Uttarakhand

State of paralysis

Print edition : July 26, 2013

The scene of devastation near the Kedarnath temple. Photo: PTI

Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel rescue stranded devotees from the Hemkunt Sahib Gurudwara in Chamoli district on June 17. Photo: AP

Silt, which is several feet deep, inside a building. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

A vehicle buried under silt. Photo: Purnima S. Tripathi

Residents of Banswara cross a damaged bridge over the Mandakini river. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Indian Air Force helicopters in Gauchar on June 25. Rescue and relief operations would have been impossible without the logistical support of the defence forces. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Compounding the fury of nature in Uttarakhand was the total inability of the state machinery to comprehend or deal with the disaster. The State, located in a high-seismic-activity zone, has no disaster mitigation plan or infrastructure.

“MY mind has stopped working. My entire life’s savings are gone. Nothing is left of my house. I don’t know what I should do now,” says Premdutt Raturi, a Sashastra Suraksha Bal jawan, his tough exterior cracking as he looks at his two-storey house lying under the silt and muck dumped by the Alaknanda river in one of the worst disasters to strike Uttarakhand. The entire ground floor of Raturi’s house is destroyed. The members of his family barely saved their lives by rushing to the roof with whatever they could salvage as flood waters roared into the house.

Raturi’s is just one among the 200-odd families who have lost everything in the Bhaktiana-Shaktivihar locality of Srinagar as the Alaknanda wreaked havoc on the evening of June 16. The gushing water brought so much silt with it that it simply destroyed everything on its way. Once the water receded, the silt just settled, burying everything underneath. There is no way anything can be salvaged.

The extent of the damage is mind-numbing. Single-storey houses simply disappeared. Double-storey houses are on the verge of crumbling as the deposit is weakening the foundation. A storehouse containing 2,500 packets of ration is now packed with mud. The polytechnic institute and the industrial training institute are destroyed. Though people managed to flee to safety, animals got trapped under the silt and the area now stinks, with rotting bodies and tonnes of rotting foodgrain. Drinking water has got contaminated; there is no electricity; the fear of epidemic looms large; and there is no government in sight. Eleven days after the tragedy, the first excavators made their appearance, and road-clearing work began. In residential areas, not even an attempt is being made to clear anything. “There is nobody to think of us; no government official has bothered to come,” says Girish Jagmola, a restaurant owner who has lost everything.

This correspondent was in the area for three hours and did not spot any government agency at work. The affected people have survived on the largesse of good Samaritans like Sohan Singh, who opened their hotels to anyone in need, and religious organisations like the Bharat Jagriti Sansthan, which are distributing food to the affected. The administration is totally at a loss and is in a state of inaction. “Nothing can be restored. It is impossible to bring it back to normal; relocation is the only option,” says Srinagar Sub-divisional Magistrate Raza Abbas, totally flabbergasted by the enormity of the disaster. What makes it worse is that the riverbed has gone up by five to six feet, making the entire area flood-prone and extremely risky to live in.

In neighbouring Rudraprayag district, which bore the brunt of the river Mandakini’s fury, and where the shrine of Kedarnath is located, the situation is even worse. Thousands have lost their lives as entire villages have been wiped out. Entire families have perished and roads and bridges have disappeared.

“This government is not for us. It cares a damn whether we live or die,” says Girish Kumar Bagwadi, a resident of Deoli-Brahmgram village who runs a general merchant shop in Rudraprayag town. His 25-year-old son, Prasanna Bagwadi, used to sell sundry general and puja items on the premises of the Kedarnath temple. He has been missing since the tragedy struck on June 16. Girish Kumar has gone delirious with grief. More than 56 people from his village, mostly youngsters, who used to earn their living in Kedarnath dham, have lost their lives, and even 13 days after the tragedy, nobody from the government had come to enquire about them.

“There has been no electricity in the area for the last 15 days. There is no drinking water and not enough food. There are no roads either, so one cannot go out to buy essential items from other places and there is nobody to take care of us. Kerosene, which was supposed to be distributed free, is selling at Rs. 60 a litre. How can those who have lost everything pay for it? If it was not for the military, we would have all died long ago. This government is not bothered about us,” he says.

Indeed, five kilometres from Rudraprayag town, the road leading to Kedarnath dham has disappeared, cutting off hundreds of villages lying beyond. The 14-km track from Gaurikund to Kedarnath dham (Gaurikund is the last point up to which a motorable road exists), has simply vanished and the stranded villagers have no one to help them. After about 13 days, the Border Roads Organisation’s (BRO) engineering force, the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF), got into action, but it will take days, perhaps months, for connectivity to be restored. It is a daunting task on these treacherous slopes, which has been rendered even more risky by landslides.

“Restoring connectivity is the biggest challenge for us today. More than 100 villages have been totally cut off and we have not been able to reach relief to those stranded people,” says Rudraprayag District Collector Dilip Javalkar. He admits that the local people have been neglected because the government’s first priority was to rescue pilgrims and tourists from other States. Besides, with huge areas becoming inaccessible, it was a herculean task to reach the affected villages.

“This forces us to think whether it is time to regulate the number of pilgrims, because had there been fewer people, fewer casualties would have happened. I am going to write to the government suggesting this,” he says. He admits that the State government was hardly equipped to deal with a calamity of this magnitude. “Uttarakhand falls in an extremely sensitive seismic zone, so we have to be even more careful, but unfortunately our disaster management expertise is extremely inadequate. We certainly need to have better disaster preparedness,” he says.

