The loss of human life and properties in the Uttarakhand flood/landslide disaster after heavy downpour for 3 days since June 16 is amongst the worst in its history. Call it heavy downpour or cloud burst, the cause of damage was manmade. It has resulted from uncontrolled human interference with nature’s line of defense. With the govt. still understating the casualties, more than 10,000 are feared dead. Consider here that more than 2.5 crore tourists visit Uttarakhand annually whose population is 1.08 crores. As reported, close to a thousand villages still remain cut off with the people battling severe starvation, thirst and injuries. The mud flowing down the river has already silted and closed all the turbines along Bhagirathi and Mandakini save Tehri. The total damage is yet to be assessed.
The Govt’s response and Relief work:
When the landslides began, the govt. kept mum, in denial. Their claim was that only a few hundred have lost their lives and a similar number are untraceable. This despite the fact that the govt. has a wide network of army, para military forces, border roads, GREF, National Disaster Management Authority set ups and personnel in these hills apart from the district administrations and police. It should have known the magnitude of the disaster and it had been warned of it as was revealed later even by its own metrological department. The Met office had issued repeated warnings of heavy rainfall, cloud bursts and landslides on June 14, 16 and 17, but these were ignored as routine. After the deluge the govt. failed to immediately activated its entire work force. It took almost a week before these agencies came into gear. That too was obstructed with lack of co-ordination with helicopters not being given fuel despite it being available.
The main relief work was conducted through helicopters, the only suitable vehicle under the circumstance for the far flung areas of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Joshimath, Gangotri, Yamnotri, etc. Ninety nine percent of this was controlled by the govt. Initial sorties were dedicated to VIPs and persons with contacts, the common people having had to wait for their turn. Much later when supplies ran short and people began dying of hunger and cold did the army men take some initiative to walk on foot with the victims and help them reach safer areas. The limitations of using helicopters in these steep and high hills with deep valleys and scarce landing spots was not considered and is still not in focus.
It is praiseworthy that large sections of local people came out to help the tragedy stricken outsiders. Without local help the tourists could not have survived for a single day. They shared their rations with them, the small local villages feeding thousands of tourists and themselves getting reduced to starving after finishing their stocks. They also helped to provide shelter and treatment and in retrieving those stuck in the difficult terrain.
It has been reported that big hoteliers and commercial establishments in the high far off centres raised their charges to up to 20 times in order to fleece the helpless tourists. This only highlights the sad state of govt. supplies in these far off tourist centres which are promoted by the govt. itself. These centres have no economy of their own and supplies are maintained through large number of workers, mule owners, shop keepers and big hoteliers who go up there during the tourist months to earn. They jacked up their prices in the face of people facing adversity.
The apathy of govt. bureaucracy towards plight of common people is obvious from the fact that opening up of possible foot routes should have been the first step planned on June 17 or 18th itself. Local villagers in the hills south of the far off tourist spots, not affected by this heavy deluge should have been mobilized. Their villages and flat surfaces nearby should have been made into base camps and supplies of food, fuel, tents, blankets, raincoats, ropes, medicines, doctors to these should have been ensured by road. With this affected areas could have been reached faster and several more sufferers would have got relieved along these routes. Instead they were made to endlessly wait for their turn. Many more lives should thus have been saved.
This massive loss has resulted from continuous deforestation of the hills since the days of British rule and intensified for last 20 years of policies of liberalization. Deforestation causes rain water to lash directly on the hill’s surface, the soil binding having weakened due to absence of tree roots. Repeated and massive erosion and landslips have resulted.
Without regard to environmental and ecological security the plain areas in the hills, rivers bed and valleys have been handed over to big capital for commercial use and tourism ‘development’. Gushing rain, mud and boulders causing entire multi-storeyed buildings to simply collapse like packs of cards has been a feature of this disaster. These structures stood with foot pillars inside river beds as brute testimony to the corrupt nexus between builders, hoteliers, sanctioning bureaucracy and politicians acting under policy guidance of imperialist institutions. Flood areas have been covered up and path of water flow blocked. Roads have been constructed cutting across tectonic fault lines resulting in weakening of the geological balance by even small seismic shocks. Permissions for such constructions and for projects have been granted via manipulated and fraudulent Environment Impact Assessments and Expert Appraisal Committees. Massive blasting for construction of power projects, big dams, tunnels and other concrete structures, mining in the hills and river bed for construction material, massive debris dumping into the river and the large water reservoirs created have played their role in damaging the geological balance of these young, still consolidating mountains. Several of these projects have been pushed by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. One report says more than 680 dams are on the anvil. Another criticized just 24 of 70 projects in Upper Ganga Region for submerging 10,000 ha of rich agricultural land and 3600 ha of forests.
In these last decades there have been several indicators to which the govt. should have been more sensitive and responsive. The 135 km long Bhagirathi valley was proposed to be declared a secure Eco Sensitive Zone. The Uttarkhand govt. opposed this proposal as anti development, with support from motivated quarters in the centre. Last year in August 29 people died in Uttarkashi and 69 in Okhimath, Rudrprayag due to landslides and floods. The Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre passed strictures against the constructions along the river beds. But the govt did nothing. Infact the NDMA for Uttarakhand was formed in 2007, but it has failed to meet even once. In 1996 the Congress govt. handed over village common lands to the forest department and later the BJP govt. handed this over to the District Revenue Authority pushing it further away from peoples’ control and making it liable to misuse.
During this important period of disaster and crises, the political leaders were engaged in another battle. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, opposition leaders and others were engaged in air surveys, better called ‘disaster tourism’ to register their concern. Congress leaders notoriously flagged off relief material laden trucks duly publicized on TV channels. BJP PM aspirant, Modi made a Rambo like claim of his party workers already having rescued 15,000 persons (Gujaratis) in the initial days. MPs from Congress and TDP came to fist fight to claim political mileage, pulling saved AP victims at Dehradun to board the aircraft arranged by them. On the side, several trucks laden with relief lined up in Rishikesh as the approach roads up in the hills were unsafe. Had the govt played its role responsibly, peoples’ efforts from the rest of the country and locally would have ensured that relief got provided to most.
Beneficiaries and Loosers:
The main beneficiaries of this ‘development’ have been big commercial houses, big contractors and builders, corrupt officials and insensitive politicians. They have destroyed nature, ecological and environmental safeguards and horticulture. They have submerged agricultural lands, damaged traditional irrigation and undermined animal husbandry, cottage industry and handicrafts relating to silk, wood, bamboo, wool, weaving, traditional herbs and medicines, traditional sculpture and arts etc. They have damaged the self sufficiency of the hill people and snatched their livelihood, converting them merely into wage earners in the tourism industry or as labour migrating out to metropolitan cities.
Most certainly this tragedy is not a result of a natural disaster, but was one waiting to happen. The blame lies at the doorstep of Uttarakhand, UP and central govts. For most period they have been supervised by the two main parties of the ruling classes, the Congress and the BJP. World Bank and WTO policies of liberalized and uncontrolled crude exploitation of nature and handing over these resources to big capital including MNCs intensified the conditions which led to this disaster.
CPI(ML)-New Democracy has expressed its deep concern for the loss of lives and property, both of tourists and local people and appeals to the people all over the country to come forward and lend a helping hand. It has also called upon the govt to engage the local people in unaffected areas in the relief work and reconstruction of the area.