In India public memory is short. This helps authorities overcome embarrassment as and when events that expose the shortcomings of the system vanish from the national and international headlines.

One such event in the recent past has been the disaster, partly natural and largely man made, that hit Himachal Pradesh. This disaster put a question mark on the perceived notion of development, excessive tourism, taking an ‘unscientific’ route of monetary growth, and putting extraordinary pressure on the hills in the name of infrastructural development.

The event has vanished from the front page of national dailies. But that does not translate into a return to normalcy on the ground. The cascading impact of the disaster continues in different forms as the people battle for restoring their livelihoods and also shelter.

In the process more and more questions are raising their heads on a daily basis, and there are very few answers to these questions. It is being felt that the whole model of development in the hills needs to be revisited.

Some among the authorities also acknowledge that the unscientific activities in the recent past coupled with absence of proper checks on illegal mining have wrecked havoc for the people.

On the ground the people continue to face misery. Take for example the fact that the traffic on the Parwanoo-Solan stretch of the national highway leading to Shimla remains hampered for more than a week now.

There have been temporary resumptions of only small vehicles being allowed to ply. This means that a common citizen travelling to Chandigarh is now burdened with shelling out more money as the public transport buses take a detour via longer alternate routes taking more than double the time for travel.

The same applies to agriculturists and horticulturists who have to transport their produce. With the vegetable harvest season in full swing, and the apple season picking up there are concerns aplenty.

The area around Solan and Theog in Shimla is known for vegetable production during this season in the form of tomatoes, garlic, capsicum, beans, ginger etc. The apple belts in Shimla and Kullu districts are witnessing harvest season at this point of time with Kinnaur to follow later.

In fact the concerns about transport of agricultural and horticultural produce are prime ones across the state. “It will take the financial grants that are supposed to come from the central and state governments some time to translate into actual relief in the form of repairing or building new bridges and roads.

“Till then the efforts are on to secure alternate modes and means for reducing the anxiety of the growers. There are talks of transporting apple produce over water bodies with the help of ropeways but there is a clear mismatch between the volume and the capacity to transport,” disclosed Mandi based social activist Joginder Walia.

The road from Mandi to Manali has been damaged massively. Sources on the ground point out towards frequent disruptions in the traffic flow. They said that while the authorities have secured supply of essentials to main towns and cities, those living in remote corners continue to face multiple problems.

There have been reports of vegetable growers in Sainj valley of Kullu facing heavy losses as the vegetable produce has largely decayed in the villages. This area produces cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and tomatoes.

There are reports of many people in Sainj seeking relocation in the aftermath of the disaster witnessed by them. On July 10, the small hamlet witnessed 30 houses and 40 shops being washed away by the flood.

In fact Kullu is among the worst hit districts in the state during the disaster. More than 2700 families in the district have reportedly witnessed their commercial establishments and houses being damaged completely or partially.

A large number of them are facing livelihood issues. More than 550 houses were completely damaged.

Not only Kullu but the entire Beas valley has been the theatre of havoc. In this context a large number of social activists of the state had recently come out with a joint statement pointing out various factors responsible for what has happened.

“The state of Himachal Pradesh is still reeling under the impacts of the devastating floods. While we would appreciate the swiftness with which the State government has carried out the disaster rescue and recovery operations, we as concerned environmental organisations in the upper Beas valley are deeply disturbed about the forces that have unleashed this tragedy upon us, especially those who have lost their homes, shelters and livelihoods.

“We understand that the reconstruction process will be long not just for the people but for the state, which is already under severe financial stress and that the support of the central government is critical.

“The accountability of the government is not just towards ensuring that basic welfare services are reinstituted and compensatory measures are put in place but also that there is a detailed comprehensive multi disciplinary and participatory review of the various factors that contributed and compounded this disaster,” the statement began.

It further pointed out that in the aftermath of this disaster, basic common sense and observations of the devastation have made it clear that this disaster cannot be blamed on the forces of nature.

“There are numerous scientific and climate change studies conducted in the last 25 years that have highlighted the need for a holistic approach to planning and development in the Himalayan region. However, none of this scientific data has fed into our development policies and all warnings given by scientists, environmentalists and concerned citizens have fallen on deaf ears.

