Thoughts on the Uttarakhand floods

The Uttarakhand floods have not seen me in remorse or much concern over the fate of the pilgrims and locals stuck in the disaster and I thought of capturing some of my thoughts and utterances.

I have not been very religious all my life choosing to slip away into atheism most of the times but ever since childhood Shiva was my favourite God with the characteristics and stories associated with him. His simplicity, love of mountains and the cool and straightforwardness were clear attractions for me. Also was the fiery side of him. Shiva is the destroyer of the ego and ultimately the universe and the slayer of demons.

Today those demons are the Hindus themselves, stubborn, unrelenting, unprincipled and with bloated egos like no body else. What the Lord did at Kedarnath was to turn these demons around and give them a hard kick on their backsides telling them to fuck off from his valley. The resilient pests that humans are and the determined Hindus will return back I am sure and in another two years everything will be back in the same form.

Today it seems Shiva is playing the dance of death but that compares no where to the dance of death being played by humans themselves. 7 billion of them have been reducing many other species to remain just in their thousands and many of those are also on the way to annihilation.

Hinduism as a religion owes everything to nature. It observed nature, learned everything it knows from it and in turn paid obeisance to it in the form of various rituals. One would expect that the followers of such a religion would have a better understanding and respect for nature. Remove love and respect for nature from Hinduism and it turns into a bundle of useless two paisa worth rituals and mantras, which is the state today.

Since childhood it has been my observation – the more mainstream Hindu you are the more selfish, unprincipled and a scumbag you will be. The pilgrimages themselves have become an industrial assembly line operation. There was a time when those who made it for the pilgrimage were revered back home and people touched their feet, because of the enormous difficulty associated with making one. Now all you need to do is call your local tour operator.

Pilgrimages then were a walking project, which naturally kept a control on how many people could enter this fragile ecosystem. At most mules were used. This helped by not creating a buildup of GHGs locally. Now jeeps and buses and trucks liberally add GHGs locally. More people means more heating and cooking requirements, which means more fossil fuels and more gases. For all the love of their religion ask people to do the pilgrimages like the Sadhus do or how even how ordinary people did it once and it will not be taken well.

A hundred years ago India’s population was about 250 million (for a unified India) and only a marginal percentage of that population made it for a Char Dham Yatra. Today the population is a 1000 million plus and a phenomenally larger percentage of the population makes it for the Yatra. Does it make any sense? Clearly there is a need for strict annual entry quotas. A percentage should be auctioned to raise funds for investing in local ecology.

Most Hindus of the type attending these pilgrimages will not understand what words like fragile ecosystem and carrying capacity will mean. Worse still they will not be interested in learning or doing something about it. They have got a laundry list of demands to be made from the Gods – Do Not Disturb. Marriages have to be made, children to be born, their American education to be prayed for, the current stock of gold in the family should double by next year, careers, businesses, the lists goes on. There is no time for some thought for the environment and policy.

The whole of the mountainous Uttarakhand region was celebrated as Dev Bhoomi due to the unparalleled richness of biodiversity and life that was found here – floral and faunal. It was always a fragile ecosystem which was never meant to be trampled in herds. The lack of roads meant that there was a natural check on how many people could enter the courts of the Gods. Today those rich forests which sustained the rivers we revered are being hacked away. The rivers themselves have all been dam(n)ed and channeled and re-channeled. I dont even think there is anything left to worship and celebrate over there. The Dhams should actually be shut down.

People are generally bad at participating in or influencing public policy. In the absence of the public playing any role it is the vested interests with short term interests who take over. The tour operator and the priest now shape public policy. The Brahmins are supposed to uphold Dharma but that is in the texts.

For all the 90’s and 00’s when environmentalists were shedding tears at the mindless destruction being wrought on the mountains, no where were these pilgrimaging (pillaging) Hindus to be seen. Not without reason do some people like me find themselves happy at the turn of events. Nature is hostile to life, ruthless and cruel but the celebration of life there can never be rivaled by anything that the human machinery creates – much of which is pretentious anyways.

