After weeks of extremely hot and prolonged dry weather, the monsoon winds brought heavy rains to the hilly northern states of India and the southwest coastal states. Cloudbursts and landslides have wreaked havoc in both regions.

Mahabaleshwar received 600mm of rain on July 22, breaking all previous records, while Taliye village in Raigad district, Maharashtra suffered the most. The landslide there has killed at least 212 people with a large number still missing. Three other villages in Raigad (Govele Sutarwadi, Kevanale and Dhamnand) have reported deaths due to landslides this monsoon.

The tragedy that hit Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh yesterday, with a landslide burying the occupants of a bus and some smaller vehicles under earth, and boulders knocking a truck off the road, leading to the deaths of at least 70 people with the toll expected to mount, is part of a chain of events.

Heavy rains in the state on July 12 caused landslides on 54 roads, disrupting traffic for several hours. A cloudburst in Dharamshala caused the Bhagsunag rainwater river to flood, flooding residential areas. Six people were killed in landslides in Kangra and nine in Kinnaur, and similar conditions prevailed in neighbouring Uttarakhand, where the roads around Chamoli were closed due to landslides.

Heavy rains, cloudbursts, lightning strikes and landslides have killed hundreds of people across the country this monsoon. People battling these conditions in different parts of India are being misled into believing that this is due solely to climate change, with industrialised countries held solely responsible since they have polluted the environment by emitting greenhouse gases in recent decades.

While agroindustrial global warming is a major reason for the increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, people should not be misled into simply blaming developed countries. The other major reason is the slow destruction of our country in the blind race for development. Indiscriminate deforestation, construction of dams on rivers and buildings in riverine areas, conversion of mountainous areas into resorts are just as responsible.

The Union government and the governments of these states are largely responsible for the devastation from Himachal to Maharashtra to Kerala. For decades people in all these states have been protesting against the development plans led by governments and corporations. Due to people’s low confidence and support in these projects, they have to be considered anti-people in nature.

In view of the public outcry along the fragile Western Ghats, a committee was constituted back in 2010 under the chairmanship of eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil. Its report after conducting a thorough and in-depth survey of various places along the range recommended declaring 87.5% of the Western Ghats in six states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu) environmentally sensitive.

It recommended that no new cities be built in the environmentally sensitive area, new dams should be stopped, and any construction should be prevented in the wetlands and river catchment areas. It also recommended a ban on the expansion of tourism and on mining.

The Gadgil Committee report was outright rejected by the States and Centre. The Kasturirangan committee set up instead diluted these recommendations, reducing the ecosensitive area to just 37.5% of the Western Ghats, leading to accelerated “development” in these valuable life areas. Because of the new committee’s recommendations, these already sensitive areas have become more prone to damage and injury caused by natural disasters.

Up north in Dharamsala’s Bhagsunag area, the reports of several casualties following a massive landslide in the Boh valley cannot merely be termed a natural disaster. The main cause of flooding in the seasonal river Bhagsunag is the construction of buildings in the river basin. Due to heavy rains caused by a cloudburst, excess water in the river and obstruction caused by buildings constructed in the flow area, the floodwater eventually made its way through the residential area and swept away the cars and motorcycles parked there like toys.

Similarly the landslides in Kinnaur are being caused by over-cutting of the hills while widening the road, upsetting the balance of the mountain, leading to injuries and deaths.

Uttarakhand too is paying a heavy price for building dams on rivers beyond their capacity, increasing the length and width of roads and constructing hotels and buildings in riverine areas, ignoring environmental regulations. Following the catastrophic cloudburst tragedy in 2013, there has been a spate of calamities including the Chamoli tragedy of February 2021 that killed at least 300 people.

It is pertinent to mention here that most of the landslides since then have been taking place in the newly constructed Chardham road area. In September 2020, the apex court had directed the Uttarakhand government to keep the width of the road at only 5.5 meters. But the width of this road is being kept at 12 meters for which up to 24 meters width of land would be required.

The more the mountains are cut down in a mountainous area, the greater are the chances of landslides. In European countries, the width of roads in mountainous areas is kept at only 8 meters. In this regard, in 2019 the National Institute of Disaster Management expressed concern that planners in the Himalayan region and Western Ghats are using similar plans to the ones used in the plains, thereby destabilising mountainous areas.

According to a report by the Central Water Commission, flooding and incidents related to floods such as landslides, heavy rains, thunderstorms, rising sea levels, etc. increased 20-fold between 1970 and 2005.

Now the question arises as to what governments should do to protect the people from natural disasters. The Union and State governments should not use environmentally sensitive areas for development projects like industries, resorts or wide roads, which might be monetarily lucrative but will leave the people facing more un/natural hazards in future.

At the international level, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation as rapidly as is being done in most European countries. Saying that just a few countries like the United States and China are responsible for climate change will not suffice. India did not propose any new framework for greenhouse gas emissions at the Climate Summit convened by US President Joe Biden on April 22, 2021, nor did it set any limits for zero carbon emissions.

This must change now. India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and the seventh-worst-hit country by natural disasters in 2019 according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Our government is right in stating that the United States, China, and European countries have more responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases, but we must also fulfill our nation’s responsibility and play our part in trying to resolve the crisis for future generations.

At the national level, India should act immediately. Any construction or development project in mountainous areas, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, should not go through without consultation and approval by experts and locals.

If the government had heard the popular opinion of the locals, the state of Uttarakhand would not be suffering so much today. The people of the region had started opposing the government's anti-environmental development plans from the time of British rule.

Likewise in the Deccan, in order to protect the Western Ghats from natural calamities, all the states in the region and the Union government should seriously consider the report of the Gadgil Committee and its recommendations before implementing any construction plans, so the people of these states don’t lose their lives year after year in these tragic and preventable disasters.

Dr Gurinder Kaur is Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala