Unfortunately the year 2013 saw a great tragedy in the form of floods and landslides in Himalayan regions of North India. The greater cause of grief was not natural calamity but the government blunders which made this ‘not so big’ calamity to the national disaster where thousands of people were reported dead. Initially it seemed to me a natural calamity but upon further analysis I found this was not at all natural but completely man-made. It is hard to tell that exactly how many less people would have died if proper planning would have been there but one thing can be certainly told that the thousands of lives could have been saved and property worth thousands of crores could have been preserved along with the natural serenity and religious sanctity could have been maintained.
When I started looking about the situation, my first topic of analysis was the causes of this disaster. And upon exploring various different information sources, I found several causes. It can be now commonly seen in newspapers where the government policies are held responsible for making this a disaster. The rate at which these incidents have increased is alarming. Government’s knowingly neglect of rapid deforestation, wrong ways of construction work specially hotels, flouting of rules by hydro power projects and mining projects are main reasons behind frequent floods and landslides. In seven years since 2005, Uttarkashi had three major flash floods. In 27 years before 2005, it had one — in 1978. Government’s neglect towards wrong ways of blasting rocks in anti-environmental fashion made significant natural alterations in nature.
The hydel projects have been undertaken without assessing their impact on environment. Asiganga hydro-power project played a key role in the Uttarkashi disaster in 2011-12. At the project site of Asiganga, blasts are being carried our regularly to make the dam which results in debris falling into the river. The debris raises the water level in the river which leads to flash floods when it rains heavily. Hydel projects require constant blasting of hills to build dams and tunnels, disturbing the rock structure, which starts rolling down once the top soil is uprooted by rains. The muck fills the rivers and flows down with the water, intensifying the river’s rage. Huge diversion of forest cover for these dams also reduces the capability of the local ecology to retain rainwater. And when bumper-to-bumper dams are built, the impact multiplies manifold.ref
A large number of trees are also cut for these projects, causing soil erosion and leading to massive landslides. More than 220 power and mining projects are running in 14 river valleys in Uttarakhand. Several rivers are being diverted through tunnels for these projects leading to major disasters in the state.ref
Adding to the misery of the Eco-system, seven new dams were built, work started on another nine and 19 more were proposed in the biggest district of the young state. More than 100 new roads were built in an unscientific manner. That was just the tip of the iceberg. As many as 31 more dams were added in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand and rampant mining of rivers was allowed.ref
“When you change the course of a river by mining, cut trees indiscriminately and build roads in a haphazard manner, such a calamity is bound to take place,” said PP Dayani, director of the Almora-based GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development. Dayani said the pivotal issue was that India did not have any national policy to preserve and conserve the bio-diversity-rich mountain areas and management during natural calamities.
The environmentalists strongly condemned government’s inaction towards mushrooming of buildings, hotels and houses along the banks of the river, construction of dams, blocking of river’s natural flow. Due to these in August 2012, buildings were washed away by Uttarkashi flash floods and later, a cloudburst in Rudraprayag had claimed 69 lives. The Central government’s non seriousness about keeping its assurance for stopping the work on hydro electric projects on Alaknanda and Mandakini, the two main tributaries of the Ganga which meets at Rudraprayag resulted in this disaster, which is the epicenter of the devastation. Two 20km tunnels are being built to divert these rivers for hydel projects and constant blasting of the river banks has affected the local ecology. The green cover on the hills that checks and absorbs the flow of water has been eroded in the name of hydel energy.ref
“A lesson to be learn for policymakers from the biggest human tragedy in Garhwal’s history since the 1805 earthquake is to not to disturb nature. “Nature has capacity to recover and rejuvenate,” said Ravi Chopra, director of the Dehradun-based People Science Institute and IIT-Bombay alumnus.
“The natural flow of water in Kedarnath was blocked by huge construction in recent years,” said an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) official. ISRO monitors hydrological flow of major river basins in India. The absence of environmental regulations in various construction activities like dams, buildings etc. have caused this huge devastation.
“There is no local planning and local authorities are not in control. The houses built on river banks are falling like a pack of cards. The floods are completely man-made, avoidable and criminal,” said Sunita Narian, director general of Delhi based advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
“These projects have been allowed without cumulative environment impact assessment on the region. With these projects come hotels, residential and commercial buildings, and roads. This piecemeal approach has contributed to the devastation,” said Himashu Thakkar of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.
