Uttarakhand Monsoon 2013 Calamity

D.Raghunandan, June 27, 2013

It is about 10 days since Uttarakhand was hit by torrential rains and cloudburst of a scale not seen in the state in over 50 years, which, along with accompanying floods and landslides, have caused untold devastation in the state.

Thousands of locals and out-of-state pilgrims on the famous char dham yatra routes (to the 4 holy sites of the Kedarnath and Badrinath temples, and the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and temples) have died, many villages have been totally destroyed, many towns have suffered horrendous damage, and several roads and bridges have been swept away. The material damage and the toll on people has been so heavy, and the civil administration has been so unprepared, disorganized and overwhelmed, that a week into this disaster even the essential rescue work is still incomplete, while relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction have not even begun to be envisaged.

A more detailed assessment of the disaster management undertaken will no doubt be done by authorities at both State and Central levels later, both so as to identify problem areas and so as to put in place adequate strategies, capabilities and institutional mechanisms to be able to cope better with the next calamity. Hopefully, the considered opinions of experts, academics, social organizations, panchayat representatives and others would also be taken on board.

Yet even at this stage, even while the tragedy unfolds, some things are quite evident and need to be understood and borne in mind. In the midst of relief operations or while dealing with the numerous detailed aspects of reconstruction and rehabilitation, or even while writing up post-disaster reports recommending follow-up actions, some basic even causal issues are often forgotten or ignored. Before getting lost in the minutiae of logistical issues, detailed disaster management plans, procurement and placement of equipment, manpower training and so on, all of which are undoubtedly important and necessary, it is crucial that we also step back and look at the larger picture, at underlying factors and issues, so that long-term preventive, precautionary and preparatory measures are taken alongside those to deal with disasters after they have occurred.

This is critical because, while the disaster itself was precipitated by the sudden and unprecedented downpour, the calamity cannot, indeed should not, be considered a purely “natural disaster.” Even if one cannot take the disaster as a fully man-made one, human activity has contributed greatly to the consequences of the torrential rains and the trail of destruction wrought. The pattern of development in the Garhwal hills, the poor planning and worse implementation with respect to settlements, infrastructure and tourism, the nexus between political, bureaucratic and commercial interests leading to numerous sins of commission and omission, all these have contributed to and enlarged the scope of this disaster. And even the main causal factor behind this calamity, the extraordinarily heavy rainfall, can be at least partially attributed to societally-induced climate change that has resulted in erratic monsoons and increased incidence of extreme weather events worldwide.

Climate variability and extreme weather events

Extreme weather events are one of the many well-recognized outcomes of climate change. The increased occurrence of cyclones, tornadoes, heat waves, excess rainfall and flooding in recent years has been well documented. But how do we know that these are taking place because of human-induced climate change, rather than to the usual variability in weather? After all, it rains more in some years than others, there are floods in some years and droughts in others.

Scientists are now much more confident than a few years ago about the linkage with climate change. First, the increase in these incidents is well above the standard statistical variation seen over the last many decades. Second, the severity of these events too is much greater. Just as the decade 2000-2010 saw nine out of the ten hottest years in this century, so too in the past several years unprecedented quantities of rainfall have been recorded over very short periods in many instances all over the world. Much more frequent Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have occurred in the Atlantic and the Pacific in each of the past few years, massive snowstorms and blizzards have hit North America and Europe in the winter of 2011, unprecedented heat waves and drought have hit the US, France and Spain. In 2012, Beijing in northern China saw as much rainfall as is usual in southern coastal provinces, and 170mm of rain fell in Beijing just a 17-hour period with some pockets recording over 520mm, breaking all known records by a huge margin. In Australia, record rainfall described by officials as of “biblical proportions” led to floods covering an area more than France and Germany together. And who can forget the torrential rains in Maharashtra in 2005 when Mumbai received a record 666mm of rain in a 24-hour period with some city areas recording 944mm!

The scientific reasoning behind why such extreme weather events take place, and why they can be attributed to climate change, has been clear for quite some time. Rain or snow fall, in other words precipitation, takes place because water vapour in the atmosphere condenses upon cooling. With global warming, the quantity of water vapour in the atmosphere increases. Cooling however is less efficient due to excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps heat and allows less heat to escape, so total rainfall may not increase that much. But when it does rain over specific areas, the rainfall is likely to be heavier due to excess accumulated moisture. Similar explanations relating to changing patterns of upper air circulation due to global warming can be offered for the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones and dry-weather events or droughts.

