Rs 2 lakh compensation from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for the kin of the dead and Rs 50,000 for those seriously injured. Modi, who undertook an aerial view of the flood-affected Jammu and Srinagar regions, said the current crisis was a “national level disaster”.


Wheels of pollution


Most workshops prefer lead weights over safer zinc or steel weights for their tyres. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

THE CAMPAIGN against lead-based products has failed to target one of the biggest sources of lead pollution— weights used for wheel balancing. The weights, which are put on tyres so that they do not vibrate, often fall off during driving. They then get crushed by cars and contaminate air and water bodies.

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and is most harmful to children and pregnant women. Over exposure to lead can cause serious ailments such as wrist drop, also known as radial nerve palsy, memory loss, reduced sperm count in men and miscarriage in women.

There is no study on the amount of lead pollution caused by wheel balancing weights in the country. Calculations by the correspondent indicate 7,250 tonnes of lead fall from tyres of passenger cars every year. There are 141.8 million registered vehicles in India. A car normally has 250 grams of lead weight clipped to its wheels. This means at least 36,250 tonnes of lead are used as balancing weights in the country. Now, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency says 13 per cent of wheel balancing weights in cars fall off every year in the US. In India, it should be around 20 per cent because of the poor road conditions—which means at least 7,250 tonnes of lead gets wasted every year in the country.

The actual amount of lead pollution caused by the weights would be substantially higher because the weights are changed after every 5,000 km and are usually replaced every time a tyre gets punctured.

“Lead-based wheel balancing weights is a serious environmental concern and we have been mulling over how to check it. Since we cannot intervene in the manufacturing sector, we would have to deal with the issue at the point where the weight becomes waste, that is, when it falls off the vehicles,” says Vinod Babu, head of hazardous waste division, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). He adds that CPCB is working on a plan to deal with the issue and will soon write to the ministries concerned and also ask the automobile manufacturers to stop using lead weights. He, however, warns that a ban on the lead-based weights might not help. “India will need a responsible recycling programme to collect and safely dispose off the lead circulating in the industry.”

Lead-based weights can be replaced with zinc and steel, but most car manufacturers prefer lead because it is cheaper and convenient. C V Ganapathi Subramanian, managing director of Bharat Balancing Weights, says that except Europe, where lead-based balancing weights are banned, 80 per cent of the global market is ruled by lead weights. “Lead has high density, is highly malleable and cheap. While lead costs Rs.200 per kg, steel and zinc cost Rs.240-250 per kg.”

Some foreign automobile manufacturers, including Audi and Suzuki, are phasing out lead weights due to various environmental regulations in developed countries. As a result, some of the new vehicles launched in India now have either zinc or steel weights. “But the real issue is with the after- market sale of weights. Most of the car repair centres use lead. Zinc and steel are hardly used,” Subramanian says.

The other challenge for India is that only a handful of companies manufacture zinc or steel weights.

Deepak Gupta, owner of a workshop in Lajpat Nagar, says customers want lead weights because they are the cheapest. He thinks the government needs to start a campaign to sensitise people about the health hazards associated with lead. The campaign has to run along with CPCB’s plan of finding a safe recycling programme.

“Till then, lead-based weights will continue to be in demand,” says Gupta.


Pilgrims discounted



Since the road to Hemkunt Sahib is still broken, pilgrims have dug out a 19 km long passage in the landslide and avalanche prone region. Photo: Soma Basu


A MILLION-ODD pilgrims visit the holy shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri during the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand from May to October. When flash floods occurred in the state in June last year, these geologically sensitive pilgrim destinations were brimming with devotees. There were as many as 26,000 pilgrims in Kedarnath valley, the Char Dham control room records show. Another 39,000 had just left for Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Hemkunt Sahib, a popular religious destination near Badrinath. When disaster struck, more than 5,500 people lost their lives.

The first batch of pilgrims at Kedarnath in May this year
The first batch of pilgrims at Kedarnath in May this year

Clearly, it was unregulated tourism that was to be blamed for the tragedy, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) stated in its report in July 2013. A year later, not much has changed. The state government has done precious little to regulate tourism in the ecologically fragile mountain state.