A CSE analysis showed that vehicle population in the state almost tripled between 2005-06 and 2012-13. Cars, jeeps and taxis, the most preferred means of transport for tourists landing in the state, increased the most. “Most of these places have much more tourist inflow than the area’s carrying capacity,” said Bharat Jhunjhunwala, an environmental activist and a resident of Rudraprayag. ISRO satellite images show how Sangla valley, a key tourist attraction, had changed in the last few years. The Uttarakhand government’s own data shows a five-time increase in vehicle registration in the state with 70% of them devoted to passenger ferrying services even though the condition of last mile connectivity roads remains in tatters.ref
“What used to be an open green area (in Sangla) till a few years ago is now a concrete jungle,” the ISRO official said. To top it, the 1,000 MW Karchham hydel project has been commissioned by making the Sutlej disappear for over 100 meters.
Vinod Tare, senior faculty at IIT Kanpur and an expert on the Himalayan ecosystem, says when trees are removed, rocks blasted and unscientific anthropogenic pressure is exerted, nature plays havoc.ref
India accounts for one fifth of the deaths caused due to flooding across the world. Twenty-four out of the 35 States and Union Territories are vulnerable to disasters and over 5 percent of our landmass is vulnerable to floods. Annually, an average of about 18.6 million hectares of land area and 3.7 million hectares crop area are affected by flooding. The report of the 12th Five-Year Plan working group on ‘Flood Management and Region Specific Issues’, shows Uttarakhand’s flood vulnerabilities. Until March 2011, it included the coverage of 2000 hectares, compared to 18000 hectares in Himachal Pradesh. The state has created 9 km of embankment, a fraction of the 159.16 km completed in Himachal Pradesh; it has no drainage channels, whereas Himachal has constructed 11 km While 82 Himachal villages were protected through the raising of the ground level, none of the villages in Uttarakhand received such protection.ref
In 1976, the Government of India set up the National Flood Commission (Rashtriya Barh Ayog) “to evolve a coordinated, integrated and scientific approach to the flood control problems in the country and to draw out a national plan fixing priorities for implementation in the future.” Though the RBA report was submitted in 1980 and accepted by Government, not much progress seems to have been made in the implementation of its recommendations.ref
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the supreme disaster management agency in the country set up through the Disaster Management Act of 2005, published guidelines for Management of Floods in 2008. In its thorough assessment of measures required in the short and long term, it highlighted the ‘Immediate’ requirement for (i) identification of flood prone villages, blocks, tehsils and districts on national, state and district level maps, (ii) amendment of building bylaws to make future buildings in flood prone areas flood-safe, and (iii) “notification of regulation for prohibiting reclamation of wetlands and natural depressions”. The immediacy of its recommendations has been consigned to the scrapheap, although they form the bedrock of most recommendations about disaster mitigation.ref1 ref2.
The central government was not oblivious to the impending danger either. A Planning Commission report on tourism for the 12th five year plan had a section on religious tourism, which addressed many of these issues. It said that the “challenges which need to be addressed” included better last mile connectivity, proper hotels and solid waste management at religious sites, most of which are close to water bodies.ref
As if these causes were not enough so government left no stone unturned to create mess of the situation. The lack of coordination between the India Meteorological Department(IMD) and Uttarakhand Government led to the tragedy of mammoth proportions.ref
A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released as recently as on April 23 this year says that the State Disaster Management Authority, which was formed in October 2007, has never met till date. Nor has it made any “rules, regulations, policies or guidelines”, a preliminary step for the authority to have any functional meaning.ref
“The state authorities were virtually non-functional,” the report says, referring to the disaster management system, which by definition and law, includes both preparedness as well as response to disasters. “The state disaster management plan was under preparation and actionable programs were not prepared for various disasters,” the report says.
CAG report says that no plan was prepared for any early warnings. “The communication system was inadequate,” As a matter of fact, the central government released no funds for the state’s disaster management in 2011-12 because there was no accounting of previous funds, the report said.