For those who would like to make this into the usual retort that environmentalists care more about the birds and the bees and less about humans I think the time for that retort is interestingly and finally coming to an end. We are entering a phase where all those who celebrated themselves as some great lovers of humanity forever moved by the conditions of humanity will be eating their words. If anything it is abundantly clear that environmentalists are far more compassionate and have a long term sustainable well being of human – and more importantly other species as well – in mind.

Mumbai goes six inches under

I went through a multiple set of emotions and thoughts after watching Age of the Stupid. And one of those was the almost complete unlikeliness of the situation being as grave and desolate in 2055 as shown in the movie. Humanity has been a more than superb adapter over the years. The do gooders may get fed up and frustrated with humanity and its enormous shortcomings and wish it Armadegon, but the fact remains that there is more to play here than just our frustrated thoughts.

Take the case of Bombay, India’s most important coastal asset and the imagery of water rising up and inundating our coastal cities and areas. If we go by the worst case scenario of all of the poles, Greenland and the glaciers melting, the projection is that the sea levels may rise 50-100 meters. The moot question is that does all of this water rise at one fixed point in a future date? So do you have a scenario like below? (This is only to counter the drastic sea level rise argument, not discounting the other areas of climate disruption.)

(you can skip this if in hurry and read from section marked in red)

January 10th, 2032 – when we are all going about with our work in Bombay ( I will be 57 then and hopefully around),

Its been difficult of late, with infrequent rains, rains in months which never had rains and then cloud bursts.

One fine day on 5th June, 2032, 10:00 am

We wake up with morning news telling us that things are not going well and it might just be possible that the sea waters, which all these decades were projected to rise might just rise today. Even as people have started to panic a bit, the first few inches of water rise takes place during the high tide at 10:22 am . Instead of touching the high tide line you find that the streets are inundated with six inches of water. The tide was supposed to be at a little above the four meter mark but clearly it went way above the 5 meter mark to actually enter the city. Nothing unbearable but its the first time something of this sort has happened. Its not raining. The weather is bright sunny and very hot and humid.

The panic bells are hit. All programs stop on the television and images of the city at various places start going up. The Chief Minster and the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner and other functionaries are shown rushing into meetings. News has also started to come that the same is being seen around the coast. The National Disaster Management Center is overwhelmed.

The cars and buses, bikes and pedestrians are still able to wade through the water but there is confusion and panic. Everybody has been fed to enough imagery of the rising sea but everybody knows well that there is no contingency plan. All these years none of the governments took any initiative to envisage this kind of a situation and accordingly have a drill. Now a lot of people make quick calculations and decide it might be just right to make a dash for the exists before things get worse. Its only a few thousand people who think like this and that is enough for panic to spread like wildfire. Some hit their bank accounts to remove their money, some get home to get their belongings and family.

The most important job of the police right now is to prevent a grid lock of millions of vehicles trying to hit the bridges and other outlets out of Bombay.The police has called in the home guards and the army but everybody is making a futile effort in the wake of the massive flood of humanity. A large number of the city which does not have cars have straight away come on the roads waiting to walk it out. There is no question of a vehicle gridlock. There is already a human gridlock.

Even as the initial panic is raging the tide has started to go back. At 1:00 pm the water is not exactly back into the sea but still not in the streets. The low tide is at 4:2ipm but hope has completely evaporated. No body is sure how the next high tide will be.

No body has done any calculation of how much time does it take to evacuate the whole city? Alternatively if you have only 12 hours to evacuate how many can be removed? And how many will have to be left to die?

5th June, 2032, 4:22 pm

The tide has not gone down completely. It was supposed to be at the 2 meter mark but it is clearly only a little below 4 meters. The next high tide could potentially be even worse .

5th June, 2032, 9:59 pm

This is the next high tide and supposed to be a little below 4 meters but the waters are gushing into the city. Its clearly more than 5 meters high. A lot of areas which did not get touched with water in the morning tide are also being inundated now. And this time around it seems that the tide will not be going down after all.