After facing flak from all quarters, the state government made a number of promises. A study would be conducted to calculate the carrying capacity of all religious destinations that are 3,000 metres above the mean sea level. The number of tourists would be restricted based on the study’s findings, it said. There would be a headcount of the pilgrims who visit the holy shrines. These would be done by biometric registration through fingerprint and iris scan. All the pilgrims would be issued biometric cards. They would also have to go through medical examination so that critically ill pilgrims are either stopped from moving ahead or their medical details recorded in the biometric cards, the state government promised. But these are easier said than done. The Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board (UTDB) roped in private agency Trilok Security System India Private Limited (TSSIPL) for the purpose. The agency also works in tourist destinations Tirupati, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, New Delhi, Katra and Ajmer.

When Down To Earth (DTE) visited Badrinath in May, the peak season, it could not find any biometric registration booth. Nor did it find a medical check-up camp. In fact, nowhere in the entire tour was DTE asked for the biometric card. Just outside the temple premises, the car was stopped. Its registration number and the number of occupants were diligently recorded. But the next car went unhindered, without its details being noted down. The official had to take lunch break and there was no one to replace him.

A fellow tourist who had managed to get his card made said no one asked him for his fingerprint or his medical history. The card only showed his name, date of birth and the place from where he had come.

“The card should have been mandatory but lack of public awareness makes our task difficult. People reach the pilgrim destination without claiming the card. We cannot send of TSSIPL. A biometric registration booth has been set up at Narson checkpoint, on the Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand border. “If a pilgrim misses that booth, he or she can get registered at Haridwar or Rishikesh. The cards are being checked at the booths near the temple premises,” he claimed.

Figuring out the numbers
Between May 1 to June 5 this year, 86,757 pilgrims visited the four shrines, says Srinivas. But the state transport department has a different figure. It says 40,728 people visited the temples during this period.

“The pilgrim’s count is being kept by several departments, but there is no place where the data is collated, compared or added. There is no coordination between the departments,” says a UTDB official who did not wish to be named. The number of tourists in Uttarakhand is less this year because of the fear of last year’s disaster, he says.

“There is absolutely no monitoring of the number of pilgrims in Hemkunt Sahib,” says Vijay Bamola, an activist who lives in Joshimath and has recently returned from the holy shrine, which is buried 4.5 metre in snow.

After last year’s disaster, the government made no effort to rebuild the 19-km trekking path towards Hemkunt Sahib, so pilgrims dug up the snow and created the route themselves. “The area is landslide-prone and the ice is still shifting. Despite the threat, pilgrims created a path to the gurdwara. What if the ice sheet shifts or if there is an avalanche? It is another disaster waiting to happen,” says Bamola.

On December 11, G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development organised a meeting in association with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to discuss ways to regulate tourism. But hardly any action has been initiated after the meeting. As late as March 8, 2014, the tourism ministry invited proposals to conduct a study to assess the carrying capacity of the existing and potential tourist places in Uttarakhand. The study would be conducted not only in Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, and Hemkunt Sahib, but also in areas with regular tourist flow such as Rishikesh and Haridwar. The Char Dham Yatra season is at its peak, but the ministry has not yet initiated the study.

Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Bengaluru-based non-profit Wildlife First, says a body of peer reviewed scientific knowledge on landscape ecology already exists. It needs to be used to identify the extent and location of eco-sensitive zones to regulate tourism and development projects in an area. But there is absolute lack of interest from the state government, he says.


After 10,000 deaths, Hydel projects continue to flout green norms



To repair the Dhauliganga dam, management has closed the sluice gates completely because of which the river bed is dry. Photo: Soma Basu


A Supreme Court-appointed panel had clearly blamed hydropower projects for the Uttarakhand disaster last year. But managers of these projects continue violate environment norms by mishandling the muck and debris lying at the project sites.

A group of 12 civil society groups had written to the Union environment ministry in July, 2013, seeking suspension of environment clearance of six hydropower projects. The letter said irresponsible handling of the muck generated from the project sites had greatly damaged villages and towns downstream of rivers and that the damage would have been much less severe if the debris had not been dumped on the riverbed.  The projects blamed were: the 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari hydroelectric project (HEP), 76 MW Phata Byung, 330 MW Srinagar HEP (all three were under-construction), 400 MW Vishnuprayag HEP, 280 MW Dhauliganga HEP, Maneri Bhali I and II HEPs (all operating projects).

