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Millennium Post

Questions of rehabilitation

A massive disaster struck Uttarakhand on the night of 16 -17 June and so serious have been its ramifications that life in the state has come to a virtual stop. This has affected tourism  specifically, religious tourism, adventure tourism, trekking, about 20,000 small eateries that were doing brisk business along the yatra routes, higher education, a multitude of institutes where children came to study from the hills, or which fell en route the famous Doon School for higher education, as well as has sent real estate prices in a tizzy.

The tourist rush that the hill people wait for every year never had the chance to peak this year. Never has such devastation affected the livelihood of so many people and never has civil society been so keen to do something for an affected other. The destruction has impacted the very heart and soul of the state steeped in religion as the practice of pooja in the four holy shrines had to be stopped. Uttarakhand’s soul, which is hill-centric and deeply rural, stands badly mauled and the blame is squarely upon the pro-construction lobby. There is thus a tearing hurry to restart the pooja at all the holy shrines, and accordingly, engineers have been hired, so as to avert grave consequences  of the tragedy on the much awaited 2014 parliamentary elections.

The efficiency, the government feels, depends upon immediate results, but one must not forget that in Japan, as also in Bhuj, there was a lot of planning and interaction before kick-starting the massive reconstruction work. In addition, there is also the Uttarkashi model of development, which is our own state-centric.  Immediate help must be given, but to rehabilitate on a big scale needs a deliberate effort. Can the same model be followed that was used in the previous post-disaster development drives? This clearly needs some analysis. Since most of the development is engineered by people in league with the political class, only certain sections of the society is taken care, setting in motion a vicious cycle of more failures and destruction.

The government, which is normally associated with lack of transparency, is in the middle of the development cycle. People want it, thus they interact with the legislature. The current by-laws are obviated by the mafia of all types and most of the work is done by a plethora of organisations including some non-government agencies (NGOs) or corporate bodies as part of their  corporate social responsibility (CSR), of which the press hardly gets to know, such as the Coca Cola plant in Western Doon. Despite the voices of sanity and NGOs pointing out the anomalies, vested interest lobbies keep the malinformed projects going. All development relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation follow the same vicious circle.Thus, this simply reinforces failure.

There is a quantum of difference between relief to include reconstruction and rehabilitation. Whenever a natural calamity occurs, immediate relief for the first 48 hours is the purview of the district administration, which is always lacking and no heads ever roll. The next stage is the retrieval wherein, the central agencies like the NDMA which in this case was missing but was done by the Army and Air Force and in an audacious manner helicopters were used. Once that is done simultaneously the state government with central assistance enlarges the scope of relief to immediately start medical aid, restore electricity, repair roads, provide safe drinking water, ensure spread of disease is checked, restart schools and in this case ensure that prayer starts in all the four holy revered shrines at the earliest.

The relief and the reconstruction merge, but rehabilitation, which is about providing alternative livelihood opportunities, needs a fresh perspective. Is it because the current pro-builder, non-green methods annoyed Lord Shiva so much that he did his tandav dance and brought about destruction? It is here that the state and the center need to ensure that migration from the hills is checked and rehabilitation is done, so that alternative means of livelihood are provided. There is talk of relocation of 300 villages and formation of Uttarakhand Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority, but locals are not impressed as they say all government departments do not deliver, and there is no sense of urgency except to start the pooja either.

There is a need to get the bigger picture correct, Uttarakhand needs a de nouveau look at power management, which includes solar energy, types of roads should they be constructed all along the river valley, construction of rope ways, energising the Char Dham tourism and making it safe. The Char Dhams must have separate routes in and out, thus one of the two can be used during an emergency. There should be three means of communication at least - normal, backup  on radio with solar cells, as also, one on satellite.

There is a need for peoples’ involvement in the rebuilding process, they are the most affected. The locals are most unhappy on two accounts, firstly, they are not involved in the reconstruction process, and conventional wisdom of the ancients is being sacrificed at the altar of modern untried technology which got them into this jam. The second reason is that they felt deserted as all the initial focus was on safety of pilgrims, while they were neglected.

The bulk of the damage has been done by construction on the river basin which should be left free as was the case for centuries. Using dynamite for road construction has loosened the soil, thus BRO needs better methods for road construction, as is done in Europe. There is talk of tunneling but it must have a defence connotation, tunnels in border areas can also act as huge storage areas for military purposes and this should be done now. There are hardly any reported cases of such huge deaths from landslides in Switzerland or Japan. There is a need to study other methods of rehabilitation and not just think of the impending parliament elections. We need to construct homes and shelters for the people of the hills before winter sets in.

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