News is coming in that thousands of kilometers of ice shelves are taking to the sea in a matter of hours. Helicopter crew from around the world are hovering over Greenland and flashing the frightening scenes around the world. The government in Bombay actually takes a decision to not let those images to be shown to prevent out of control panic.

Those who are close to the creek and the bridges have either walked or swam across. There is shock grief and anger over everybody’s face. But nothing can be done now. All this is happening within hours on 5th June, 2032. By 11  pm the water is two feet and its madness all around. The children and shorter people have climbed on top of buildings hoping that the waters will stabilize around the first floor by which time the helicopters of boats will take them away. None of that happens.

6th June, 2032, 6:am

The low tide has come and gone early in the morning and the city wakes up to more than three feet water in the streets. The waters are only steadily rising.

10th June, 2032,

The waters have unbelievably reached 15 feet. The water has now risen to the height of three floor buildings. Everything is over. All across there is only water, with the tops of four floor buildings visible just a few feet above the water level. The taller buildings stand out. To somebody who is staying in Anchorage building, one of the taller buildings next to the coast, in Versova the site is unbelievable. From their 15th storey terrace anybody who has stayed around can see water till somewhere below the national park hills with a few building tops. Just nothing else – only water.

At 5 meter level rise (and I still dont know what the baseline is for this) the situation will probably be like this for Mumbai http://flood.firetree.net/?ll=19.0232,72.9904&z=7&m=5

WILL SUCH BE THE CASE? CERTAINLY NOT.

Most probably if it happens then on 5th June, 2032 at 10:22 am when the tide will be at its highest for that day the water will for the first time come into the city upto 4-6 inches on a bright sunny day. This too after the same has been understood and deliberated upon for months before and the affected people have been evacuated. By then the city would have well done the calculations. The more affluent and resourceful would have left the city for the Deccan plateau, Pune, Nasik and beyond.

With the economy beginning to get affected, a lot of poor people migrating to the city from UP and Bihar and other parts will choose to die of hunger in their native land than on the water filled streets of Mumbai. All this will not happen drastically within 24 hours. There will be more than sufficient time for the transition to take place. There will come a time (this century or next) when the six inch permanent waters on the streets will become a permanent feature for years. During this time also the city will continue to function with some adaptations. But the outflow would be very systematically underway already. There will be no human or vehicle gridlock of millions making a dash for the exit points.

The reason I write this note is to show how arguments like Age of the Stupid actually do little to help support climate change mitigation measures because they show too much disaster too soon and to a species, which might have a short memory of disasters it has suffered but which has developed incredible resilience and resources to battle out adverse situations.  I may argue that people today seem far stupid than their counterparts in other centuries but such was the case even in those centuries. The response of technological resources in a drastic disaster are questionable but you cannot win an argument or work towards making a game plan by making arguments which are primarily driven by frustration. In my almost 2 decades of close involvement with important public environmental functions in the city I have always felt a bit embarrassed with those who choose to give their arguments like the Furher – fanaticism, absoluteness about the outcome to be exactly as they profess, and vitriol on those who don’t see their side of the story.

Is it not surprising that with so much talk on sea level rise we still have no discussion on even ballpark projections about when and how the sea levels will rise? We have enough super computing to tell us that.

Even with a 200 meter sea level rise, there will be a situation maybe where even after large scale deaths, a 100 million odd population of people will be still found on the earth living very comfortably and in a position to take the race forward – hopefully with wisdom. The situation will certainly not be like the one in Age of Stupid – one sole survivor who is a caretaker for a musuem which doesnt find any land so has to be built on top of a tower surrounded by water everywhere.

An overwhelmingly large number of todays ‘stupid’ are aware of the same and are willing to take the gamble that they or their offspring may not be among the 100 million who survive but the human race rest assured will go on. By showing them a stark, false and highly exaggerated picture of future misery we close doors for them to buy in to even our moderate and sensible arguments. And stupid as they may be the masses are not without any intelligence all together.

The way to move ‘stupid’ people is not by making stupid arguments. The intelligent do not have the luxury of stupidity. They have to continue refining their efforts and getting better with till the first water rise.