The scale of the massive human and ecological disaster of Uttarakhand can barely be captured adequately on TV screens. It will take years and huge investment of resources to rebuild lives at these places of pilgrimage. One only hopes that after the usual handwringing this will not be forgotten as attention in India invariably gets diverted to other problems.
Perhaps there was a tragic inevitability of the current crisis and Uttarakhand epitomises a national pattern. This devastation would not have been so furious but for years of human greed, administrative and political connivance. We greedily ravaged nature beyond its tolerance and without any rules. When nature responded with a kind of pent up fury, our response was sluggish and confused.
Corruption that allows faulty construction, unauthorised extensions to buildings, encroachments on illegally occupied land that are overlooked have been major contributing factors. Indiscriminate deforestation along with inadequate and inappropriate reforestation, while haphazard construction in the name of development that blocked the natural flow of waters and diverted catchment areas magnified the crisis. Uncontrolled permits for expeditions without means to remove garbage aggravated the pollution in the rivers. As usual, an unseemly blame game among political parties has now begun and can be seen on our TV channels every night. Quite a bit of this has been the result of success of one CM in evacuating stranded pilgrims while others fiddled. We forget we are dealing with a national tragedy not a political tragedy. Also can we all stop obfuscating issues or scurrying for cover.
Sixty-six years after independence, despite improvements in many spheres, we are unable to get some essentials right. Floods occur along the Brahmaputra every year and we repeat the same theme there too, year after year. We do not seem to have evolved an implementable policy that would mitigate these annual crisis and a system of water management in the region. The place is just too far from New Delhi and there are not enough votes there.
At times like this one would expect that the high powered National Disaster Management Authority would automatically lead the charge. Apparently this is not its charter which only requires it to enunciate policy. No wonder, as reported on one of the TV channels, the NDMA remained closed on the weekend as its expertise was either not needed, it did not possess it or simply decided it had no role to play.
Instead, it issues statements like this just short of the disaster: “As a part of our mandate to move away from erstwhile reactive and response centric disaster management to the holistic and proactive management of disasters, we will have to induct S & T tools for undertaking the task of vulnerability analysis and risk management for the people, property and the environment in the pre-disaster scenarios to prioritise mitigation programmes and to build back better in the post-event scenarios.” This convoluted verbiage is unlikely to help in emergencies. Responding to this tragedy, government intends to revise the NDMA Act to give it some executive powers and, one week after the disaster, has appointed a co-ordinator.
No country can ever be adequately prepared for natural disasters but what is needed is a demonstrable ability to move swiftly and mitigate the tragedy. We do not have this ability. Were it not for the bravery and devotion of our Armed Forces and our paramilitary like the ITBP, so many would not have been rescued. Difficult terrain and inclement weather will mean very slow progress despite all efforts.
Creating new institutions or merely revising rules will not help solving our many problems. Nation building is serious business but we mostly tinker as the state withers away in a decrepit manner. The first thing our leaders need to do is to debate on real issues that affect all of us and these relate to governance in its broadest meaning. The average man seeks a decent livelihood that improves with time, every day safety, education and health that matter, not his secular or ideological credentials. If our leaders cannot get these small every day things right, how can they ever learn to handle and avert major disasters.
Unless we learn to debate and discuss these issues as our life and death issues we will not even begin to understand the problem much less remedy what is wrong with our systems. Unless we have leaders and governments that are responsive and empathise with the common man instead of merely mouthing tired irrelevant slogans, we will never attain any greatness.
The writer is vice president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi