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02 July, 2013

Lessons of a Himalayan tragedy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Two weeks after floods sowed death and destruction in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, studded with Hindu pilgrim centres, independent assessments suggest that official agencies are more adept at making disasters than at managing them.

The National Disaster Management Authority, established in December 2005 in the wake of the experience of the previous year’s Asian tsunami, is the official agency charged with the task of organising rescue and relief in times of calamity.

A high-powered body, of which the prime minister is the chairman, it has under it a National Disaster Response Force, which functions under the command and supervision of a director-general and superintendence, direction and control of the NDMA. Its vice-chairman, M Sashidhar Reddy, who supervises day-to-day management, is a political appointee. He is a Congress politician of Andhra Pradesh.

The NDMA’s unpreparedness to handle the tragedy resulted in the primary responsibility for rescue and relief operations falling on the armed forces, which have traditionally performed such tasks in times of adversity.

The NDMA has its excuses. It says it asked the Central government for Rs31.75 billion for the NDRF in the 12th five-year plan to train state government personnel and undertake research but was given only Rs12.50 billion. Also, as early as 2009 it recommended to Uttarakhand and other hilly states, located in seismic regions, certain preparatory steps but they failed to implement them.

However, lack of responsibility of the NDMA’s leadership appears to be a graver problem than scarcity of resources. It was only three years after the NDMA’s formation that its national executive committee was constituted. That committee has not met even once so far.

Bihar, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir and Orissa have experienced floods and earthquakes in the past eight years. The NDMA’s weakness did not attract much public attention at the time as the fairly good administrative machinery of the state concerned filled the breach.

Carved out of sprawling Uttar Pradesh in 2000, Uttarakhand is a small state with a low population density of 159 per square kilometre as against the national average of 324. As much as 93 per cent of its territory is mountainous and 65 per cent under forest cover. The terrain rendered the rescue efforts difficult but the defence services rose to the occasion.

The air force deployed about 85 helicopters to distribute food and to fly out the stranded to safety. Army personnel quickly repaired damaged roads and erected makeshift bridges to facilitate rescue through land routes. Naval experts flew in to save those trapped in water.

Defence officials took over effective control of rescue and relief operations, making up for the NDMA’s failure. They worked according to a plan which accorded high priority to the sick and the aged in the rescue effort. However, they came under pressure to give special consideration to VIP pilgrims with access to the powers that be.

The Central machinery gave priority to rescue of pilgrims from other states trapped in the disaster area. Several states sent their own officers to Dehra Dun, capital of Uttarakhand, and they undertook separate operations, often using private helicopters, to take their own people home. In the process, the largely poor inhabitants of Uttarakhand, whose lives were wrecked, did not receive due attention for days together. 

Clearly there are many lessons to be learnt from this tragedy, the exact toll of which is still not known. Officials are now squabbling over why there was failure to act on the June 14 forecast of heavy downpour.

The most important lesson to be learnt relates not to management of disaster but to making of disaster. The floods were caused by cloudbursts, which usually occur when rain-bearing clouds rolling up barren hills suddenly collapse. Large-scale denudation of forests has rendered them a regular feature in all mountainous areas of the country. Extensive construction activity has disturbed the stability of fragile areas.

The Ganga and the Jamuna, the two major rivers that have sustained life in the vast plains of India, originate in Uttarakhand. Already there are 170 dams in the small portions of these rivers and in their tributaries that run through the state, and 680 more are said to be in various stages of planning or implementation. Official data indicates the state has lost 5,000 hectares of prime forest in the last 10 years.

Days before the tragedy struck, Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna had vehemently opposed the application of green norms to the state. There is, as yet, nothing to indicate that he and his patrons in Delhi, committed to development-at-any-cost, have learnt the right lesson. Unless they realise the virtue of development as a sustainable activity, such calamities may continue to exact a heavy price. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 2, 2013.

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