The letter said that the projects had been illegally dumping the muck into the river or piling them in heaps on the hill slopes without an adequate retaining wall. The activists also alleged that the project authorities opened dam gates without any warning, which led to flooding of several villages downstream. The debris washed into homes.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in January 2014 had issued to notice to the managers of the Srinagar Hydroelectric Project  for the damage caused to various areas in Srinagar town during Uttarakhand floods because of irresponsible dumping of debris removed from the site of the 330 MW project. Besides Alaknanda Hydropower Co. Ltd (AHCL), notices were also issued to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and Uttarakhand state government. The petition was filed by Premballabh Kala of people’s group, Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti, and activist Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangthan, seeking compensation for damage caused to the areas such as Shaktibihar, Chauhan Mohalla, Alkeshwar Temple and government as well as private property.

“Several school, colleges and government institutes were inundated and still buried in the debris that came along with the river from the project site. Despite NGT ruling, we are yet to get any compensation from the projects. Even the project authorities do not give compensation, they should at least clear the debris from IIT campus and other institutes so that our children continue studies,” says Ashok Panwar, a resident of Srinagar town whose house was buried in the debris.

In another petition filed before NGT in October 2013, Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangthan alleged Lambagarh, Pandukeshwar, Govindghat, Vinayak Chatty, Pinolaghat villages and other areas downstream were heavily damaged during the floods due to the Vishnuprayag HEP. Since the dam gates were closed by the project authorities, huge amount of muck and debris accumulated in the reservoir of the dam. Vimal Bhai says that Jaypee Associates, the project proponent, had accepted that only two gates were opened but one gate was not opened due to some technical fault.

After the incident, to clean the reservoir, the project proponent started removing the flood material from the reservoir and dumped it directly in the river bed of the Alaknanda. This was not only in violation of the environmental norms but also caused damage to life and property of the people in the downstream areas. The petitioner also said that the river changed its course because of this and is still a threat to the people living downstream.

On 30 May 2014, the five judge bench of the NGT directed Jaypee Associates to file a comprehensive affidavit on disposal of debris lying in the Vishnuprayag HEP in the Alaknanda.
Even though NGT has directed Jaypee to file an affidavit, it is business as usual at the dam site.

The Vishnuprayag power house. The debris and silt has been dumped right in the river bed. The river can be seen flowing in a thin trickle on the right side
The Vishnuprayag power house. The debris and silt has been dumped right in the river bed. The river can be seen flowing in a thin trickle on the right side

“There is hardly any area left for the river at the barrage site of Vishnu Prayag HEP. The authorities have failed to maintain minimum ecological flow. The way muck is dumped on the river bed, it seems the dam proponents are waiting for the monsoon and the river to take away the muck with it. This is bound to affect the downstream ecology of river,” says Vimal Bhai.

The Singholi Bhatwari barrage. The course of the river has shifted right because of debris and silt dumped in the river bed
The Singholi Bhatwari barrage. The course of the river has shifted right because of debris and silt dumped in the river bed

Even the Dhauliganga HEP has been repairing its project site and has closed all the gates because of which a 2 km stretch of river has gone completely dry (see pic). Several other project managers like that of Singholi Bhatwari HEP are changing the course of the Ganga tributary by dumping debris in complete violation of environmental norms.


Ready for only tourists


More than a year after Uttarakhand witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in the country, several flood-hit areas in the state are still waiting for government assistance. One such village is Sumdum in Pithoragarh district. The 120-odd families there live in the fear that floods will strike again this monsoon—and this time completely wipe out the village.

Sumdum, which falls in Dharchula subdivision, is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and two streams, Ragyani Gad and Khari Gad. The mountains developed cracks during the floods in July last year when it rained for seven consecutive days. Village residents say that because the state government has not undertaken restoration work, the mountains are prone to landslides. They fear the village will disappear if it rains for just four consecutive days this monsoon. Ask them about government assistance and they say that not even the patwari, who assesses the damage for government relief, has visited the village. Residents say the Down To Earth reporter was the first outsider to visit the village after the floods.

Basant Kot, another village in Pithoragarh district, has a similar story. The road connecting the village in Munsiary subdivision got washed away during last year’s floods. As a result, residents say several people have lost their lives while travelling to nearby villages for ration.

Police records suggest six people from Dharchula and Munsiary subdivision have died between March and April 2014 while travelling to other villages.

