Uttarakhand: What caused the disaster

NEW DELHI: Calamities and pilgrim hotspots seem to be inextricably linked. Even as Uttarakhand tries to lurch out of the worst-ever disaster to have hit the region, with hundreds already dead and thousands other missing, heated debates have erupted over the actual cause of what the Uttarakhand chief minister dubbed ‘the Himalayan tsunami’.

While the administration insists that it was a natural calamity, environmentalists hold that this was a man-made disaster waiting to happen.

Torrential and unrelenting downpour, landslides and floods saw the raging waters sweep away more than 180 people and hundreds of livestock to death. More than 70,000 pilgrims have been stranded even as the Army and Air Force try to rescue them in a hostile terrain.

Of all the affected areas, Kedarnath was the worst hit. Apparently, the major cause of the unprecedented devastation was the crumbling of the Kedar Dome, a glacier-like body of  rock and ice. This breaking of this enormous ‘glacier’ following the cloudburst and the eventual landslides caused a major rupture in the Charbari Lake that is situated just over 5 km from the holy temple of Kedarnath, situated at an altitude of 3600 mt.

Kedarnath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and situated near the Mandakini River in a valley of the Garhwal Himalayas, was constructed in the 8th century and folklore has it that Adi Shankaracharya oversaw the building of the shrine.

Extreme rains have wreaked havoc in the region, with the tenuousness of the Himalayan soil stability resulting in killer landslides. But environmentalists, like the CSE’s Sunita Narain, claim that man-made factors have added to the tragedy. The widespread and almost unregulated expansion of giant hyder-electric projects in the region, the incessant construction of roads to serve the burgeoning tourist population, and the adverse effect on the fragile ecosystem in the region due to growing human presence and pollution are the major causes for the devastation that Uttarakhand has been subjected to.

However, according to eyewitnesses huge rocks broke away from Kedar Dome after the flash floods caused by the cloudburst. These rocks, however, got stuck some distance away from the Kedarnath temple, possibly saving the holy shrine’s main structure from being demolished.

The rocks, the frothy raging waters and the miles of mud from the area that was washed out from the river all almost submerged Kedarnath, killing many people.

Reports say that the temple’s courtyard has been washed away and Nandi, Shiva’s mount at the gateway to the temple, too was buried under over 6 feet of mud and rocks, like most of Kedarnath. It however survived the onslaught of the mudslide.

Even the 14-km stretch of roadway from Gaurikund to Kedarnath has been totally submerged, making entry or exit impossible. This is what led to pilgrims being stranded. Even Ram Bada, between Gaurikund and Kedarnath, is totally invisible from the rescue helicopters.

So while the two sides – the environmentalists and the government – squabble over the root causes of the disaster, thousands of lives hang by a thin thread.