Millennium Post

Uttarakhand battles incompetence

On the morning of last Monday, the newspapers in Dehradun were full of reports of chief minister Vijay Bahuguna having sacked the state information team – lock, stock and barrel. Such harsh step came from the chief minister as the performance of his government, in first preventing the catastrophe which hit the state on 16 June 2013 and later its ineptness in carrying out a focused relief and rescue operation got adversely reported in the newspapers and television.

The chief minister’s office justifying the transfer of officials held that during the ‘current calamity, the information department neither paid attention to media reports nor made effort to counter the reports.’ The question which should be put to the chief minister is whether it was possible for the information officials to counter the media which was taking the initiative of reaching out to the people and report their misery in detail.

But for the initiative of the media, the misery of Uttarakhand and the number of dead would have never been known. The Bahuguna government action betrays frustration of having been exposed repeatedly at their inability to provide governance in the disaster hit areas. The lackadaisical attitude of the government has been further exposed with the government deciding to ‘relax after the pressure of evacuating the pilgrims’ from all over the country has gotten over. The contrast in the operations carried out side-by-side by the military and civil administration was most evident in the central army commander Lieutenant General Anil Chait personally leading a group of pilgrims taking them to a safe place and whereas former union home secretary VK Duggal, who is coordinating rescue move on behalf of the Centre, moving with escort vehicle.

This contrast shows that while those who performed and delivered won the accolades, affection, confidence and following of the people whereas pretentious non-performers, out of fear of people’s anger are moving with armed escorts. Now that the military has pulled out, can the Congress leave people of Uttarakhand at the mercy of an utterly incapable civil administration headed by its leader Vijay Bahuguna. To overcome his sense of insecurity, Bahuguna is shuffling officials like a pack of cards on a daily basis. A few days back when the media had pointed out that the relief material could rot in absence of proper provisions of warehousing, Bahuguna dismissed it as speculation. When media reported rotten food grains being supplied at Uttarkashi, Bahuguna replaced the District Magistrate.

Whereas enquiries revealed that disaster hit areas were being flooded with relief material without a proper requisition and inventory. Material management is not a very new technique of governance but somehow the Uttarakhand secretariat seems oblivious about it. Instead of going hammer and tongs against the under-staffed district staff, many died in the catastrophe, the chief minister should prepare a macro-level plan for relief and supplement efforts of local officials. Bahuguna’s fidgetiness at having not delivered is also visible in the chief minister’s camp encouraging faction feud targeting his known rival, central minister Harish Rawat. Bahuguna crony Kunwar Pranav Singh Champion, an MLA, went to town claiming that Rawat did not contribute sufficiently towards relief and rescue operations. Certainly the chief minister would do well not to become a political schizophrenic and focus on providing relief and sustenance to the people.

But the larger question is – does Bahuguna have the capacity of discharging the onerous responsibility of rebuilding the state? The general indicators are in the negative. His administration so far, even before natural calamity hit the state, has been disastrous. In the last one year and some months in the office, he has changed his chief secretary twice. This clearly shows that he doesn’t have a trusted team of officials with him to take up the rebuilding of the state. Secondly he runs a politically unstable government dependent on allies and independents. During the time that he has been in the office, Bahuguna has shown little political acumen or statesmanship to acquire stature of a state-level leader. The defeat of his son Saket Bahuguna from Tehri Lok Sabha seat in the by-elections shows the lack of clout which Bahuguna suffers from.

Moreover in the past one-and-quarter of the year that he has been in the office, Bahuguna has acquired the image of being pro-builder community, which is largely being held responsible for the current catastrophe. His anti-environment stand has earned him distrust of people, who have been at the helm of save forest and environment movements like the Chipko Andolan.

Thus reconstruction under the leadership of a man who is not trusted by people would be most unfortunate situation. The frequent presence of senior Congress leaders like Ambika Soni and others in Dehradun is only adding to the impression of the chief minister being Centre’s prop in
the unfortunate state. Instead of the chief secretary it’s the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) member V K Duggal, moving around with escort in luxury cars and beacon lights, who is the more visible face of the administration in the state. But unfortunately he is the face with whom the people do not connect.

Rebuilding the image of the state government will be a challenge for the new team in the information department. Since the media has extensively covered natural calamity of 16-17 June and also reported the failure of government machinery to handle the situation, the State may face shortage of financial resources on account of fall in the tourist foot falls. Tourism, which sustains state’s economy, is facing cancellations of year-long bookings. Faced with such challenges, the state would least need a government which is incompetent.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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