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India: UTTAR AKHAND TRAGEDY, SOME LESSONS

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By Addela Naureen and Umar Waqar

“Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi… Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi
Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.

Garhwali song(Wikipedia)

The Indian Himalayan State of Uttarakhand and surrounding areas have been recently hit by a disaster that had shaken the whole country, some people call it the work of mother nature, however a cool analysis would indicate that Uttarakhand is more of a manmade disaster than the work of Gods of Hinduism. One report from Tehelka.com ran the headline with chilling narrative of a gigantic disaster, “Amid fears of thousands left dead in rain-ravaged Uttarakhand, relief and rescue operations were intensified with eight additional IAF choppers pressed into service to evacuate stranded people in Kedarnath which has suffered massive damage in flash floods and cloudbursts. The State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre has said that casualties in the affected areas may run into thousands with about 90 ‘dharamashalas’ (rest houses for pilgrims) swept away in the flash floods”.

Lying in the picturesque Himalayas and home to origin of legendry gods and goddesses  of Hinduism like Shiva,Vishnu,Ganga, Yamuna and even Sarasvati,the places like Nainital,Dehradun,Almora and Chota Char Dham adore the face of this Holy Land,no doubt Uttarakhand is the place where roots of Hinduism can be found under every rivulet and every knoll. As per Wikipedia, Uttarakhand has long been called ” LAND of the gods” (Devbhumi),as the state has some of the holiest Hindu shrines, and for more than a thousand years, pilgrims have been visiting the region in the hopes of salvation and purification from sin. Gangotri and Yamunotri, the sources of the Ganga and Yamuna, respectively, fall in the upper reaches of the state and together with Badrinath (dedicated to Vishnu) and Kedarnath(dedicated to Shiva) form the Chota Char Dham, one of Hinduism’s most spiritual and auspicious pilgrimage circuits. Haridwar, meaning “Gateway to God”, is a prime Hindu destination. One of the biggest gatherings of human beings in form of major Hindu pilgrimages, Kumbh Mela, takes place in Uttarakhand. Haridwar is one of the four places in India which hosts this mela.

As we write, the relief effort is going in full swing, Indian politicians and the government machinery is working round the clock to help in rescue and rehabilitation operations, Gujrat’s Chief Minister Mr Modi aka Rambo has made headlines by his tall claim of evacuating 15000 Gujaraties from the killing hills of Uttarakhand,few politicos were seen quarrelling like kids on rescue helipads to get credit for pushing and shoving their people into overloaded helicopters, the story seems familiar to India and applicable in general to rest of South Asia including Pakistan.

Gradually, Indian main stream media is realising that they were just analysing the effects of Uttarakhand tragedy, the causes of this so called Natural calamity are popping up gradually after the wrath of Ganga mallows down and develops the traditional calm on her way to Bay of Bengal. Five major factors contributed to create this tragedy.

Foremost being poor Governance and lack of foresight; the Uttarakhand state and Union Government failed on many accounts to read the writing on the wall, that the global climate change is for real and sudden eruption of ecological disasters will become more frequent as humans keep devastating the environment and dig graves for future generations. Despite struggles like Chipko Movement where activists have been crying hoarse over depleting of forests and unbridled devastation of delicate eco system of Himalayas,Indian Government took their warning very lightly. Another important question related to poor governance is the issue of warning by met department and inability of state and Union Government to take any action on possibility of an impending disaster; the blame game between met department,Uttarakhund government and Union Governement is making headlines in Indian media .

Second is the factor of Commercial Greed that is driving corporate India beyond capacity of Indian Union and her people. The rush for unseen gold and urgency to make a quick buck has created an environment of cut throat competition within big corporate competitors;  strategic deforestation, hunt for minerals and extensive mining has created a black hole in the environment. This has also lead to infrastructure initiatives like pushing roads and commercial enterprises into delicately balanced hills and streams where you could find hotels and dharamshalas built with disregard to their location and balance, no wonder one could see so many of them washed away by angry Gangotari and Yamunotari with loss of innocent pilgrims who came in this wonderful area to get a peace of mind.

The third is poor quality of infrastructure, unsuitable to take exogenous shocks like cloud bursts or earthquakes. Although India boasts of quality work in all her commercial and public enterprises, the element of rampant corruption in the politico bureaucratic machinery and poor workmanship was clearly reflective in Uttarakhand. Poorly built roads, bridges and power system could not bear the first jolt created by a local cloud burst, localities were cut off from outside and within, you could find thousands of people clinging to knolls,trees, temples and dharamshalas in every safe nook and corner of the devastated zone, there was no other option but to call for helicopters.  Although Indian Air Force and Army became handy; the relief operation was much below the projected image India enjoys in the globe. The performance of Disaster Mitigation Authority at state and Union levels was pathetic; state authority appeared to be totally paralysed in this episode.

Fourth and most tragic was lack of support to the local Uttarakhandi population whose livelihood heavily relies on the pilgrimage undertaken by mainlanders,NRIs and wealthy Indians. Reportedly thousands of Kumaon and Garhwali young porters from all over Utarakhand (who do the job of carrying humans and logistics on their backs for the wealthy Indians) may have been swept away by the ravage of rivulets and streams, since Indian media decided not to give correct figures of the death toll, the estimates available run from 1000(government controlled resources) to 15000(independent media).The plight of local youth and utter apathy of Union Government in their relief has already  shaken the delicate fault line existing between rich and poor India.

Fifth and most surprising is the inability of Indian government to make fool proof arrangements for regular yatras and pilgrimage.Since Chota Char Dham forms an important religious circuit in life of every Hindu,the pilgrimages to Uttarakhand like Haridwar and yatras to the four shrines of Kedarnath,Badrinath,Gangotri and Yamunotri could have been better organised with adequate facilities for the people undertaking these ventures.

Can we learn from the Uttarakhand tragedy, Pakistan and her constituent entities have had their own experience of such exogenous shocks in the recent past? The lessons could include maintaining a delicate balance between development and ecology, shunning the corporate greed, making NDMA and PDMAs more effective and developing awareness in general public about gifts of nature and importance of the beautiful land that we have been made responsible for.

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  1. sardar singh says:

    Having visited Uttarakhand, I totally agree with authors for an apt analysis. India is neither ready for such disasters nor having political will to do an anything to prevent such shocks in near or distant future.

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