Friday, 21 June 2013

Warning Ignored: No Preparation As Disaster Hit Uttarakhand

Sitting in the comforts of state secretariat the officials did not heed to warnings that came from the central agencies about the impending disaster in Uttarakhand. The Planning Commission has warned about lack of preparedness a year ago while the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) note of warning was sent just two months ago to Dehradun about lack of preparedness to meet the situation in case of heavy rains and landslide in the hills which has now become an annual feature. The Meteorological department had warned just 48 hours before the torrential rains came down pouring on the hills of Uttarakhand.

Why the local administration sat on the warning? Why the administration did not ask people to leave the shrines immediately after the met department warning about heavy rains? These are the question that should be asked to the state government.

The state Disaster Management Committee was set up in Uttarakhand in 2007. According to one report, the committee did not have a single meeting after its formation. What the members of the State Disaster Management Committee were doing over the past 6 years or so. Just drawing their salaries and enjoying the perks! What was the head of the committee doing? He too appears to be enjoying the paid holiday. Why the minister of the department concerned did not bother even to peep into the office of the committee even once. Nobody bothered to check that furniture were gathering dust in the office. Was it so?

At the same time the Centre can’t absolve itself by saying that its agencies had warned the state government about the disaster. No financial grants were sanctioned by the Union Government for the disaster management.

One major area of concern was dumping the ‘Ecological Zone’ plan that was recommended by the Union Ministry of Forest & Environment for a stretch of 135 kilometers that covers the four ‘dhams’. It is being said that even the BJP Government in the state opposed  the idea of ecological zone which was supported later by the Congress led government in the state. Obviously, the state government was under pressure of industrial lobby, timber lobby and mining lobby to scuttle the project that would put restrictions on construction and mining in the hill areas.

Written communications exchanged hands between Dehradun and New Delhi. If implementation of ecological zone project was necessary to protect the environment and forests in the hills of Uttarakhand, then why the Centre did not press for it. Why the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment meekly accepted the request of the state government? Knowing well that some industrial lobbies were interested in scuttling the ecological project, the Centre too appears to be a party to this lobby which does not want any restrictions on its illegal activities whether denuding forests, or haphazard constructions in the hills. The whole thing smacks of scandal.

In many areas, builders are reported to be using explosives for construction works which is not allowed in the hills. Why the local administration allowed the use of explosives for construction of buildings and reservoirs in the hills?

The untold sufferings, loss of life and the miseries of the people affected by the disaster in Uttarakhand are created by human failure, government in particular. As I write this piece, my heart goes out to those who have lost their dear members of family and friends in the disaster. Hats off to the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force and the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) for rescuing and saving hundreds of lives that might have perished otherwise if left at the hands of the state government officials.

~R. K. Sinha