The state disaster management authority didn’t even have basic personnel in place. At the district level 44% posts in the District Emergency Operations Cells were lying vacant, thus paralyzing emergency response efforts. There were no master trainers to train staff at the district, block and village level for prevention and mitigation of disasters. No medical personnel were trained in hospital preparedness.ref
The CAG report highlighted that the Geological Survey of India had identified 101 of the 233 Uttarakhand villages affected by the disaster of of 2008 as vulnerable. But the state did not make any arrangement for relocation of these villages in the past five years. CAG also noted irregularities in the management of the state disaster response fund.ref
What’s shocking is that this colossal apathy was despite the fact that 653 persons lost their lives between 2007-8 and 2011-12 in various natural disasters and other hazards. Of these 55% were lost in landslides and heavy rains. There were 27 major landslides in the state in this period. In 2012 alone, 176 people lost their lives in disasters.
The state government did not prepare the required Annual Report of Natural Calamity and neither did it submit utilization certificates showing how the funds were spent. CAG said that although the Geological Survey of India had identified 101 villages as ‘vulnerable’ in June 2008, the state government did not take any measures for their rehabilitation till date. ref
The government is squarely blamed for mishandling the rescue operations. While Indian home ministry announced choppers for rescue operation but when the choppers reached the site, they were all found to be missing fuel without which they were of no use. Due to this the rescue operations were suspended on Thursday in the rain-ravaged state of Himachal pradesh. Also two Air Force choppers could not operate due to refueling problems. “There aren’t enough choppers and the ones that have been sent cannot fly because there is no fuel. There is no provision for fuel,” Chief Minister Singh said.ref
In-spite of this huge devastation, the Center is yet to appoint head of the specialized 10,000-personnel strong NDRF(National Disaster Response Force), the mainstay for disaster mitigation and rescue operations in the country. Keeping the organization without a full-time head for such a long time speaks about the importance that is given to such a crucial organization.ref
Local people who were directly affected knew what the image the government was projecting about the relief work and what actually ground reality was. The villagers hit by floods and landslips raised anti-government slogans as Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna and Agriculture Minister Harak Singh Rawat landed at the Rudraprayag and also at Rahul Gandhi as they went there to show their fake sympathy. The people angered because authorities had failed in disaster mitigation efforts. Similar scenes of anger were witnessed in Uttarkashi where people could be seen waiting in queue for hours to get a bucket of potable water blaming authorities who didn’t take any action of building structures to prevent water from entering in spite of receiving funds. Villagers angry about the damage caused by extensive flooding and the lack of relief have reportedly blocked the road linking Barkot and Yamunotri.ref1 ref2
Even the supreme court of India was also skeptic about the rescue operations done by government and had demanded a detailed report on the government’s efforts.ref
The CM of Himachal Pradesh coldly said he was ready to help but on the contrary he was busy in elections rally.
Before jumping to the conclusion, I want to point out some steps that if taken can avoid these types of situations in future. Given that climate behavior and flooding patterns and extents are changing every year, there are three key imperatives. The first is the accelerated use and wider application of Geospatial mapping technology. The capacity of the National Remote Sensing Center (NRSC) at the Indian Space Research Organization and the work of its Disaster Management Support Program and Decision Support Center must be linked with all planning efforts in the country.ref
The enhancement of the Bhuvan platform – our own version of Google Earth – and the preparation of Flood Hazard Atlases for all vulnerable states should be urgently completed. We need to rapidly expand the use of the Geo-spatial National Urban Information System as a mandatory basis for planning.ref
The proper and environmentally favorable implementation of Indian Rivers Inter-link has the potential not only to relief floods and drought but also to provide electricity etc. ref1 ref2 But the environment aspect should be stressed most as thus project can cause more harm than good if implemented improperly. Also the supreme court also reprimanded central government for delay in project of ‘national importance’.
In the context of disaster management, the distinction between rural and urban serves little purpose. Since the objective is to save life and property, the hazards linked with densely populated areas, which are chronically flood-affected, need to be addressed.ref
Strong actions of government in strongly implementing environment preservation policies and punishing those who are not following those rules without getting stuck in red-tapism.
MS Reddy, vice-chairman of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) suggested that religious tourism in Uttarakhand needs to be regulated the way Amarnath Yatra in Jammu and Kashmir is done with a cohesive disaster mitigation plan.
