On 16 October, it was a sunny day in Uttarakhand. The weather was pleasant. After a prolonged monsoon this year, the people of the state were just about warming themselves up in the sun that seemed elusive all through the monsoon.
Just then the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) flashed a warning, advising people to be ready for "heavy to very heavy rainfall" for two days starting 17 October. People, already weary of endless rain, did not take it too seriously. So did the government agencies.
No one at that time could imagine that it was going to be one of the biggest catastrophic events in the state in recent times, barring the Kedarnath disaster of 2013. At least 52 people died and the dreadful scars of the storm could be seen all over the state.
The worst-hit was the Kumaon region, with the Nainital district facing the maximum brunt. Over a hundred main roads and link roads were closed due to landslides and fallen trees, making it difficult to procure help for the stranded people and commence rescue operations. In Banbasa, Bageshwar and Nainital, the army was called in to carry out such operations.
All this happened when thousands of people from other parts of the country were in Uttarakhand. These tourists along with native people were stranded at different places. Thousands of such people were forced to stay in their vehicles overnight without food, sleep or even water.
One can gauge the gravity of the situation from the fact that two major bridges in the state " Chalthi in Tanakpur area and Gaula in Haldwani " collapsed due to heavy rainfall. All the major rivers were flowing with heavy and unusual influx posing threat to nearby places. Many places in the Terai area of Kumaon also faced flood-like conditions, though they survived major loss to life or property.
The rainfall in Kumaon during the 24-hour period broke all the records till date, as per the IMD data. Kumaon received the highest ever average rainfall of 200mm, setting a new record during these 24 hours. Nainital experienced 445mm of rainfall within 24 hours, breaking a 64-year-old record.
This resulted in an unprecedented overflow of the Naini Lake. Mall Road was immersed in two feet deep water. Excess water flew like an unruly river through Bhowali and Haldwani roads clogging water in all the shops along the roads. Shopkeepers were stranded inside their shops the whole night and could come out only after the army launched its rescue operation the next day.
The lake became so buoyant that in the month of October, for the first time in history, both its exit gates had to be opened with a full capacity of one and a half feet. Despite this, the water of the lake in the Mall Road and Naina Devi temple complex continued to rise through the night.
"This was an unprecedented, unusual and unforeseen rainfall," said Vikram Singh, director of IMD, as he explained how it was the byproduct of the collision of weather disturbances in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
The disaster, however, has given another opportunity to the government and its machinery to not just work out a better plan to cope up with such natural calamities, but also look at the development model being followed in the state.
The government's Char Dham project is a case in point. Last September, the Supreme Court, based on the recommendation of a high-level committee appointed in 2019, gave an order in favour of narrowing the width for the 900-km highways built as part of the project. The project aims to provide all-weather connectivity to four important Hindu pilgrimage sites " Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
While the Supreme Court order is praiseworthy, the fact remains that the project had already damaged the state's ecology. If the committee's report is to be believed, nearly 700 hectares of forestland were already lost to the project. At least 47,000 trees were already cut, and the natural pathway of several streams are blocked. Worse, the highway widening project has destabilised the land by cutting the land vertically, leading to more landslides in recent months.
It's no one's contention that development should not happen. In fact, this highway project is strategically important, as claimed by the government in the Supreme Court, going up to the sensitive China border.
What one needs to do is make development sustainable " development that takes into account the ecological concerns of the region. More so when climate change is a reality of life, and the excessive, erratic downpour is becoming a routine phenomenon.
The writer is a noted academician and environmentalist, is currently working as a professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kumaon University. The views expressed are personal.