Sweeping current People watch as water rises over a bridge in Rudraprayag
How reckless development and lack of preparedness added to the disaster
Dammed: Over 600 dams are either operational, under construction or being planned along the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi, which combine to form the Ganga.
Not one river valley project was rejected by the MoEF from April 2007-Dec 2012
Natural calamities may be acts of God. But how we react to them, reduce the scope of disaster depends very much upon us. The death and destruction wreaked upon Uttarakhand by heavy rain, cloudbursts, flash floods and landslides is an indictment of our weak governance, sluggish systems and our inability to develop a coherent balance between environment protection and development. Could the damage have been minimised? Some hard questions must be asked of the central and state governments.
One area of concern for me is the predictive role of the meteorological department and how state governments respond to it. The met department forecasts weather for a week in advance. According to the newspapers, the department had forecast very heavy rain and bad weather. If such a forecast had been made, what was the response of the state government? Why weren’t pilgrims warned, and why wasn’t traffic halted at locations such as Rishikesh, Haridwar and Srinagar? Checking that inflow for a few days after the bad weather forecast would have saved many lives. Despite the prediction, why was there no emergency evacuation of pilgrims from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Hemkund Sahib? The systems and procedures designed to reduce the impact of a calamity have failed us. What makes this doubly damning is that it’s not as if this was a one-off event that took everyone by surprise: it is well-known that the Himalayan region, and Uttarakhand in particular, is susceptible to such monsoon woes.
There are two points I wish to make about the central government’s planning and future response. One, we need to know why such large volumes of water came tumbling down into the Badri and Kedar valleys. This is essential if we are to understand and possibly predict such phenomena. We also need to determine if there had been scope for anticipatory information and preventive action. Two, we need to find out where and how the system failed and improve it so that it responds proactively. Such an audit must not become a witch-hunt; nor must it turn into a PR exercise. What I advocate are concrete steps to ensure that the Centre and the state, regardless of politics, are able to respond in a well-thought-out manner to emergencies of such magnitude.
Raging water An angry Alaknanda thunders through Rudraprayag town
I also wish to point out the condemnable apathy to the maintenance of our roads and the impact it has had on this tragedy. Roads leading to three dhams are national highways and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO)—in my opinion, a wonderful semi-governmental organisation—is tasked with maintaining them. The region borders Nepal and China. In Barahoti, we have a territorial dispute with China. So the role of the BRO is even more critical.
Instead of megadams, the region should go for hydel projects of 25 MW or less.
In February 2009, when I was chief minister, we created the post of an additional chief engineer for the Uttarakhand state. Subsequently, another such position was created for the Kumaon region. However, in later years, the BRO in this region has suffered from radically decreased central support, with whispers that private contractors (who have no competence in this area) are trying to get a foot in the door. The BRO has faced a paucity of funds for maintenance and repair of these roads. In 2010-11, against a requirement of over Rs 700 crore, less than Rs 50 crore was allotted to Project Sivalik (responsible for looking after the national highways in the Garhwal region). In 2011-12, against a demand of Rs 400 crore, the amount sanctioned was less than Rs 100 crore. During 2012-13, the allocation has been cut down to an unbelievable Rs 25 crore—sanctioned against a demand of Rs 200 crore! Somebody at the Centre must answer why the maintenance funds for those essential roads were never given to the BRO. I find this callous indifference to issues of strategic importance and road development in the region simply unbelievable.