In the Indian monsoons, rainfall data going back to the late 19th century available from Indian Meteorological Department weather stations all over the country show that the monsoons are arriving later and withdrawing later, by roughly two weeks on average. The late arrival and departure of the monsoon rains, combined with the different temperature profile in the changed period, is expected to have a serious impact on agriculture and crop yields.

On the other hand, the monsoons this year have been at least two weeks early. This is quite characteristic of weather conditions under climate change.

Whereas it is known that more extreme weather events will take place, that there will be more days of heavy rainfall, that the monsoons are shifting to a later period, climate change also makes weather events more unpredictable. For disaster preparedness, the key lesson is to take note of these broad trends, and be prepared for the worst in terms of heavy rainfall and resulting floods, more severe storms, heat waves and droughts.

Disastrous Management

There has been a great deal of comment in the media about the management of rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand, and as discussed earlier, even preliminary discussions about reconstruction and rehabilitation have not taken place. The Armed Forces, along with some paramilitary forces such as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the National Disaster Response Force (NRDF), have performed not just commendably but remarkably in the still on-going rescue operations mainly targeting pilgrims and the occasional airlifting of relief supplies. The military in particular has shown yet again that it stands out among institutions in the country as regards preparedness, capability, performance efficiency and dedication. But the civilian administration in Uttarakhand in particular, and that at the central level as well, has shown itself to be thoroughly incompetent, unresponsive, ill-equipped and unwilling to or incapable of learning the right lessons and institutionalizing requisite changes.

The Disaster Management (DM) apparatus at both Centre and State, with the exception of the paramilitary NRDF comprising battalions from the CRPF, BSF, CISF and ITBP, has itself been an unmitigated disaster.

The first and perhaps most important element of DM is preparedness, which has been self-evidently and woefully lacking. This is obvious from the poor condition of the roads, the lack of earth-moving equipment anywhere in the disaster zone, the total absence of any measures to anticipate the flooding and take precautionary flood control or protection measures near settlements, and the obvious absence of state or local level first responders who have perforce had to be military and paramilitary.

It is not yet clear what role the National Disaster Management Authority has played in the post-disaster scenario, but given the developments of the past ten days, one is left wondering if there was at all any DM Plan for Uttarakhand and what if any steps had been taken to build disaster response and management capabilities in the State. The Disaster Management Act of 2005 had envisaged a paradigm shift from the usual pattern of post-disaster response to a pro-active, integrated disaster management system with emphasis on prevention, steps to minimize impacts and preparedness for dealing with disasters when they occur. This would involve preparation of response and contingency plans, building capacities in the civilian administration including the police, instituting physical measures including acquisition and deployment of equipment and working with local communities to build disaster preparedness in the population as a whole. It is obvious that none of this has been done in Uttarakhand, a state known to be prone to a variety of disasters and which has suffered major calamities in the recent past, for instance the infamous Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991.

The State Disaster Management Authority is virtually non-existent, not having had a single meeting the past several years. And the National Authority, the NDMA, had been without a Head till one was hurriedly appointed several days after the Uttarakhand calamity. What a disaster!

No relief for locals

At the time of writing, reports from the ground by the media, NGOs and social workers all reveal a virtual vacuum of disaster response other than the military and paramilitary. The civil administration is conspicuous by its absence. Pilgrims have herded together by themselves and waited for military helicopters to airlift them, with no local authority to organize orderly rescue prioritizing women, children, the aged or infirm. While rescue efforts have proceeded apace, with close to 100,000 people mostly pilgrims having been evacuated to date, little or no relief operations such as provision of food, temporary shelters, first aid or medical care, clearly not the mandate of the military, have been visible. All the focus has been on pilgrims, which is understandable to some extent since they are outsiders without local shelter, care or support systems.

But hundreds of villages have been destroyed in the Kedar valley, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Pauri, Chamoli and elsewhere. Hundreds maybe thousands of local inhabitants have lost their lives or been seriously injured, numerous people are still missing, tens of thousands have lost all their property and been rendered homeless. Many thousands of people from various parts of Uttarakhand, who move to the disaster zone during the yatra season looking to earn some additional income or even as their main cash income for the year, have been severely affected. No attention has been paid to any of these local people and their problems, no arrangements have been made for food, medical care or shelter. Even at the time of writing, leading state authorities are declaring their immediate and “sole priority” is rescuing the pilgrims from locations of large concentrations, and that “all other issues will be addressed later.”

One understands of course that in disasters of such magnitude, local administration officials, police and health workers are also among the disaster-affected and it therefore takes time for them to get organized, leave alone activate themselves for first response. But this is precisely where leadership plays a role, be it from ministers or elected representatives or from bureaucrats and the police. Regrettably, none has been forthcoming in Uttarakhand, or for that matter from Delhi.

