September 09, 2013
More than a fortnight after floods devastated buildings along river banks in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India, the state’s chief minister has asked for a ban on building homes and commercial structures on river banks. Hundreds of people were killed by the floods. The death toll is still being computed.
Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister, sought the construction ban at a media conference in the state capital Dehradun on July 1. He said all construction should be at least 200 metres from river banks. But there was no written order yet, bureaucrats said a day later.
The traditional settlement pattern in Uttarakhand, as in most of the Himalayan region, is on hilltops, while the area along riverbanks is used for agriculture. But that pattern has been totally disrupted in recent decades by the pressure of tourism and industry – mainly hydroelectricity projects.
Now that hotels and other buildings along river banks have been swept away by the floods, the hoteliers say they will support the ban if they are given land 200 metres from the river banks. Vijay Pande, secretary of Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India (FHRAI), said the extra space would be a boon, as hoteliers could use it to build riverside walks and parking lots.
Pande estimated that the Uttarakhand hotel industry would bear the brunt of this year’s flooding for the next 10 years, and the total loss could be $1.3 billion. The state government has already declared that owners of shops and eateries destroyed in the floods would be paid between $840 and $1,680 as compensation, while owners of hotels that will now have to be demolished because parts of them have been swept away will get $3,360. Owners of office buildings will get between 10 and 30% of their estimated loss.
Environmentalists welcomed the decision, but pointed out that the state government had done nothing to improve road building practices. They have been saying that unscientific road building practices that interfere with the natural slopes and stop water from flowing down to the bottom of the valley is responsible for landslides and flash floods. With a majority of the roads in Uttarakhand now affected by landslides, the authorities have an opportunity to build better.
The effects of the mid-June floods had been exacerbated by indiscriminate mining in the riverbeds, a practice about which the state government has remained silent till now.
Before the floods, the chief minister had been a vocal critic of environmentalists, accusing them of trying to stall the economic development of the state. He had then opposed the federal environment ministry’s decision to control commercial activities in the upper reaches of the Ganga.