By: Shankar Dev
“India to launch mars orbiter mission by November 2013” – News
“A country capable of climbing Mars was not able to reach its flood hit site even after a week” – epic paradox
Uttrakhand, located in the geologically young Himalayan belt is an active seismic zone -5 (highest degree of danger), prone to earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and hailstorms. Given its riverine topography extremely vulnerable to flash flood, state had witnessed man-made disasters and natural calamities in four of the past seven years. Yet there is no effective disaster risk management plans put in place.
Himalaya one of the youngest fold mountain systems in the world is known for its poor soil stability in its steep slopes braided with gigantic rivers of high sediment carrying capacity, often plays havoc in its course. So Government can’t stop Ganga from flooding, but it can effectively prevent people getting washed away by the flood by putting effective mechanisms in place. Apart from the stability of soil in the region, other reasons the experts quote are – the unbridled expansion of the hydro-power projects and myopic construction of roads in the Himalayan region, to match up with the demands of ever increasing traffic in the area.
The tourist influx multiplied to 5.4million from 2.1 million in 2002- led to sudden mushrooming of large number of resorts and guest house, some of them were dangerously constructed on the banks of the river disturbing the river ecology. To attract more and more tourists the ecologically fragile and religiously sacred sites in the state began to empower it with every kind of luxury which ultimately clogged the ecosystem.
Environmentalists give number of instances to hold their say- “it’s a manmade disaster”. A notification of the MoEF back in 2012, declares the entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarakashi, along the Bhagirathi river, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Eco-sensitive zone acts as an additional tool to strengthen the buffers and corridors around the Protected Area network and to check the negative impact of industrialization and unplanned development in and around Protected Areas. If implemented it would have stopped the precarious mining, construction and hydel power projects. But state govt- singing the development saga, showed heavy resentment to this proposal, in fact passed a resolution to do away with that notification.
Way back in 2001, national remote sensing agency had issued a report which explicitly listed the sites vulnerable to landslide including Kedarnath, Rudhraprayag and several places affected currently.
In 2004, central govt formulated the idea of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and empowered it with requisite legislation in 2005. The NDMA, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, was reviewed by the CAG between May 2012 and September 2012. The CAG gave a shocking report which exposed the failed state of NDMA- unfit to handle the disasters. When we see the disaster on the backdrop of CAG report, it will further reassure that Government had deviated from its responsibility. The report read as “The NDMA, which was conceived as the apex planning and supervising body, was found ineffective in its functioning in most of the core areas. It neither had information and control over the progress of work at the state level nor was it successful in implementation of various projects,”exposed the sorry state of disaster stimulus of the govt.
Even a week before the tragedy, central metrological department had warned the state on portends of cloudburst and subsequent impacts, yet state govt was on a passive mode. Besides State itself could not forecast the cloudburst because the Doppler Weather Radars bought for surveillance of severe and weather system is paid for but yet to be operational.
Even after the tragedy many lives could not be saved due to the anomaly of co-ordination among rescue forces. The absence of state rescue forces who are familiar with its geography had meant costly. The CAG report had also mentioned that “even after 6 years of the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, SDMAs are yet to be established all over the country and made operational”. Some states made an alibi by renaming the department of relief and rehabilitation, home guards and emergency fire services as department for disaster management, equipping it with ad-hoc personnel. When calamity happens they had to seek the aid of paramilitary and armed forces. This had redefined the role of armed forces trained and maintained to fight the enemies instead using them for rescue operations. Their involvement, however, was meant to work on the principle of being the ‘last to enter and the first to leave’. Conversely, in most post-disaster operations, the armed forces have been the “first to enter and the last to leave”.
Communication was a major constraint while rescue process, mainly due to the poor functionality of satellite phones. Though Defence electronics application laboratory (DEAL)- nation’s hi-tech communication lab was at Dehradun- its help was not sought instead ITBP’s low-profile phones were used.
The victims perilous to epidemics could not find timely medical aid due to shortage of doctors. It must be noted that more than 50% of sanctioned doctor posts were vacant in the state.
So it wouldn’t be defamatory or exaggeration if said “it is a state sponsored unnatural disaster”– that even supreme court had to intervene when it realised the backdrop and sluggish stimuli of the government. Finally for some politician who slammed SC for its judicial activism, I must say that constitution had mandated the state with every obligation and the responsibility to protect the life of its citizens. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution states: ‘No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedures established by law.’ = right to life. In addition, the Forty Second Amendment Act, 1976 explicitly incorporated environmental protection and improvement as a part of state policy. Article 48A, a Directive Principle of State Policy, provides that: ‘The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.’ Moreover, article 51A (g) imposes a similar responsibility on every citizen ‘to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures.
The link between environmental quality and the right to life was first addressed by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in the Charanlal Sahu Case. The Supreme Court interpreted the right to life guaranteed by article 21 of the Constitution to include the right to a wholesome environment. SC had given several interpretations to right to life- in the light of healthy environment.
SC had once again have shown its role as the guardian and caretaker, by rightly alarming the government time to time, when it forgot the basic tenets of its mandates. In addition people must realise that it is their duty to protect their environment and raise their voices against the state encroachment. Here the media must give a hand in hand support to the people. Unless a public opinion is build, there will be no substantive improvement in the management of the natural resources and things will get even worse, while our honourable PM enjoy his traditional bird’s eye view of the disasters.
 UN High Commisioner for Human Rights
(Pic courtesy: Downtoearth)