Pilgrims on the char dham yatra have no doubt had a harrowing time, but at least most of them have been rescued, with the military taking the lead role with respect to their travails. The local inhabitants, the people of Uttarakhand, have unfortunately been completely left to themselves, with nobody to hear their laments or look after their needs. Victims of a calamity largely man-made and certainly compounded by governmental callousness and incompetence.

Disaster waiting to happen

Uttarakhand is not alone in having to suffer from unconscionably poor governance in India. But its people are certainly paying a heavy price for decades of poor or no planning, rotten implementation, corruption, collusion of public authorities with vested interests, and a willingness of certain sections to go along with ad hocism and violations of norms for short-term gains.

Large townships have grown on, or too close to, river banks. For those who have not visited Uttarakhand, visuals on TV and in the print media show densely packed multi-storeyed houses, hotels and other properties almost on the waters edge. Many such buildings have collapsed or lie buried under two storeys of mud. Over the years, property sharks and local officials and politicians have minted money from permitting or encouraging such “development.” Anyone who has visited Uttarakhand recently would have seen the haphazard development or expansion of townships, new restaurants, hotels and tourist facilities, all coming up along river banks, with nobody having a clue as to how and by whom permission was granted.

Then there are the roads. Garhwal has long been known for its poor road infrastructure, even in comparison with the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, a story of neglect and backwardness that questions the logic of a new hill state. Now roads have certainly been built, especially along the yatra routes and linking major towns. But the roads are of poor quality, the road-cutting leaving already the unstable hillsides even more bare and unstable, prone to landslips even during normal rains, and proper measures for stabilization of the slopes are not taken. Blasting and other such techniques are often used unscientifically and without due precautions, damaging not only hill slopes but also nearby habitations. Material from roadworks or other civil works such as in tunnels, dams etc are routinely simply dumped into the rivers flowing beneath, especially by private contractors while authorities are least bothered. This has significantly raised the river bed, making the rivers more prone to flooding even with a little additional or sudden rush of waters.

A controversy has recently arisen, and will undoubtedly be stoked in the coming weeks, about declaring some regions of Uttarakhand as “ecologically sensitive.” The issue is not with the label assigned, but its implications. For instance, whether it means “no construction” or “no development” zones, as with certain forest areas. All concerned would do well to remember that people of the Uttarakhand hills have long suffered due to lack of roads and communication infrastructure, poor access to health facilities and to markets for their produce. Issue is not whether development but what kind of development?

The growing road infrastructure, urban centres and their commercial facilities, and yatra tourism have all grown far beyond the carrying capacity of these fragile mountainous areas of the Shivaliks and Himalayas, or at least have not been planned and executed keeping this carrying capacity in mind. A proposed River Zone Regulation, along the lines of the Coastal Zone Regulations, to regulate construction, commercial and other activities along river banks has been under consideration for long but has never seen the light of day. Can it be taken up for consideration at least now? Can the supposedly sacred rivers and mountains be treated with the respect they require?