Fully corruption free master-plan based development of towns and cities, effective drainage and water evacuation systems, construction of dams with strong emphasis on preservation on environment and ecology and without disturbing the nature.
Strict regulation of land use – critically, the avoidance of occupancy for agriculture and human settlement in river beds, drains and canals and prevention of siltation of river channels, mostly due to dumping of solid waste.ref
Mapping of all disaster-prone areas in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand and linking them with an alarm system for bad weather should be done, like in some parts of Himachal Pradesh.ref
Public open spaces, which are presently the most abused due to encroachment and haphazard usage, will be the only safe areas during disaster, as buildings become death traps during disasters.ref
Proper and scientific construction of roads linking remote parts of the state to the mainstream should be undertaken, considering that washing away of roads hampered rescue work this time.ref
With these being happened I can just see what I think is going to happen if the situation remains same. The Tehri Dam is the highest dam in India and one of the tallest in the world. The Tehri dam project has raised concerns about the consequences of locating a dam in the fragile ecosystem and dam’s geological stability as it is located in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a major geologic fault zone.In case the earthquakes with a magnitude of 8.5 or above hit this region then it will result in drowning of numerous towns downstream, whose populations total near half a million. And considering the government’s corrupt ridden inspection committees and corrupt administration, this is going to happen only factor being the time when such a earthquake hits as it is not uncommon for such a fragile area to have such kind of earthquake given the area has witnessed earthquakes in past whose magnitude was around 6.5 though.
This is not a new phenomenon in India that these kinds of things happen frequently sometimes in the form of natural calamity and sometimes in the name of riots, non-action against terrorism etc. It is indeed funny and a natural insult to our intelligence that inspite of number of people knowing it still they are unable to do anything. Though I believe that such types of incidents are bound to happen in countries where government is decided by stupid illiterate people. As this is not a article for such a matter so I’ve written a separate article to analyze the same here.
There is no doubt that people in political parties would say that these incidents are unavoidable then the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change report on ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ reminds us that from 1970 to 2008, over 95 percent of the deaths due to natural disasters occurred in developing countries which clearly signifies that such disasters are not related to geographic location but the environment preservation.ref
It is great cause of grief that in this country there is no value of life at all. Similar incidents have happened in past like Bhopal gas tragedy incidents where thousands of people were affected because of in-action of government agencies due to corruption but still people are still same. Only those people raise voices that are affected from these incidents. But those who are not yet affected need not have a sigh of relief as inefficiency of government is surely going to affect you in future either in form of lack of law and order or in form of inflation or lack of medical facilities or terrorism etc. Until all the people unitedly don’t voice till then these problems will not go. Somehow fortunately or unfortunately I understand politician’s tactics very well along with several other intelligent people of society. At the time of crisis they were busy saying not to politicize the issue at the time of disaster and now after the situation is over and the topic being not a hot topic, the government simply ignores these issues contrary of taking steps to avoid these situations in future. I am not at all surprised at these moves as these were understandable from the very first day and also from the numerous such incidents happened in the past. The way SG and RG had photo-op of flagging of trucks loaded with food at the time of national disaster is completely hilarious which not only proves their insecurity of people’s lost trust and also to think as if people are so fool to go for these cheap tricks. And not only this, those trucks were not even monitored after that photo-op thus strengthening the previous argument ref.
With proactive emergency services 1000s of lives would have been saved. India never learns, life is just too cheap. If this is not homicide then what is? Chief minister and the bureaucracy has got to be accountable for this, and any sensible government will follow up with not just a preventive action plan but criminal charges against the officials.
Sometimes I think if the situation is because people deserve it but I think that is completely true though it is still true to some extent. In truth it is the duty of intelligent people of society to change the situation because it is not the fact that the countries which are developed are intellectually better but because the administration and system is better in those countries.
The intelligent people can’t just sit at the hope of foolish people’s votes and their ignorance. If they think that the system doesn’t work then they should throw away the present system and make a new system where society is free from manipulations and mockery. It is also said that such person is foolish who waits for roof to fall and still sleeping under it. The wise person would throw the roof and build a new one in-stead of taking shelter under such a roof. The same is the today’s situation and I think you can deduce what type of above two persons is you.
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The Open Floodgates
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Navjot Singh Sidhu raising same concerns in the past