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Inadequate relief in the hills

Inadequate relief in the hills
Last week a case of landslide leading to deaths in northeast was reported from Sikkim. However, it’s the mountainous state of Uttarakhand which has suffered most from one calamity after another. Natural disasters have been a part of life in this central Himalayan state for long. With development in technology, it was expected that the approach of the state government towards natural calamities would improve. Such, however, is not the case in Uttarakhand. Despite a former judge, Vijay Bahuguna becoming chief minister, the government has failed to judge its priorities any better.

The natural disasters which killed more than 80 people in Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag districts within a span of two months have exposed the total lack of governmental preparedness in dealing with such situations. These disasters have also exposed a more fundamental problem of the government attitude, which continues to focus on providing relief and compensation to victims after disasters instead of taking effective steps to at least mitigate if not prevent devastation caused by landslides and floods.

The cloudburst and resulting flash flood and landslides in Uttarkashi during the first week of August claimed the lives of at least 28 people. The relief measures taken by the state government for the disaster victims in Uttarkashi appeared to be an example of how not to conduct relief operations with stale buns being distributed in relief camps and many villages remaining out of the reach of any relief and rescue measures for more than a fortnight after the calamity.

That no action was taken against officials responsible for distributing mouldy food confirmed the indifferent approach of the state government. Had the government learnt lessons from its ill-managed operations in Uttarkashi, it would have been better prepared to provide relief to the victims of calamity in the Ukhimath area of Rudraprayag district.

Floods and landslides caused by the cloudburst in the middle of night on 14 September has so far claimed 51 lives with more than a dozen persons still missing. Apart from the loss of lives, hundreds of homes have been destroyed in at least five villages in Ukhimath.

Since the cloudburst and resulting calamities in Uttarkashi on 3 August, the state government has taken two noticeable steps – increasing the compensation amount for victims and disseminating the weather forecast report for the Char Dham Yatra route to the district administration. However, both these moves have provided little comfort to the victims who have lost their family members, cattle, homes and farms to natural calamities.

Sadly Chief Minister Bahuguna believes that paying more money to victims and getting the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to tour the disaster-affected areas is an effective tool to tackle calamity, little realising such measures provide meagre consolation and offer no solutions.

Bahuguna had the chance to bring a fresh approach in governance but he failed to do so as he simply followed the approach of successive state governments with some numerical alterations. It is notable that in a seismically sensitive state prone to natural calamities, which boasts of a disaster management ministry since its creation, not a single political party has ever made disaster management a major issue in election campaign.

This despite the fact that the Indian Space Research Organisation and other leading institutions including IIT, National Institute of Hydrology, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and others conducted a study in Uttarakhand and demarcated landslide prone areas in the state. The WIHG has repeatedly told the state government that new constructions in Uttarkashi were dangerous as they were built without considering factors like land gradient, flow of the river, soil composition and other important aspects. It is these very constructions which were destroyed in the flash flood in Uttarkashi in August.

After every incident of natural disaster in the state it is the army and ITBP along with local volunteers who undertake the rescue and relief measures in the initial and most crucial phase. During this phase the government machinery has always been found wanting in delivery as they are simply unable to function amidst blocked roads and inclement weather. The administration has always failed to execute the much wowed contingency arrangements, which bureaucrats and politicians like to discuss in their review meetings.

Natural disasters in Uttarakhand don’t affect the state residents alone, but also hit the lakhs of pilgrims arriving here each year for the Char Dham Yatra. Prior to the start of the Yatra it is customary for bureaucrats to hold review meetings and direct officials to ensure that alternative routes are kept open in case the main roads are blocked by landslides. However, these plans remain on paper as evidenced from the fact that even this year thousands of pilgrims were stranded when the routes to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath were blocked due to the landslides.

The solution to this problem lies in the wealth of reliable scientific information provided by renowned institutions based in Uttarakhand like the WIHG, Geological Survey of India, Forest Research Institute and others. The government should act on their reports.

The information provided by these institutions clearly state the problem, factors causing it, the impact and solution. The state has the resources to provide solutions. However, it remains to be seen whether the chief minister accords top priority to facilitating mitigation of people’s sufferings by preparing effective machinery to combat natural disasters or it decides to remain complacent and wait for the monsoon season to get over.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post.
Sidharth Mishra

Sidharth Mishra

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