The 5 villains of the Uttarakhand disaster

Last Updated: Thu, Jun 20, 2013 09:38 hrs

Almost instantly, the Uttarakhand flood and landslides that caused devastation will be forgotten. The Indian cricket team at the ICC Champions Trophy will get equal news space. And the minutiae of political parties will be back at the top of the news chain.

Before the emotion runs out, therefore, we must make room for real reflection. The rescuers helping the survivors in Kedarnath and other places are heroes. But, like in any story, there are villains too.

Here are five principals who help bring on the doom. Nearly each time something terrible happens, they benefit too.

1. The media

It is easy to be swayed by the tidal wave of news coverage after a disaster. There are teams constantly providing newsfeed from what is always described as ‘Ground Zero’. But real reporters get to the story before it has broken.

Foresight has its playground in editorial meetings. Stories are planned in newsrooms.

India has about 100 news channels and thousands of newspapers and newsmagazines, with news websites and the government radio news channels adding their bit.

There are thus hundreds of editorial meetings happening across India every day. Why then are there no stories on the nature of affairs before something happens? Everybody knows that Uttarakhand is a hub of religious tourism. Everybody knows it is a rickety state. Everybody knows monsoons are tricky in the hills.

So where are the investigations? The scoops? The hard interviews? The in-depth features? The powerful narratives? The blogs?

In the newsrooms I’ve been in, story pitches built around environment were listened to. But they never got the play they required. One reason was that many environment stories had the air of NGO reports. Editors don’t like reporters bringing them stuff they can read elsewhere.

Great media careers in India are not built on environment reports; they are built on political stories. This means that instincts and skills are weak on environment. Green bureaus either don’t exist or are so minimal that they barely get a look in.

Therefore, there is plenty of hindsight but little or no foresight. Everybody rushes to say the same thing on a hundred channels after tragedy occurs. It is too late by then.

2.The realtors

The real estate spiral in Uttarakhand makes no allowance for the hilly terrain. Different rules apply in the plains; you can’t do the same thing in the hills. But the developers and builders in Uttarakhand seem to have mental difficulty in processing this.

They go to riverbanks and even riverbeds to sell land. They will not lay a brick to make properties world class in safety, thought and execution. You can see from the way the houses collapsed that it wasn’t just the raging waters that brought them down.

They were not strong enough. From the looks of it, they may have been in the wrong place and that can’t happen without substantial wrongdoing by everybody concerned.

Also, the religious places in Uttarakhand are an embarrassment. The maintenance is shoddy, the infrastructure pathetic and facilities measly. Religious places the world over have fantastic settings and are superbly maintained. You can go there even for holiday; you don’t have to be religious. They are inviting and well kept.

In Uttarakhand, and this holds for the rest of India too, you wouldn’t want to be caught dead near the religious places. There is an overall loss of dignity at these places. But dignity you can still regain. The departed are gone forever.

3.The politicians

Although not all people in public life are rotters, many are. They must be blind, deaf and dumb not to see the many things going wrong in Uttarakhand. How is property developed when not sanctioned? Where are the police? How come there are no public awareness campaigns?

It turns out that there were plans to have an Eco Zone as buffer near the rivers. It turns out that both the BJP and the Congress didn’t agree. We haven’t seen a single visual of politicians helping the needy on the ground. Not as politicians, but as normal people. It’s been the defence forces all the way.

You would think this is a moment when the BJP and the Congress would want to work together. But they haven’t.

4. The godmen

Uttarakhand is full of ashrams, perhaps the maximum concentration of such institutions anywhere in India. All the big godmen of India, and godwomen too, like to have a presence in Haridwar because they think it is among the holiest seven towns in India.

Yet, they are usually missing when most needed. I’ve been to some ashrams as a journalist. Almost all activity is centred on healing people physically. Medicines worth lakhs of rupees are sold each day in many of these places.

There is also yoga. But there is barely any social messaging. Attitudes and behaviours are rarely addressed because that involves asking people not to do the things they do.

Since people are clients, the godmen would rather address gatherings on anger, love, health, and so on. And not hurt their revenue.

But they never tell people they don’t need more than one house or vehicle; they don’t need to pollute the rivers with filth; they don’t need to cremate the dead on the riverbanks; they don’t need to encroach on the hills.

Godmen have considerable impact on their followers. All it takes is that the godmen of Uttarakhand come together and carry serious social messages. They could also tell people to stay away from the rivers and stop illegal encroachment.

You’d think they would be rearing to. They are not.

5. The people

The worst culprits are the people. All of life’s moral and ethics lessons are learned in school, but the people who flock to the temples of Uttarakhand and who grab land without a thought always need to be taught afresh.

Even the innocent tourists will not ask the questions they should of politicians and of the government. They won’t look at their own idiocy. They will go where they shouldn’t. They will dirty every place they go to. The Amarnath yatra, for instance, is a nightmare because of the trash that is generated each year.

The devotees flock blindly to Kedarnath and other places but will not fight greedy realtors. Many of them may be realtors themselves.

I have known people talk with pride about their religious yatras. In their families, there is dowry. Daughters are looked down upon. Sons are not disciplined. They bribe their way through each situation. I deal with all this in counseling.

Everything begins and ends with people. The standards they set for themselves create the fabric of a nation. Governments can’t do much in the aftermath of such disaster. They don’t have the instincts or skills. Their voters have lulled them into mediocrity.

There’s no point in blaming nature or the gods for what happened in Uttarakhand. Humans must have the sense and sagacity.

Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and

He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.

Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at

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