Known for its steep, defined, fragile and mysterious landscape, the Himalayas, the third pole, recently witnessed a devastating flood. Dr Rahul Ranjan, a political anthropologist at Oslo Metropolitan University, explores the emotional impact of the disaster. 

On 7 February, the inhabitants of Uttarakhand, especially those in the village of Raini, woke to the deafening noise of a river gushing through the narrow and steep channel. The geophysical reportage of the disaster was initially split between the cloud and the glacial outburst. However, several reports began to emerge claiming that the incident was caused by a combination of a catastrophic landslide and avalanche which caused massive debris to fall into the river causing Rishi Ganga, a tributary of the Ganges, to swell and surge as it flowed through the state.

So far, the death toll of this catastrophic incident is 70, while over 200 people have been reported missing. The victims were primarily residents, who lived by the bank and labourers working at the two hydroelectricityprojects. Accumulated debris and waste from the dams – rocks and other particles – swept in with the river have now formed a lake by obstructing the flow of the river.

Debates about the disaster is polarised between development and climate change, which is useful – but it leaves little or no space for writing about the impact on people caught up in it, their background, aspirations and journey. This is a brief reflection on the disaster as an accumulation of the everyday working of and against the climate that is continuously changing, and it moves away from the dominant narrative which emphasises the causes behind the disaster to mourn the loss of lives. Mourning the loss of ecology which combines humans, their aspirations and of those that we cannot see. This, in effect, allows us to process the emotional and moral stakes that undercuts the climate change.

Mourning in the age of disaster

Satellite images, Google earth photos, remote sensing and sophisticated illustrations have helped to estimate the cause of the disaster and document the tragedy. However, they fail to capture human emotions which, in a world of experts armed with the power to control, produce and regulate knowledge, are written off.

Grieving the dead is not always an equal task. Cultural theorist, Judith Butler, expressed the unequal allocation of grievability by remarking how ‘some lives are grievable’ while ‘others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of… what counts as a livable life and a grievable death’ (p.16). The differential allocation of grief and mourning is evidenced by the structural apathy towards the fragile ecology of the Himalayas and the humans who inhabit the place.

The abuse of natural habitats and mountains by mushrooming dams often circumvent the most basic logic of co-dependence of humanity with nature. Not long ago we were expressing our shock about the 2013Kedarnath disaster, but it is now a distant memory. A disaster such as the one in Uttarakhand, past and the present, bulldozes the aspirations of those who are made to drill the hole in the sedimented history of time engraved into the hills, rocks and landscape of the Himalayas. Far from tracing the impact of disaster on the social psychology and collective memory of the community and individuals who have lost loved ones, we are rushed to find ways to assess the cause and effects. The dead becomes the collateral to development dreams. In other words, we allow labourers, mostly removed from their home in search of employment to work on precarious conditions under deep tunnels and over the steep mountains, who then ends up becoming victims of human-induced climate change, and an environmental disaster.

Description of remoteness of place (Himalayas) in how disasters are reported is both literal, the technical assessment of the damage, and metaphorical,  a failure to register the pain for those buried, accounts of their journey in the hills and a whole ecology of loss including the non-humans. Failure sits not simply in political decisions and policy but also in the imagination of reportage on disaster. Imaginative failure to capture the loss and grief of humans and non-humans – the trail of their lives that co-constitutes the Himalayas.

In her compelling work on climate change, Ashlee Cunsolo writes that ‘the anticipatory memory of loss is a mourning that begins before the break event but is based in an understanding of the experience of other losses. That is, people are transferring their previous experiences of and responses to grief and trauma from other situations.’ (p.140). Contrary to extending our ethical and political sensibilities to disasters, not eventful, but continuous – we are leaving our own footprints of destructions on a whole ecology. Impact of destruction by hydropower projects, for instance, leave a glaring footprint on the entire river ecosystems fisheries and to say least, the natural flow of water.

Disasters are not natural. They are produced and manufactured by anthropogenic activities. We neither have access to the distress of environment nor do we hear their grieving. But what we know, see and invisibilise are those not just unheard but also lost and displaced – laying bare as dead in tunnels, awash at the banks and those who remained/found under the piles of broken cement from the hydro-projects. Humans buried are humans lost because we failed them and the whole of ecosystem. There is not anything outside of this co-existence and there is no harmonious destruction. Climate change is what we do to the ecology every day.

Both collective and individual mourning is required as an ethical and political task, allowing us to imagine the world in which we want to live. To say we are reaching a tipping point in climate change which undermines the perils of loss and mourning within both human and non-human worlds. Thousands of people are dead, displaced and several species have already been extinct. Our own lack of hearing does not make other species speechless.

Dr Rahul Ranjan is a postdoctoral research fellow at Oslo Metropolitan University where is working on a project entitled ‘The Currents and Consequences of Legal Innovations on The Rights of Rivers’ funded by the Norwegian Research Council.