Millennium Post

Dispatches from mayhem central

Few years ago I had the opportunity to work very closely with the Uttarakhand government as the then chief operating officer for the 108 government emergency services for health, police and fire.

When disaster struck the state in 2010, leaving behind a trail of massive destruction, 108 got involved with the rescue operations, but more on that later. Torrential rains, floods, landslides and cloudburst all combined in varying degrees and brought forth wide spread death and damages.  

The districts of Almora, Nainital and Haridwar bore the brunt of the disaster. The Ganga flowed over the danger mark in Rishikesh and Haridwar. It was widely being stated that the town of Haridwar could have swept away if rains would have not stopped immediately. Water levels rose alarmingly in Tehri Dam.  

Eighteen children lost their lives when the roof of the Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Village Sumgarh in the Kapkot block of Bageshwar district caved in. More than 30 children were trapped under the rubble of the school building.

I was called during the peak of the disaster and asked if 108 could be declared the state-wide emergency number.  It was also requested that we coordinate with all DMs in the 13 districts of the state by assigning one individual each from our team to their local units.

Coordination and communication with stranded yatris during the Char Dham Yatra was the key task that was assigned to our organisation.

We gladly did what we could within our limited means but it never ceased to amaze me that the government had no disaster management infrastructure of its own. I also noticed that there was a lot of running around within the government but with very limited results. There was obviously lots of panic and even more fire- fighting. The poorly manned, inefficient and almost defunct Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre (DMMC), the nodal agency for disaster management in the state, failed to contribute with the rescue operations.

To be fair, DMMC could not be blamed since they operated on negligible budgets and had limited autonomy. Other than being proactive in calling the Army, there was not much that the government could do in the realm of disaster management.

Tragedies have since then occurred almost every year in Uttarakhand with clearly no lessons learnt from the earlier disasters.  Last year in 2013 was the worst in living memory. And now we have the tragic J&K flash floods and landslides that have displaced thousands of people and left several hundred dead and missing.

Next year could be somewhere else in the mountains. Though there are many challenges and priorities facing the entire Himalayan region of the three North Indian states of J&K, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the eight northeastern states, yet disaster management for the mountain regions should get utmost priority in the Himalayan scheme of things.

Environmentalists have attributed the disaster of 2013 in Uttarakhand and this year’s deluge in J&K to similar causes such as massive urbanisation, rampant loss of forest cover and illegal constructions.

Media reports are now appearing which have indicated that weather warnings were also ignored in J&K. This is similar to the callous attitude displayed last year during the Uttarakhand tragedy by its politicians and government authorities.

Climatic changes and erratic rainfalls are here to stay. It is imperative that governments and communities do their best to prepare themselves for all future calamities. It is also vital to learn, and get inspired, from positive examples like those of Cyclone Phailin in Odisha in October 2013 where the government was well prepared and managed to significantly minimize the damage to both lives and property.

Better to be safe than sorry will then be a good message to carry from the unfolding J&K tragedy of 2014. I earnestly hope that central and state governments along with the various stakeholder groups take these recurring tragedies seriously. They need to immediately start building stronger disaster management systems, processes and infrastructure for the entire Himalayan region. Let us not wait for the monsoon of 2015 to wake us from our slumber.

The author is former chief operating officer of Uttarakhand govt 108 emergency services
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