Extreme rains followed by floods and landslides in Uttarakhand should act as a wake up call for planners and decision makers all over the country
Indian mythology is replete with instances of 'akaash-vaani' (heaven speak) to warn both kings gone astray and common people deviating from the path of 'dharma'. The most famous of them is of course the 'akaash-vaani' predicting King Kansa’s death at Krishna’s hand. But ‘heaven speak’ does not just belong to the realm of mythology. What happened in Uttarakhand in June is proof enough.
The heaven in form of nature spoke loud and clear on June 15, 16 and 17. The message was not just for the kings (state) but also the common people. Mind and mend your ways, else….
It is unfortunate that Uttarakhand since its formation as a state has followed a developmental path incompatible with the fragile and special conditions in its hills and valleys. Popularly called the ‘Dev Bhumi’ (land of gods) from where the two sacred river systems, Ganga and Yamuna emerge, and where conditions were always fertile for furtherance of spiritual pursuits (no wonder the 'Char Dhams' are located here) has today become a playground of mercenaries and adventurers. Its rivers have been defiled no end, hills blasted in the name of development and the valleys constructed over precipitously.
But how and where do we go from here?
If we wish to heed heaven speak, then the state must:
- Introspect without bias or fear. If it has gone wrong in understanding Uttarakhand's proper developmental needs, then let it not hesitate in admitting so.
- Realise that the Himalayan hills are young, restless and fragile. And accordingly set its developmental priorities and policies. These should be based as much on local and traditional knowledge and aspirations, as on the use of ‘state of art’ science and technology.
- Realise that the state is endowed with expert institutions and experts. So let it not import ideas and projects incompatible with local conditions and ecology, merely in the name of development or economic growth.
- Realise that people need gainful employment on a sustained basis. So the state should first evaluate its riches and vulnerabilities to chart out a developmental path that would enrich its riches and reduce its vulnerabilities. For example, bare hills need covering and denuded hills re-vegetation. These high hills which support legendary glaciers and have been the source of innumerable waterfalls and springs, feeding our rivers, are the true ‘dams’ that shall continue to hold water and release it gradually through springs and ‘nalas’--unless prevented from doing so. Let Uttarakhand, under the Union government's Green India Mission, lead the nation in greening its hills. Its youth can be gainfully engaged in this activity. This should include measures such as soil and water conservation. Let a mission to ‘revive natural dams’ become the path to sustained happiness and security in the hills.
- Annual yatra or pilgrimage to Char Dham and many other places of religious and spiritual significance on the banks of the Ganga and the Yamuna and its tributaries is certainly the state’s ‘signature’ activity. Let it be restored in a non-commercial manner. It is agreed the world over that places in hills cannot accommodate people beyond their carrying capacity. So the yatras shall have to be strictly regulated with verifiable standards. Tariffs for lodging and boarding should be set by competent and efficient state agencies. Let a ‘Yatra board’ with membership from government as well as non-government representatives, including experts and the religious leaders, be constituted by an Act of the state legislature.
- The high rainfall events of mid June, 2013 are neither the first (recall the wiping away of Srinagar town by river Alaknanda in August 1894 and Belakuchi deluge again in Alaknanda in July 1970) nor the last. Yes, the large scale loss of life and property should have been prevented through timely warning and quick preventive action/s taken on the ground. The fact that the armed and para- military forces excelled in post-event rescue and relief operations of the stranded can by no means be an excuse for an absent civil administration. Tales of deprivation and pain narrated by the people rescued and their criticism of the conduct of civil administration well into the second week of the tragedy has to be accounted for and amends made.
- Meteorological monitoring, weather advance warning systems and post extreme-event rescue and relief operations shall have to be upgraded to levels befitting the fragility of the state’s natural environment and ecology, so that never again is the state machinery caught likewise napping.
June 2013, Uttarakhand is a wake up call not just for the rulers and people in the state, but planners and decision makers all over the country. Here are learnings and lessons for various ministries in the Government of India, in particular its expert agencies like IMD (India Metrological Department), CWC (Central Water Commission), EAC (Expert Appraisal Committee) of Union environment ministry and NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) as well as governments and authorities in all other hill states.
It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to suffer it over and over again. Let not the sacrifice of unwitting victims of Uttarakhand, 2013 go in vain. Let not the distinct ‘heaven speak’ go unheeded. AMEN.
Manoj Misra is convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan and belongs originally to Uttarakhand
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