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The Winter of Discontent in Uttarakhand

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In John Steinbeck’s last novel 'The Winter of Discontent', I find at least three phrases which make my heart weep in the thick of the ghastly landslide and flood tragedy in Uttarakhand.

It is a tragedy that right now stares my country in the face. Steinbeck said “I shall revenge myself in the cruelest way you can imagine. I shall forget it.” We shall also forget this for we seem to have lost our faculty to remember! He said,” It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” We too are used to living in darkness perhaps because the darkness is not yet dark enough for us to see the stars. Finally, we agree with Steinbeck that “To be alive at all is to have scars” because we have these in plenty and we have to close our eyes if we do not wish to see the writing on the wall!

We have repeatedly failed the people of disaster-torn India, always leaving them high and dry in the times of disasters. It is not for the first time that floods and landslides have ravaged Uttarakhand. We may have forgotten the devastating episodes of 2010 and 2012, the great Alaknanda Tragedy of July 1970 and the great Malpa tragedy of 18 August 1998 but the victims of those tragedies are still bleeding. When the great Alaknanda tragedy struck, I know from personal knowledge that the blame for landslides and floods at once went to the cloudburst because that was the easiest thing for us to do. It is true that when the Alaknanda Tragedy struck in July 1970, the previous maxima of 200mm rainfall recorded at Joshimath on 28 September 1924 was crossed by an all time high rainfall of 212.8mm which occurred in 20 hours of time between 2pm of 20 July 1970 and 8am of 21 July 1970 . It is no less true however that we were not quite honest in throwing the entire blame to the cloud burst when the real blame should have gone to our utter failure of putting a full stop to plundering of environment, mindless urbanization, non-engineered constructions of roads, buildings, reservoirs and dams, and indiscriminate and often illegal mining and quarrying of natural resources. Rather than admitting our blunders and learning lessons in humility, is it not a shame that we keep attributing tragedy after tragedy to more or less the very same reason - cloud burst, which is no more than the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Let us never forget that excessive rainfalls, in this age of climate change , belong to normal life of fragile eco-systems across the globe and unless we mend our ways and manage our lands with the care they deserve , every tragedy will be an early warning for the next in line. 

History is replete with examples of our shedding crocodile tears and looking for photo-opportunities, in distribution of relief and paying lip sympathy to the devastated families without an ounce of repentance and penance. The pain in our hearts cannot be gauged when we face corpses that litter our lands. It will show up on our faces only when we lose ourselves in preparing for the worst of the tragedies in the normal times. How nice it would be if the Prime Minister of India were to announce Rs 1000 crore right now for the North East of India telling the Chief Ministers that they will be held accountable if the repeat of 1897 earthquake in Shillong ,were to end up in a catastrophe we perceive. By the way, as far as the seismologists are concerned, a repeat of the great Shillong earthquake is not a matter of IF, but WHEN? Unfortunately, after the dust of a disaster settles down, we simply move into the comfort zone and monotonically continue with our business as usual until the next disaster knocks our door.

When the National Disaster Management Authority was created in December 2005, by an Act of Parliament, we sold the dream of a paradigm shift to the culture of prevention from the relief-centric approach to disaster management. When the Planning Commission added a Chapter on Disaster Management in the Five Year Plan document, we expressed our commitment to integration of disaster management with development planning. When the devastating earthquake hit the state of Gujarat on the Republic day of 2001, we vowed to take a pro-active stance and sanctioned projects which were supposed to deliver earthquake and landslide hazard zonation maps to help architects, engineers and builders ensure safer constructions. If any such thing has happened, I am not aware. If yes, why do we not see a single validated and certified earthquake hazard or landslide hazard zonation map in use by architects, planners and disaster managers anywhere in this huge country? If no, who all are accountable? 

Why have we failed to deliver safety to our people in this case? The question may look difficult but its answer is simple. Our systems, institutions and disaster management apparatuses have failed us. India has created a number of institutions with best of the intentions but these institutions are merely solo players within their own close boundary walls and live within comfort zones without accountability. In managing disasters, we need orchestra play. Does anybody in the public even today know that Geological Survey of India is the officially designated nodal agency for landslides in the country, a move which was fiercely opposed by me at the highest level calling it as a historic blunder. This was not because geology is not critical in landslide studies or Geological Survey of India has not done great things but because a multi-disciplinary field of landslide disasters is not its cup of tea. If they are the responsible agency, we should have seen them facing the heat? 

Disaster management remains a budding subject on which everybody seems to behave like an expert until the disaster actually hits. In the stampede for the front-rows of visibility in the normal times, those responsible for disaster management often forget that by not doing their jobs well and in running the race merely for paltry gains, they are trampling over the lives and future of the very people who regard them as their beacon of hope in the times of crisis. The political masters usually step-in from nowhere to direct the relief operations from their high chairs, primed by the poorly-informed bureaucrats in attendances trying to save their own skins from the failure to prevent the disaster. The rapid-action-forces, army and agencies like the Border Roads Organization remain our only hope but how much they can do when Rome is already burning. 

Our people need to be made aware. If we fail to feed in right information to the right people at the right time, the astrologers will naturally fault the stars and the journalists will naturally report what they can pick from the heaps of confusion. Now when we know what ails our system, let’s join hands and unitedly fix it. In states like Uttarakhand, where disasters repeat frequently, highest order of expertise is required to advise the government on matters connected with formulation of policy, practice of engineering, selection of technology, capacity building and training. Like Uttarakhand, our country has many states which are affected by more than one type of disaster. Imagine if another disaster, natural or man-made were to strike our mother land at this moment when we stand fully exhausted.


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