Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

‘Chipko’ epicenter faces existential threat, Raini village no longer fit for human settlement

The village in Uttarakhand has reported several landslides and flash floods recently

Uttarakhand’s Raini village, the birthplace of the Chipko Movement, at present, is a site that is vulnerable to extreme weather and is too dangerous for its residents to live in, according to a report by Delhi-based climate communications initiative, Climate Trends. As per the report, Raini village has been in the eye of the storm, with several landslides and flash floods making appearances every now and then.

The report is a case study of climate change, the fragile ecosystem, unplanned development, and their combined consequences on the Himalayas. 

What is the present condition of Raini village?

According to the Uttarakhand Disaster Recovery Project (UDRP-AF) survey, at present, Raini is facing “serious slope stability” issues. The inhabited area is not only affected by active subsidence (sudden sinking of the earth’s surface), but also by toe erosion, which can be seen on the downslope. The study revealed that if appropriate measures are not taken, the village will witness mass movement activities in saturated, dynamic conditions and toe erosion by rivers.

During the survey, wide cracks were seen in the walls and floors of many houses indicating active slope movement in the area. 

Nand Kishore Joshi, disaster management officer, confirmed that the lower areas of Raini village, which is home to around 55 families, are not fit for human settlement. These families are likely to be rehabilitated in Subhai village. 

Located at the confluence of the Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga rivers, Raini village was struck by a flash flood on February 7, 2021. The foothills of the village were flooded, damaging many houses and structures. The Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, operated by the National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC), was completely destroyed by the floods. Officially, 206 people went missing and 88 bodies were recovered.

In June, the village was once again hit by floods, completely washing away the lower part of the village. Around 40 metres of the Joshimath-Malari highway, a significant point of communication, was broken and engulfed in the Dhauli Ganga. 

Raini’s proximity to the border with China has increased its significance and also its vulnerability. Widening and regular repair and construction of roads near or inside the village cannot be curbed at any cost, the report noted. 

Raini’s poor condition a result of climate change or man-made destruction?

According to the report, experts claimed that Raini’s misfortunes are a combination of both climate change and man-made destruction. The village is located at an altitude of 3,700m above sea level on the upper slopes of Rishi Ganga river, which makes it more prone to soil erosion and landslides, the report stated. The gravitational impact also increases at this altitude, causing more damage and eroding river banks. According to the report, events witnessed near Raini village in the past few months are evidence of these facts. 

“There has been a significant rise in extreme weather events across the state, with a steep rise in frequency as well as the intensity of relentless rainfall, cloud burst, flash flooding, landslides, and mudslides. Deforestation has also been a major cause of these disasters,” said Mahesh Palawat, meteorologist at Skymet Weather.

According to the report, Chamoli and Bageshwar districts have seen torrential rains since June 1, particularly from June 9-22. The week from June 9-15, saw around 423% excess rain in Chamoli, while the next week from June 23-30 saw an increase by 863%. 

Speaking about the rain pattern, Sharath Chandra, director, Flood Forecasting & Monitoring at Central Water Commission, said, “Himalayan systems are very young and fragile, making them unstable. The rain, which was earlier recorded during the span of days, now outpours within a handful of days only. This has led to an increase in the incidence of flash flooding and landslides, making the region very vulnerable to natural disasters. If the landslide comes down to the river stream, it increases the chances of floods. Also, commercialisation and urbanisation have led to a decrease in soil infiltration capacity, resulting in floods.” 

Unplanned development a major concern in the Himalayas

The Himalayas are young mountains and the cracks and fractures created in the rock can widen in the future resulting in a rockfall/slope failure zone, the report noted. Geologists strongly recommend a critical evaluation of the geological and structural stability before subjecting mountains to large-scale mechanical excavation and blasting.

“There is a huge gap between planning and implementation,” said professor YP Sundriyal, head of department of geology at HNB Garhwal University. “Policymakers should be well-versed with the geology of the region. There is no denying the fact of development, but hydropower plants, especially in higher Himalayas, should be of less capacity. Policy and project implementation should consist of local geologists who understand the terrain well and how it responds.”

For a very long time, water-abundant state Uttarakhand has been trying to convert its rivers into assets, the report added. In fact, a Uttarakhand representative told the Parliamentary committee formed after the February 7 Chamoli disaster that “solar energy, wind energy or any other form of renewable energy is always going to be smaller. For us, as a state in the Himalayas, hydro is our main stake.” This theory has diluted environment clearance procedures and risk assessment norms for hydropower projects in the Himalayas, the report stated. 

“The social and environmental risks of large dams are well-documented. Experts of Himalayan rivers have been warning about these risks for decades, but unfortunately the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for these projects withhold or underlie this information so that projects get approved. Given all these projected risks, development and environmental policies should really not be selecting these options that put people at great risk,” said Manju Menon, a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research.

Those with the least carbon footprint are impacted the most

According to the rehabilitation policy of Uttarakhand, villagers are likely to get compensation of Rs3.6 lakh and an allocation of 100 sqft of land. However, locals claimed that the administration has not been doing enough for the people. The report revealed that several locals complain about the lack of timely administrative action and inadequate land and monetary compensation. 

“Villagers have to fight a long battle for relocation,” said Sanju Kaparwan, a local. Initially, the local administration wanted them to shift to a makeshift place in a primary school, but without their cattle. “What if something happens to our cattle, who will bear the loss,” asked Kaparwan.

According to him, the place allocated (Subhai village) is small and they are afraid that this decision may remain on paper only. “Monsoon is here and we are spending every night in fear whether we will be alive by tomorrow,” added Kaparwan. 

Thousands of villagers across the state of Uttarakhand have been waiting for their turn to get rehabilitated, the report stated. Reportedly, 395 villages are identified in the disaster-prone belts of 12 districts of Uttarakhand whose residents are waiting to be shifted to safer areas. However, social activists feel Raini has been lucky enough to witness prompt response by authorities.

“Raini is not the first village that is under discussion for relocation in the state. Scores of villages have been rehabilitated over the years. In fact, at the time of construction of Tehri Dam, at least 27 villages were forced to relocate. People from those villages are still struggling,” said Atul Sati, a local environmental activist.

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