We must learn from the Uttarakhand disaster

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 25, 2013 06:09 hrs

The Himalayan tsunami, as the Uttarakhand disaster is being called, has caused an immense amount of damage.

The death toll, according to the state's disaster management minister, Yashpal Arya, is estimated to have crossed 5,000.

Tens of thousands of people have lost homes and livelihood. The state's infrastructure has been devastated. The road and bridge network of four districts has been destroyed. The mobile network has been knocked out. The power sector has sustained severe damage.

It will take several years and plenty of investment to put the state back on its feet. If reconstruction proceeds in a haphazard manner, a recurrence of this calamity is likely. Other ecologically fragile hill regions must also study what happened and review their respective development trajectories to prevent similar events occurring elsewhere.

The national disaster management process also needs serious review and overhaul.

What, however, stands out amid this major calamity is the heroic efforts of the defence forces and allied services like the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Border Roads Organisation, which did a commendable job, working round-the-clock in bad weather to carry out relief and rescue operations in difficult terrain at considerable risk to themselves.

The National Disaster Response Force's lack of resources, such as satellite phones and helicopters, made it less effective than had been envisaged.

As Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde admitted, a lack of co-ordination between various agencies hampered relief and rescue efforts. The India Meteorological Department, too, has claimed that it had issued specific warnings about heavy rains, while the state government has denied that it received any.

But evacuating over 80,000 people trapped in the affected areas in the last few days, in spite of the limited resources, poor infrastructure and inclement weather, is a commendable achievement.

Nevertheless, the lack of co-ordination is inexcusable, given India's vulnerability to floods, earthquakes, landslides, cyclones and tsunamis.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was conceptualised as a one-stop agency to co-ordinate and oversee disaster management. But it clearly lacks the capacity to co-ordinate between the multiple agencies and ministries involved. The NDMA's brief needs urgent review, and probable disaster management scenarios need to be played out like war games.

The damage would have been much less if environmental norms had not been recklessly flouted across the state. Extensive deforestation contributed to the landslides. A CAG report says that three out of eight afforestation projects in Uttarakhand have not fulfilled targets.

Uttarakhand used to derive a large chunk of its revenues from tourism, specifically from religious tourism. In season, the population of key pilgrimage spots used to multiply. A large number of hotels, guest houses and roads were built to cater to these visitors.

Unfortunately, this development took place without any effort to minimise the environmental impact. Unlike at Amarnath in Jammu and Kashmir, for example, there wasn't even any effort to track the number of tourists along the pilgrimage routes in Uttarakhand.

The state's failure to regulate such a large seasonal influx of tourists has in no small measure contributed to today's crisis and whatever infrastructure was there to handle the traffic has been wiped out.

Years of reconstruction will be required before the four shrines can be reopened for pilgrimage. It is to be hoped that the state government will now put master plans in place and pay heed to the ecological and environmental challenges while engaged in the task of renewal.