Despite the state government’s claims of speedy rehabilitation, Down To Earth found at least eight other villages that have received no support from the state. They are Goripar, Ukheti, Bothi, Bagnidhar, Phapha, Khet, Khotila Byasnagar, Chhori Bagar. Nevertheless government officials are patting themselves for doing good work. In the last week of April, the Pithoragarh district magistrate’s office issued a press release with photographs of a team visiting Sumdum. Regional newspapers published articles praising the district magistrate for “accomplishing the impossible”. It turns out the team never visited Sumdum. It only reached Teejam, which is 7 km from Sobla, the last village in the area with road connectivity. Sumdum is another 11 km from Teejam. “Every official who claims to have visited Sumdum has only walked till Teejam. Even the patwari went till Teejam and returned. We do not even exist for the government,” says Ram Singh Dami, a 68-year-old resident of Sumdum. If they were really concerned, they could have used helicopters to reach us, he adds.

To protest government apathy, the people of Sumdum boycotted the Lok Sabha elections this year.

Rehabilitation in pockets

The state government has carried out rehabilitation efforts only in popular areas that attract tourists. As a result, the highways leading to the shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri (char dham) offer a smooth ride to tourists and mediapersons.

“Quite cleverly, whatever rehabilitation work the government has undertaken is on the tourist circuit. The chief minister knew that with the beginning of the pilgrimage season, media focus would be back on Uttarakhand,” says Gajendra Rautela, co-convener of non-profit Prakriti. He adds that the remote areas away from the tourist circuits are still in pathetic condition.

Rautela points out that the work on the char dham areas began at breakneck speed only two months ago. Sources in the state government say officers were relocated from the “less popular” disaster-hit areas such as Pithoragarh to the char dham region to complete rehabilitation work.

However, several villages in the popular Badrinath and Kedarnath areas have also received stepfatherly treatment from the government. Residents of Jhoolar Gaon, Khiron Gaon, Benakuli, Arori, Patori, Patgasi and Pinola villages near Badrinath, along with Pulna and Bhyundar villages near Hemkunt Sahib, complained of little assistance. “The government gave me Rs 8,000 as compensation for the 20 small apple farms I lost during the floods,” says Laksman Singh from Benakuli, who now runs a makeshift tea stall. He claims he walks 8 km to Binayak Chatti village to buy rations. “My village is still threatened by erosion. The government has hardly done any flood protection work,” he adds.

Atul Sati, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), alleges that the flood protection work undertaken by the government is an eyewash. “The first splash of rain and the structures will go down,” he says. Highlighting the misuse of restoration funds, Sati says, “A few months ago, the government decided to rebuild the Badrinath highway that has already been repaired because chief secretary Subhash Kumar was visiting the area with reporters.”

RTI activist Govind Singh Danu of Sumdum alleges money is being wasted on substandard work. In reply to an RTI filed by Danu on rehabilitation work in Sumdum, the state government said it is spending Rs 2 lakh to construct a wooden bridge and Rs 8 lakh for a cemented bridge. “But the wooden bridges that have been constructed are substandard and should not cost more than Rs 20,000. This is happening because of fund mismanagement,” he alleges.

Ravi Chopra of Dehradun-based advocacy group People’s Science Institute blames the absence of a resettlement and rehabilitation policy in the state for the poor situation. “As a result, every time there is a disaster, the state starts from scratch,” he says.

According to official figures, about 600 affected villages had to be relocated after the June floods. State data shows another 550 villages vulnerable to floods. But Chatikhal village in Rudraprayag district is the only place that has been partially relocated. The state government blames lack of land for the delay in relocation, a claim social activists such as Purushottam Sharma refute. “The state that is cribbing about lack of land for relocating vulnerable villages has been generous in distributing land to corporates, builders, religious organisations and politicians. The state government gave away about 100,000 hectares to different private organisations during former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna’s reign,” alleges Sharma.

A senior official with Uttarakhand’s department of planning admits that after the disaster, valuable time was lost in political fight between Chief Minister Harish Rawat and his predecessor Bahuguna and present. “People had high hopes from Rawat since he is a grassroots leader,” the official says. “He gave charge of the rehabilitation work to local authorities to hasten the process before the Lok Sabha elections. He gave the subdivisional magistrates power to allot work up to Rs 1 crore and repealed the mandatory tendering process for work up to Rs 25 lakh. This paved the way for corruption.”

Activists are also questioning the intentions of the state government. Uttarakhand received over Rs 276 crore as assistance from different sources for rehabilitation after the floods. “The state cares more about tourists than the people who live here. The monsoons are here and we are waiting for death. Where did the crores of rupees go?” asks Govind Singh Danu.