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick




The Tyranny of Unaccountability

The Tyranny of Unaccountability
Part-I (Post Utaara khand disaster)
Everywhere, at the national and the international levels, what the human race faces, is the making of its own nemesis - The Tyranny of Unaccountability. Today, there are very few, amongst the powerful, whether it be the Corporates, Financial Institutions , Politicians, Executive arm of the governments (including the Judiciary) or the Media who will voluntary accept that their actions of commission and non commission vide the power vested in them have had far reaching consequences on helpless individuals.
Let's start close at Home, the latest - The Uttarakhand Devastation.
(1) Is it just global warming which is the cause of this catastrophe ?
Certainly not! Let us start the process of accountability, fixing of responsibility.
Uttarakhand's most tragic pictures are not just Kedaranath. The fig leaf of 'glacier breakaway, a symptom of universal global warming' is available to cover up the issue of accountability by the Uttarakhand government for Kedarnath, but what about the rest of the region ?
Let's go back in time to an article 'File affidavit on environment issues: U'khand HC' in Zee Times (http://zeenews.india.com/news/uttarakhand/file-affidavit-on-environment-...
). This was on June 17, 2011. Over two years from now when an NGO to quote from the article 'This follows a PIL by HESCO, a Dehradun-based NGO, in the High court praying that the government should be directed to make provision for the measurement and periodical review of the "gross environmental protection" in Uttarakhand in view of the deterioration in overall quality of the state's ecology.' One significant issue spoken about was 'Anil P Joshi, founder of the HESCO, said since Uttarakhand is known for great rivers like Ganga and glaciers like Gangotri, as per records the average rate of recession of Gangotri glacier is 20 meter per annum which is very alarming'.
Further cloud bursts are not a new phenomenon in uttarakhand.
Sample this from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloudburst
(i) In July, 1970 — Cloudburst in the upper catchment area led to a 15 metre rise in the Alaknanda river in Uttarakhand. Entire river basin, from Hanumanchatti near the pilgrimage town of Badrinath to Haridwar was affected. An entire village was swept away.
(ii) On August 17, 1998 — A massive landslide following heavy rain and a cloudburst at Malpa village killed 250 people including 60 Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims in Kali valley of the Kumaon division, Uttarakhand. Among the dead was Odissi dancer Protima Bedi.
(iii) On July 6, 2004, At least 17 people were killed and 28 injured when three vehicles were swept into the Alaknanda river by heavy landslides triggered by a cloudburst that left nearly 5,000 pilgrims stranded near Badrinath shrine area in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand.
(iv) On August 7, 2009, 38 people were killed in a landslide resulting from a cloudburst in Nachni area near Munsiyari in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.
(v) On September 15, 2010 cloud burst in Almora in Uttrakhand has drowned away two villages one of them being Balta, leaving a few people alive and rest entire village dead and drowned. Almora has been declared as a town suffering from the brunt of cloudburst by authorities of Uttrakhand. Had there been a bit more swaying of clouds, town of Ranikhet must have drowned also.
(vi) On September 14, 2012 in Rudraprayag district there was a cloudburst and 39 people died.
So, who is responsible for the death of the number of pilgrims who had come to visit the shrine ? what about the regular death of locals too ?
(vii) From http://post.jagran.com/Cloud-burst-kills-one-in-Chamoli-Badrinath-route-...
- Cloud burst kills one in Chamoli, Badrinath route blocked
Assuming that Uttarakhand state itself was unable resolve such major issues which are of international concern, could not the Central government, have put together a central team of competent persons who, understand 'sustainable development' to address the issue without getting bogged down on intractable issues as Ecology over Man scenario ?
The other obvious question of Disaster Management is left out as it has already been answered.
There goes the fig leaf!
(2) Ok ! Granted that the cloud burst did the whole region in. But cloud bursts are localised phenomenon. They happened over a particular area. What about the continuing phenomenon of landslides (heavy rains, not cloud burst) and buildings crumbling ?
Once again, a step back into the past and we have 'Environmental issues figured nowhere in Uttarakhand elections' by Sonal Matharu on Feb 8, 2012 at http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/environmental-issues-figured-nowhe...
"Though rampant industrialisation is putting the environment at risk in Uttarakhand, the issues surrounding it hardly figured in the state Assembly elections.
More than 170 hydropower projects and a number of sand mining projects have been approved and some of them are underway in the state. Environmental activists and residents have already expressed their reservations on the projects. But the two main political parties–the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress–chose to keep silent on the controversies surrounding the projects. Uttarakhand went to polls on January 30".
I don't think I need to add any more on the culpability of the local and the national level politicians. Even politicians who play Cassandras, might have to live to see the death of Atlantis.But, then history vindicates their stand and clothes them with credibility. What fig leaves for the politicians who stood by and took no heed to any of the NGOs concerns ?
In fact there is this self congratulatory piece which says more than the earlier one.
"Uttarakhand receives Indira Gandhi award for environment" reported by S M A Kazmi on Jun 06 2007 at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/uttarakhand-receives-indira-gandhi-awa...
