Exploring the Need for Improved Communication between Research Organizations and the Government: A Case from Uttarakhand, India

Research agencies and the government departments need to communicate regularly and use the knowledge to minimise hazard risks to the people.

Exploring the Need for Improved Communication between Research Organizations and the Government: A Case from Uttarakhand, India

The gap between research and implementation has been a constant mulling point in academia. Traditionally, researchers/research organisations publish their work, which mostly remains restricted to the academic world. Through this article, I wish to explore the issue of lack of communication between researchers/research organisations, and the government – a pertinent actor in ensuring implementation of research – due to which research mostly remains unimplemented, and is mostly restricted for use only by other researchers. Communication between research organisations and the government, if ensured, could make much research useful for the public, the article suggests. The article is based on personal observations during my experience in Uttarakhand, India, as a journalist exploring the threats from Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) to people residing in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.

Uttarakhand has 1,266 glacial lakes, the sizes of which vary from 500 m2 to 2,44,742.3 m2: Kavita Upadhyay

Kedarnath shrine area after GLOF: The Hindu

The floods and rescue operations: The Hindu

Dried-up Chorabari lake: The Hindu

It was 17 June 2013. On a morning that was unusually cold due to incessant rains, the pilgrims and priests had flocked the Kedarnath shrine and the Kedar Valley in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Even as many pilgrims continued to tread the valley despite the rains, a heavy sound – a thud – was heard. The Chorabari lake, which is a glacial lake 1.5 km above the shrine, had breached, resulting in a GLOF. Within minutes a huge wave of water, that came from behind the shrine, flooded the shrine area. As a result, a flooded river Mandakini, as it passed through the Kedar Valley and beyond, swept away people, buildings, roads, bridges – basically, everything on its way. The town of Rambara – about 8 km downstream of Kedarnath – was completely washed off. It was the first GLOF-related disaster in Uttarakhand. The official records put the death toll from the deluge at about 4,000. However, unofficial estimates claim that over 20,000 people died in the floods. As a journalist working for The Hindu at the time, I had extensively reported on the disaster.

Two years later, in 2015, while still at The Hindu, I was involved in a short-term data journalism fellowship with The Third Pole, which focussed on Asia’s water woes. My fellowship project looked at the possible threats from GLOFs in Uttarakhand. In the same year, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun – Uttarakhand’s capital – published a Glacial Lake Inventory of the state. While discussing with the concerned state government agencies – mainly the disaster management department – and various research institutes, the anticipated threats to the natives, tourists, and infrastructure, from GLOFs, I learnt of the freshly published inventory. As a journalist who had been following-up on the developments after the Kedarnath deluge, I felt that the inventory was crucial for the concerned agencies under the state government to trace the vulnerability of the populations residing in the vicinity (downstream) of the glacial lakes that may pose a threat to such populations. To me, the existence of an inventory on glacial lakes would ease the state government’s efforts to ensure the safety of people and infrastructure from GLOFs.

However, this notion was challenged when I entered the office of the Executive Director of the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC). The Executive Director was unaware of the inventory and pointed out that the Wadia Institute had not informed the DMMC about it. Learning this, I visited the Director of Wadia Institute, a co-author in the inventory of glacial lakes. When I questioned him on not informing the government about the crucial research, the Director said that their duty, as a research institute, was to do the research and publish it. It was not their duty to inform the government about the research. The Director said while their institute could assist the state government with the technical aspects related to glacial lakes, the state government must first send the institute a proposal requesting for such assistance. This proposition implied that the state government must first find out about the inventory from independent sources, and then approach the Wadia Institute for assistance.

I did visit the DMMC for one last round of inputs. This time, I was told that the state government simply lacked the manpower and the resources needed to monitor glacial lakes. Then, what was the point of the inventory if it was not going to be acted on, I thought to myself.

While one would expect the monitoring of hazardous glacial lakes as a natural outcome of such an inventory (especially considering the damages caused by the GLOF-related Kedarnath disaster), my visits to the Wadia Institute and the DMMC made me sense a definitive lack of interest with regards to monitoring of the lakes. For the Wadia Institute, their work ended with the publishing of the inventory. For the government, on the other hand, the inventory was like any other piece of academic research, because the government had neither issued a proposal for such a study nor was it involved in the inventory in any form. I understood that the government and the research agencies function solely based on protocols, however crucial the issue being dealt with. Through this experience, I also became privy to the lack of communication between a premier research institute, and the government.

This is but one example of lack of communication, or the unwillingness of the government, and research agencies/researchers to communicate with each other. While the twain should ideally be working in tandem to identify and resolve water-related problems, the issues to be paid attention to are often sidelined due to two main reasons. One, lack of willingness on the part of both the parties – the government and the research agencies – to engage with research that addresses water-related issues. Two, the stringent protocols that make communication between the government and the research agencies an ordeal only a few would be interested to engage in. The challenge, thus, is to ensure that research is not just published for academic interests. It must propel narratives on the ground, so that research can be of practical use too. Since government agencies have it in their mandate to address pressing issues, many of which are brought to light through research, it is pertinent that research agencies/researchers, and the government focus on the implementation of research. The first step towards this would be for the research agencies and the government to actively and simply communicate.

WHAT ARE GLOFs?
Glacial Lake Outburst Floods, or GLOFs, are floods caused form the breaching of glacial lakes. Glacial lakes can be formed either in front of glaciers, on their sides, within glacier ice, or on the glacier surface. Some of these lakes are dammed by glacier moraine and are called moraine-dammed lakes. Research suggests that climate change has resulted in an increased melting of glaciers, which has increased the volume of water in moraine-dammed glacial lakes, making them hazardous. The number of such lakes has also increased as a result of climate change. The increased amount of ice and snow from glaciers, along with heavy rains, can result in the breaching of such moraine-dammed lakes, as was witnessed in Kedarnath, where the 19,402.08 sq m Chorabari lake breached on June 17, 2013, resulting in a GLOF that killed thousands of people. GLOFs are a constant threat for the Himalayan populations across South Asia.

Kavita Upadhyay is a journalist from India. She has worked for two of India’s national newspapers – The Hindu and The Indian Express – and has mostly reported on the politics and environmental issues in parts of the Indian Himalayan Region. After completing her bachelor’s in Electronics and Communication Engineering, she did a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism. She recently graduated from the University of Oxford, where she pursued her MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management. kavita.dineshagnee@gmail.com @Upadhyay_Cavita


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3rd January 2021