The nation heaved a collective sigh of relief this week after the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara-Barkot tunnel in Uttarakhand were pulled out to safety one by one, 17 long and gruelling days after a section of the tunnel they were working on collapsed. The day-by-day rescue operations and the dangers for them through the 17 days led to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami to declare that there would be a review of all the tunnel projects in the state as well as the load-bearing capacity of hill towns that dot the mountain state. This statement of intent has not come a day too soon.
Environmental Impact of Infrastructure Projects
If the tunnel collapse and breathless rescue operations lead to a comprehensive review, some good will have come out of the unfortunate accident. If this review, done thoroughly and honestly, leads to the conclusion that there is hardly an alternative to nature-based development, especially in geologically and ecologically sensitive terrains, then every agonising moment spent by the 41 workers down in the dark will have some meaning. It is time that the simple but powerful axiom which ecologists and locals have been articulating, not only in Uttarakhand but across India, that it is not possible to construct infrastructure projects on leaders’ whims or purely economic reasons without factoring in the natural local ecology of the region, becomes widely accepted as the only way forward in India. In simple terms, it is called nature-based planning.
Why, in a geologically diverse and ecologically rich terrain like India, nature-based planning and implementation of infrastructure projects is not already the de facto mode of economic development is a mystery. It took decades after independence for even the Environment Impact Assessment to be a mandatory part of a project proposal. Despite it being on paper, this critical aspect was often given short shrift in the way projects were planned and work on them begun; it was, more often than not, an after-thought or an appendix added to the project proposal at the end. Even this cursory acknowledgment that environmental factors matter a great deal in all economic development and project construction, that they can make or break a project and the region it is situated in, was deliberately overlooked in the last decade across India, especially in Uttarakhand among other states.
The Char Dham road project in Uttarakhand is one that environmentalists and activists have warned about since day one of work; local residents along the hills have been living with and showing serious instances of land subsidence in the region, which many there aver, led to the tunnel collapse. The Uttarakhand region, not merely the state, is an ecologically diverse but fragile one calling for due care in any project undertaken. Yet, successive state governments pushed by the central government have gone headlong into mega projects along the hilly terrain that has forests, glaciers, a network of rivers and water springs. The Ganges, considered the holiest of rivers in India, originates in the hills here. Uttarakhand is also home to some of the holiest shrines and abodes of gods worshipped by scores of Hindus, and therefore, sees a large footfall of pilgrims every year.
Myth of Economy Versus Environment
There can be no disagreement that both tourists and locals need to be provided with the best of infrastructural services; the question is at what cost this has been done in the last few years and will be done in the near future. The cost of economic development and infrastructure construction cannot be – must not be – ecological destruction that leaves debris behind. The very articulation of economy versus environment is a false binary. There is no choice, there never was, between the two. If anything, climate change now shows this beyond doubt and also brings home the fact that mindless environmental damage will place a heavy price on people as well as their economies. The considered path always was to respect natural features and ecology of a region while planning and constructing projects there. In other words, nature-based planning. This should be the only way forward in India but a government tom-tomming the promise of a $5 trillion economy seems not to care. Environment is not an obstacle in the path of economic development; it is the reason human beings can live in what's called the web of life.