"Uttarakhand received the Indira Gandhi Parayavaran Awards for environment protection in both the individual and organisation categories. Jyotsna Sitling, an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer in the state, received the 2004 award for clearing the Valley of Flowers of garbage. In the organisation category, the Garhwal Regimental Centre got the award for exemplary work in turning Lansdowne, the regimental centre located in the Garhwal hills, into an ecological paradise". What Jyotsna Sitling did was remarkable work. She deserves that award. But not the Government. That, awards are presented for cleaning, dusting, swabbing the place to beautify it and make it more tourist worthy while the issue of a dying ecology is ignored is well ???!!!! Incredulous. Maybe not. Our politicians by and large are expected to make money (depending on their personal integrity, some priorities might be excluded) for themselves, the party, their business cohorts and off course, don't forget the populace (always through legitimate means - advances through financial intermediaries. From the people (taxes) through the people (government machinery & financial institutions) and unfortunately at some point of 'to the people' it becomes 'do in the people'.
Then the report 'Appeal for green cover compensation' (http://www.utrenvis.nic.in/english_news.html
) (site of Environmental Information System [ENVIS] Center sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India at Uttarakhand Environment Protection & Pollution Control Board,
E-115, Haridwar Road, Dehradun-248001 (Uttarakhand).
" Adequate compensation for preserving its abundant forest wealth is one demand that finds enough supporters in Uttarakhand. The report mentioned that as the forests of Uttarakhand, which cover nearly 65 per cent of total area, value about $1,150 a hectare a year, people from the state should be compensated for preserving the green cover at the cost of development. The Vice-Chancellor of HNB Garhwal University, S.P. Singh, who is an ecologist, was the mind behind the report for Leadership for the Environment and Development and Central Himalayan Environmental Association'.
Wonder what award was given to this guy ?
There is something fateful about the whole thing. The news item at http://www.euttaranchal.com/news/general/vijay-bahuguna-scold-mo-environ...
'Vijay Bahuguna scold M/o Environment' by one anil on June 5, 2013.
"The chief minister of Uttarakhand has complained about the Union environment ministry to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi, accusing it of delaying clearances to hydel power projects in the state.Vijay Bahuguna met the two here to complain that the state was facing severe constraints in the implementation of development projects because of issues raised frequently by the environment ministry, sources familiar with the matter told ET. Bahuguna, who has to contend with sever infighting within the state unit of the party, declined to comment on whether he had complained to his higher-ups, only saying: “There has to be a balance between development and environmental concerns. My state is reeling under a severe power crisis.”
What is significant is " The state Congress unit has been plagued by bitter infighting ever since the party high command ruled in favour of Bahuguna and not Harish Rawat for the chief minister’s post". The whole institution of legislative power and executive prudence is to ensure far sighted prudential growth even if it involves unpleasant socio-economic situations.
There goes the waist girdle of Fig leaves!
To give credit to Shri Bahuguna, he certainly appears to know what he is talking about when he declares "My concern is that we have to strike a balance between environment and development. If there is economic backwardness there will be migration from my state, I don't want my people to migrate. I don't want my youth to be unemployed. Find out ways and we will accept it. Seventy percent of my state is forest cover. I am preserving my forests for the nation then why don't you give me compensation? Let the country compensate us".
Last but not least:
'Protests kept out helicopters, trapped many before disaster' by Sanjay Singh on Jun 23 2013 at
) is chilling.
"As rescue workers raced against time and weather on Saturday to find survivors in the Uttarakhand hills devastated by flash floods, The Sunday Express found out that protests by local residents did not allow helicopters to land in Kedarnath two days before disaster struck. Official sources said "people with vested interests" fuelled the protests. There was also a strike by mule operators, trapping a large number of pilgrims in the Kedar Valley from where bodies are still being recovered by rescue teams". Who are these 'vested' interests ?
Then the article '200 Nepalis reach Haridwar, Rishikesh' by Akanshya Shah on June 24, 2013 at http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=...
-The Nepalese community of Uttarakhand has strongly condemned news report in Indian media that Nepalese laborers and porters are looting pilgrims stranded at various places in the flood-hit Indian hill state. The outrage came a day after some Indian newspapers and TV channels carried stories stating that Nepalis, who come to Uttarakhand to earn a living as laborers and porters, are attacking and looting people and even molesting girls. "We are extremely saddened by such media reports and we condemn them," said S B Sahi of Gorkha Democratic Front. He added, "We have protested against such false and unverified news. These are only attempts to discredit the Nepalis."
Here is something which is already brewing - a potential demand for Gorkhaland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorkhaland
) at Uttarakhand as at Darjeeling ?
When this hen comes home to roost, who shall be responsible ? The Media which would like the weather cock swing from wringing hands to strident reproaches when there is a local backlash ? The politicians who left it addressed as it suits their vote bank politics ? Many of the Uttarakhand people are already in large numbers in the NCR. Job opportunities have brought them in. They serve at the lowest levels and are a hard working lot, but with the associated bad, good and ugly aspects of any migrant population. Is this migration due to population explosion or just better opportunities ? If this migrant population is being substituted by the Nepali immigrants back home, then there shall be another unpleasant situation which as usual, no politician will be willing to address, timely.
The aftermaths will be borne by an average Indian citizen(s) who shall mourn, wonder and carry along, perforce. Kudos to the citizens. Not certainly to the Politicians, Executive, greedy Corporate (of which Media is a part). Many might not be able to leave their emotional, mental and physical baggage behind. The baggage that can be shed if justice is done and accountability is fixed. Those not directly affected are also burdened by the baggage. The taxes to pay for the Tyranny of the Unaccountable.
After all, in today's social scenario, 'with great power comes immense opportunity to exercise it indiscriminately and avoid accountability in case of adverse consequences '.

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