“Slowly and steadily the entire upper Beas valley, which saw unprecedented destruction on July 10 and 11 has been reduced to a concrete jungle - throwing aside all rules of law and governance.

“The rapid land use change in the valley has been brought about by: # Muck dumping from excessive surface and underground excavation

# Massive deforestation leading to erosion, slope and landslides

#Uncontrolled urbanization and mass tourism that encroached into the flood plain

“One of the key projects that have contributed to the three of the above is the Kiratpur-Manali four lane highway. Forty per cent of this highway project, especially the stretch between Pandoh and Manali on which thousands of crores of rupees were pumped has been destroyed,” the activists said.

They have raised questions over environment and disaster impact assessments of the project while further stating, “In the absence of floodplain zonation regulations along Beas River, infrastructure development and encroachment became rampant, without any scientific basis, leading to high disaster impact in such regions.”

They have also accused various authorities of resorting to deviations from detailed project reports and have raised questions over muck dumping that increased sediment load and led to blockage of drainage.

“The construction has not taken into account drainage, which is often blocked which led to landslide risk and other problems for the local populations. In many instances buildings are raised on muck mounds, which contain future risk for lives and property. Riverside dumping is rampant along this four lane project along the Beas River.

“This has contributed to rise in riverbed and thus reducing its flood-containing capacity. The presence of a high volume of muck contributed to high flood impact in the current flood disaster.

“In this scenario, with lack of implementation of muck management protocols, it is requested to probe into the matter and place strict penalties on the project authorities and contractors.”

There are also questions on deforestation, soil erosion and landslides. The activists claim, “As per data the Kiratpur Nerchowk stretch of the four lane project has guzzled more than 50 thousand trees. This is apart from unofficial loss of vegetation and tree cover.

“Presence of a very high quantity of wooden logs in this flood disaster indicates its possible contribution to flood impact. Himalayan mountains are young and dynamic in geological activities, and unscientific and heedless development of infrastructure is actually the main culprits manifesting this fragility into high loss and damage. Even landslides have become more pronounced post blasting and unplanned cutting of hills.”

Pointing towards lack of monitoring and action on non-compliance by regulatory bodies, the activities have called for fixing of accountability.

“Multiple High Court orders were passed and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was pulled up by the courts but none of this has brought halt to the relentless muck dumping and unaccountable contractors continue criminal negligence,” the statement said.

Then there are issues related to displacement and compensation where it is being alleged that several provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 have not been complied with.

The disaster has once again brought into focus the cumulative impacts of land use change and the role of mega hydropower infrastructures and dams. The activists claim that a cumulative impact assessment of the existing tunnels, highways and dams in the valley will reveal the clear picture of this “compounded disaster”.

“The contribution of the eight large hydropower projects between Mandi and Manali in the cascading impacts of the flash floods need to be assessed along with all other factors with specific attention to negligence around dam safety protocols,” the activists including B. R. Kaundal, Guman Singh, Joginder Walia, Ajit Rathore, Naveen Saini, Rajendra Chauhan and Sant Ram have pointed out.

Incidentally, the statement had followed the visit of Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari in the company of Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu to disaster ravaged Kullu on August 1.

In his interaction with the local media persons Gadkari assured that the central government will extend all possible help to the affected. He said that Rs. 400 crores will be released by the union government under Central Road & Infrastructure Fund (CRIF), so that repair and restoration works can be undertaken on war footing.

The NHAI will also bear the cost of repairing the link roads up to one kilometre along the national highways in the apple belts, he added.

Pointing towards huge portions of national highways and other roads being swept by the furious flow of the river, he said a technical team has been constituted to study probable causes and take measures to prevent such occurrences in the future. Adaptive measures will be taken to construct a concrete wall or channelise river beds wherever required.

Claiming that falling stones and boulders from the mountains was rather common in hilly regions, always posing threat to the commuters, he said that to address the issue a comprehensive study would be conducted and thereafter recommendations would be shared with the state government.