The State has no disaster management infrastructure. Until the Army and the Indian Air Force stepped in two days later, there was not even a semblance of rescue or relief operations. In fact, even three days after the calamity, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna was claiming that it was one of those routine landslide incidents. It was only after the electronic media started relaying pictures that the enormity of the situation dawned on the authorities.

Former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who claims he was among the first to reach the affected area on June 16, says he was shocked to see the devastation and contacted the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary on June 17. But, he says, they did not respond. He travelled to other areas over the next two days and on seeing the total collapse of administration, contacted the Prime Minister on June 20 to apprise him of the gravity of the situation. It was only then that the Prime Minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi visited the affected areas and the local administration became active.

It is true that natural calamities cannot be foreseen or prevented totally. What can mitigate the situation is efficient post-disaster management, and it was here that the State government failed miserably. For a State like Uttarakhand where massive landslides have been an annual feature, the government should have an agency ready to spring into action the moment there is any such incident, especially during the peak tourist season. The State, in fact, has none. The State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), constituted in 2007 and headed by the Chief Minister, has not even prepared the mandatory disaster management plan yet. The executive committee of this body, which is supposed to advise the SDMA, and which came into being in 2008, has not met even once.

These shocking details have been exposed in the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s report, which had warned the government two months ago. In its report submitted to Parliament on April 23, the CAG said that Uttarakhand, despite having a history of natural disasters, had not even mapped the frequency and intensity of the various types of disasters it had suffered; that there was no early warning system; and that the communications system was inadequate. Moreover, the villages identified as vulnerable by the Geological Survey of India had not been shifted or any precautions taken. The CAG reported that the State had mismanaged the disaster response fund as well, resulting in the Centre not releasing this fund in 2011-12.

Significantly, the one body that is active on this front is the Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre, an autonomous body which is abominably understaffed. It has 120 personnel, of whom 30-40 are permanently in the field. “Our work is to train local people in disaster management techniques and coordinate with local police stations and tehsils to ensure that there is sufficient stock of materials needed for such events, like ropes, cutters, lighting equipment, and harnesses,” says Piyush Rautela, executive director of the centre. He has now become the single-point contact for rescue and relief operations. He agrees that until the Army and the IAF came in, rescue work had suffered. He, however, says that the State is not equipped to deal with a calamity of this proportion. “Besides, this is the first time that such a huge number of outsiders were involved. In earlier natural calamities, like the Gujarat earthquake and the tsunami, mostly local people were affected, but here people from outside the State were also involved and this compounded the problem.” He agrees that the tourist influx needs to be regulated.

According to him, the rampant encroachment of active riverbeds, the mindless commercialisation of even extremely sensitive areas like Gangotri and Gomukh, and the flouting of rules with impunity are some of the factors which add to the existing problems. “People’s attitude towards safety needs to change. We have enough laws; if only people voluntarily complied with them,” he says.

If the State government was lacking in efficiency, is the Centre any better? According to the CAG report, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which was constituted in the wake of the Gujarat earthquake and the tsunami and is chaired by the Prime Minister, has not fared any better. The NDMA suffers from “critical gaps” in its preparedness for calamities, making it largely ineffective when responding to the numerous disasters the country faces, such as floods and earthquakes, says the report.

The CAG report says that the NDMA has not only failed to formulate a disaster management plan, but it is yet to complete even a single mitigation and vulnerability mapping project. These include hazard mapping for floods, landslides, and earthquakes; rolling out a national school safety plan; establishing a mobile system for detecting radiation; and building a nationwide disaster communication network. Its national executive body has not met even once between 2008 and 2012, the CAG report says. This when around 76 per cent of India’s coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis and 59 per cent of the country is vulnerable to earthquakes, 10 per cent to floods and river erosion, and 68 per cent to droughts.

But since the disaster struck, the NDMA Vice-Chairman, Shashidhar Reddy, who is the executive head, has only been seen indulging in a blame game, first blaming the State government for not strictly enforcing NDMA guidelines and allowing houses and hotels to come up on riverbeds and then blaming the Meteorological Department for not giving precise, accurate and actionable forecasts.

“This is not the time for this [blame game]; our first priority right now is to rescue all the survivors and then provide relief to the stranded local people,” said a senior State government official from the Chief Minister’s office. This officer, sounding upset at the media highlighting only the Army and the Air Force operations, said State government officials too were working along with the military personnel, but the media were not highlighting their efforts. “Fifteen policemen died in rescue operations at Kedarnath, but nobody even mentioned them,” he complains.

Maybe the State government has been acting effectively too, but this correspondent came across lines of trucks loaded with relief materials stranded at various places because they were not given the required permits. The relief materials would go to waste if they were left like that for long. Sacks of bleaching powder were seen stacked, but there was nobody to sprinkle them on the ground “because this is the work of ASHA [accredited social health activists] workers”.

A group of people from the Ekta Trust, Gujarat, who are experts in undertaking mass cremation, was camping in Dehradun for two days and were not allowed to travel for lack of necessary permits, even as thousands of bodies were lying strewn all over the place from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. A group of able-bodied youngsters from Odisha was seen making the rounds of the District Magistrate’s office in Rudraprayag, waiting to be sent for relief operations, but there was nobody even to listen to them. Helpless people in Srinagar, having lost all their earnings, are forced to spend their days and nights in the open, and the district administration has not bothered to visit them after almost a fortnight.

And, to top it all, Piyush Rautela thinks there is too much media hype about the disaster. “Such disasters have happened in the past also; the only difference now is that it is reported more, shown more on the channels. It is overexposure, nothing more,” he says with a beatific smile.

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