Uttarakhand Catastrophe (Part II) : Post Disaster Management Fiasco

On June 16th Uttarakhand witnessed one of the most devastating natural calamities in the form of flash floods, cloudbursts, consistent hard rain and huge landslides that lasted for multiple days. The death toll as per June 16th statistics was 5700 or more. The disaster was a man-made disaster, a direct consequence of plundering a fragile mountain range like the Himalayas. Repeated warnings of the various environmental research agencies that Uttarakhand is an ‘Eco-Sensitive’ zone and court mandates on construction in this area were completely ignored. To promote this popular tourist route, illegal constructions of hotels, new roads cut into the mountain range to accommodate the increasing traffic, and unscientific construction of hydro- electric power projects continued unrestricted. The brutal violation of nature through illegal constructions, new roads continuously plied by heavy vehicles ultimate unleashed the ire of nature that culminated in the form of the Uttarkhand disaster resulting in the loss of so many innocent lives.

Current situation of the Uttarakhand tragedy survivors:
Immediately after the tragedy rescue operation ‘Surya Hope’ started with much vigor, involving the Indian Air Force, the Army and the ITPB personnel who were engaged in the rescue operations 24X7. But as time dragged by, the rescue and the relief operations dwindled to almost nothing. The devastations caused by this man made natural disaster are so vast that Uttarakhand needs to be built from scratch. The complete rehabilitation of the affected population may well take over a year. But let us take a look at the reality. The sorry plight of the survivors, even after the elapse of three months, is best described as unthinkable. The districts that were worst affected by the calamity are Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh. 335 roads passing through these districts (including some major motorable roads) are still partially or fully blocked at many places making it impossible to transport relief materials by road to the affected areas. Reclamation of 10, 234 families in 366 villages are still pending!

Government declared that all the pleas of the affected population have been met satisfactorily. However, actual visits to the villages of Chamoli and Rudraprayag have conclusively proved the claims of the Government to be completely baseless. The lives of the residents of the areas like Rambara, Chomasi, Gorigaon and Kotma are nothing but miserable. These areas are completely cut off, since Government has so far turned a blind eye to these areas. Purshotam Semwal, a resident of the Chomasi village, who has lost three relatives and an eye to the disaster, expressed his grievances, “I travel 18 kilometers on foot almost every day to get eatables. As for relief material, I have to travel the same distance to get it, if at all”. Sunil (25), a resident of Gorigaon, a village located on a mountaintop on the way to Kedarnath, depicted a similar plight, “I managed to get kerosene after 45 days on August 20 from Guptkashi.” Residents of villages like Chomasi (located in the Kalimath area on the banks of the Mandakini) cross the river in a trolley hanging from a rope connecting the two banks of the river.

While the BSF manning the river crossing procedure dismisses it as a standard practice, it is evident that such means cannot be used to bring in relief materials. While Uttarakhand was nearly destroyed by illegal constructions, it is hard to believe that Government cannot build a temporary bridge across the Mandakini, which is a necessary construction, and can be of immense use to transport relief to these seemingly unreachable areas. Even inflatable boats fitted with outboard motors can be chopper dropped in the river along with the relief which can easily be used to reach the areas like Chomasi. In most cases the relief materials are dumped on the nearest roads that are still motorable and left at that. Helicopter drops of relief materials occur once in a blue moon. The general grievance of the residents of the affected areas against the Government is quite justified because the Government has simply deserted them to rot in their own sorry plight.

Current disaster control measures being undertaken by the Government:
The activities of the post disaster damage control unit of the government can be described at best to be ridiculous. They have put a cessation to all relief operations and have deployed the men and the machineries for the refurbishment of the Kedarnath temple. The said procedure has been undertaken to resurrect the temple for a pooja scheduled on the 11th of September this year. The reconstruction project of the Kedarnath temple involves regular helicopter flights bringing in construction materials and inspection officials to the site. As declared unabashedly by the disaster management cell secretary, Bhaskaran Joshi, “We have stationed 500 men at the temple, who are landscaping the place, and a private company has been employed to clear the debris”. The disaster management cell is now mulling over borrowing another MI-26 helicopter from the Air Force to enhance constructions around the temple. It is to be mentioned here that the Kedarnath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is estimated to have been constructed somewhere around 8th century AD. It is an incredibly resilient construction by itself as evident from the fact that this temple remained buried under a thick pile of ice from the 14th to the 17th century and survived. The ice movement has left indelible striations on the walls of the temple.

The Kedarnath temple also survived the Uttarakhand disaster with no major damages. This issue of the Government concentrating on the reconstruction of the temple rather than distributing relief to the people has raised much controversy. While Joshi’s junior comments that the temple reconstruction is the Government’s effort to ‘win brownie points’, another anonymous government employee connected to this project commented, “Some scientists have cautioned that too much human intervention may destroy the temple and its surroundings. But the pooja will help the Government to distract attention from the relief, rescue and the rehabilitation program”.

What an irony! With 248 roads still non-functional and 272 villages still out of reach of the relief programs, the Government decides to stop relief operations and concentrate on the reconstruction of some thousands of years old temple which could have waited for another year at least. This apparent ridiculous decision of the Government is nothing but another shameless display of corruption that has permeated every layer of our country. The helicopter sorties cost Rs 4lakh to Rs 5 lakh each. Where is this money coming from? It is evident that a disaster of the Uttarakhand dimension has received much aids and relief funds. The temple reconstruction is just another excuse for the misappropriation of these funds by the disaster management cell officials of the Government. Any natural disaster in our country is an opportunity for discretely pocketing a fat sum of money illegally and Uttarakhand is no exception either!

The Uttarakhand disaster is of such a vast scale that no time frame can be assigned for the complete rehabilitation of the region and its population. In the midst of this the corrupt disaster management officials of the Government are busy misappropriating the relief funds while encashing the religious sentiments of thousands of poor and simple villagers by depriving them of their basic needs. Really incredible India!!