Gadkari informed that 68 tunnels were being constructed in Himachal Pradesh at a cost of Rs. 12,500 crores.

The activists later expressed resentment over the minister not mentioning the mucking up of the river bed and the media not questioning him on it.

They have demanded a multidisciplinary high level inquiry into the disaster, its impacts and triggers assigning clear responsibility to the different infrastructures and land use changes to the disaster besides a complete moratorium on all mega constructions till the necessary inquiries are put in place.

In addition to this they have sought the formation of a citizens committee for post disaster reconstruction and recovery monitoring. The committee would also look at compliance of all the High Court orders in the case of muck dumping.

During his recent visit to the National Capital Sukhu called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and apprised him about the heavy losses incurred by the state in terms of damage to the highways, link roads, irrigation, electric and water supply schemes along with enormous damage to public and private property.

Modi on his part said that the Central government had sent a team to assess flood damages in the state immediately and added that financial assistance will be released once the team submits the final report on the damages.

Amid all this there have been some candid submissions coming from the state’s public works department minister Vikramaditya Singh. In an opinion piece that appeared in the regional daily ‘The Tribune’, he stated, “ The concept of four-lane roads, often celebrated as a symbol of modernization, has, in certain cases, led to unintended and dire consequences.

“The rugged terrain, the fragile ecosystem and the vulnerability to landslides inherent in these regions demand a cautious and considerate approach to development.

“Regrettably, the unchecked expansion of roads can compromise the stability of our hills, disrupt the natural flow of water and intensify the erosion process, ultimately culminating in environmental degradation and an escalated susceptibility to disasters.”

Expressing his views on the principle of criminal liability for poor infrastructure, he stated, “The implications of criminal liability for neglecting environmental well-being could potentially revolutionize decision-making processes, encouraging a more conscientious and balanced approach where development coexists harmoniously with preservation.

“The challenge extends beyond road expansion to encompass the menace of illegal mining, often intertwined with poorly planned road projects, compounding our environmental crisis. Illegal mining, driven by the profit motive, indiscriminately strips our hills of their natural protective cover, erodes soil stability and disrupts the delicate balance of natural drainage systems.

“The ramifications of such actions were painfully evident in the recent floods that swept the state.” He also pointed out that the recent calamities in Himachal Pradesh serve as a stark reminder of the urgency to reassess our approach to development in hill regions.

“While infrastructure expansion remains a legitimate imperative, it must be guided by a comprehensive perspective that places the conservation of our environment and the prevention of disasters at the forefront.

“The integration of criminal liability for activities detrimental to our ecology, such as flawed road construction and illegal mining, could offer us a roadmap to sustainable progress,” he underlined.

Meanwhile Sukhu has stated that a comprehensive assessment of the damage incurred by apple orchards is currently underway and augmented compensation would be provided to the affected orchard owners. He said that the state government has increased the compensation amount up to 10 times by amending the relief manual and the relief amount will be disbursed in accordance with the new guidelines.

He has stated that the government is actively engaged in providing assistance to the affected. This unified effort underscores the government's commitment to stand with the families during this natural calamity, ensuring that every impacted individual receives the necessary aid, he said.

He has been stressing that it is the foremost priority of the government to facilitate the farmers to transport their produce till the markets.

“It is the priority of the state government to take to facilitate the orchardists and the farmers in transporting their produce till the mandis and the concerned departments have been instructed to repair and restore the roads as soon as possible," Sukhu said while pointing out that before the apple season reaches its peak, a target has been set to repair all the link roads by August 15.

He made this statement on Wednesday after a two-day visit to Chopal, Jubbal-Kotkhai and Rohru assembly constituencies which are also major apple producing areas.

According to a government spokesperson 34 houses have been completely destroyed, while 819 houses partially damaged within the Rohru assembly constituency. Apart from this, the calamity has led to the damage of 21,000 apple plants.

It is being felt by the people that the disaster faced by Himachal Pradesh cannot be allowed to be a case of out of sight out of mind. Given its track record of a relatively well administered and progressive state, the people want the authorities to come up with a nature friendly development model in place of the present one.