The Uttarakhand Catastrophe: Man-Aggravated Natural Disaster
Last month, India faced the wrath of Mother Nature as cloudbursts over Kedarnath and Rambada, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, brought in flash floods and land slides of humongous proportions that swept away entire towns and villages. Roads, bridges, and lines of communication broke down and countless were lives lost and those still alive, were in peril of succumbing soon. Though it was deemed ‘an act of Nature’ by the government, the magnitude of the calamity could have been a lot less if the government had acted soon enough. To add insult to the injury, the government took almost a week before any help was made available.
As it stands, the only choice for India to minimize cataclysmic climatic disasters, is to practice sustainable growth and regulated development, or face a future with recurrent furies of Mother Nature, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.
(Above): The Kedarnath Temple (c) is pictured amid damaged surroundings by flood waters at Rudraprayag in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, June 20. India’s monsoon rains could ease soon after hitting 89 percent over averages in the week to June 19, according to weather office sources, in a third straight week of downpours that have caused major flooding in north India. This picture was taken on June 20. [Photo: Reuters]
The state of Uttarakhand, also known as the “Land of Gods,” is home to multiple temples and pilgrimage sites for people of different faiths, particularly Hindus and Sikhs. Scenic beauty, majestic Himalayan mountain ranges, forests, and the glacial origin of two rivers that feed northern India, the Ganga and Yamuna, also lie in this state.
Though familiar with heavy downpours, the state faced its worst calamity ever recorded in recent times. According to the chief long-range forecaster of the meteorological department, S. Damodar Pai, the Westerlies that unleashed unprecedented havoc in Europe, came through Afghanistan, collided with the south west Monsoons and produced deadly cloudbursts and abnormally high levels of rains.
As has often been the norm with any Indian central or state government, they tried to attribute the cause of this havoc to the ‘fury of Mother Nature’ and initially expected rains to stop thus losing precious time.
For a rather long period neither was an emergency declared by the state’s chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, nor did he call for help from other states, the center, or international organizations.
Environmentalists, activists and citizens uniformly denounce the ineptness of the government to tackle the disaster. According to them, rampant commercialization of the entire region without paying any regard to ecology, so much so, that concrete structures have come up right on river banks leaving no space for the meandering of rivers, is largely to blame for the massive loss of life and property in this disaster.
(Above): A view of damaged houses after floods hit in Uttarakhand. The houses seem to be too close to the river than what should be allowed.. [Photo: PTI]
The region has been faced with unregulated concretization, deforestation and mining (even illegal at times). Housing and hotel development along the riverbanks and an uncontrolled number of tourists visiting the state for the Char Dham Yatra (pilgrimage) as well as the Himalayas, are some of the other factors that can be blamed for the environmental degradation of the region.
At the time of floods, while the population of the state stood at ten million, the number of visitors was well over what should have been allowed as a healthy count.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, in its April report, had clearly shown that the state was completely unprepared to handle any calamity.
It was conveniently overlooked by the state government, just like in December 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ call for declaration of an 83 mile-long stretch along the river Ganga as an eco-sensitive zone, that included a ban on construction alongside the river, was vetoed against by the state ministry.
Successive state governments have tended to tilt in favor of locals ‘lobby,’ which translates to mafia, industrial, mining, and construction groups, who grease the palms of policy framers to squash or tweak green policies to be finally declared as “anti-development.”
Though late, but one hears from the corridors of power, that current Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan, may once again make a pitch for revision of the December 2012 order.
The cloudbursts over Kedarnath and Rambada in Uttarakhand, Jun. 16, turned fatal as they produced huge columns of water, falling from the sky with a destructible force that crashed against mountains, loosened rocks and boulders, and swept them and everything else that was in the path, in its swell and surge.
Official estimates peg the number of dead to more than 5,000 and the number of stranded or missing pilgrims and locals at more than 15,000. The estimates have been increasing every day since Jun. 17.
While all this was still happening, state authorities and politicians went on futile aerial surveys of the region, without really coming up with an action plan to evacuate those stranded. As a result, precious time was lost in the beginning.
(Above): Indo Tibetan Border Police rescue people by building temporary bridges in the disaster-hit region of Uttarakhand. [Photo: PTI]
The Indian Army, Indian Air Force, the Indo Tibetan Border Police, state police and Navy commandos called ‘Marcos’ joined forces to eventually embark on a heroic rescue operation of massive proportions.
Rescue agencies fished out dead bodies from layers of slush and debris and evacuated people stranded in the far, isolated areas of the mountains despite the dense fog, fresh spells of rains, inclement weather, landslides, and overcast conditions continuing to damage, submerge and wash away sections of roadways thereby crippling rescue work and forcing choppers and ambulances to return to their bases.
Two important road links to Rudraprayag were completely washed jeopardizing traffic movement to Tehri.
Acting as lifesavers, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), mainly used for bombings at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, were deployed to obtain images of people stuck on mountain tops for 37 helicopters to ferry them to safer locales.
As of Jun. 24, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel had combed Kedarnath and its surrounding jungles, Son Prayag, Guptakashi, Gaurikund and Rambada.
Ram Prasad was part of one of the NDRF teams. He said that incessant cloudbursts, weeklong torrential rains, cold weather, lack of warm clothing, food, and shelter were primarily responsible for casualties among the initial survivors of the floods.
The initial focus was to rescue over a 1,000 people stranded in Chamoli district and Gangotri valley and then the Badrinath and Harsil areas were targeted as per state chief secretary Subhash Kumar.
A huge sense of relief was felt by Yaron Ben Israel and his family when they received news of survival of their son, Nadav Ben, after a week-long agonizing wait. Nadav, who was caught in the floods, trekked about 62 miles of treacherous terrain with a friend to find shelter in a makeshift Army relief camp.
Sudesh Makkar and four more senior citizens from Gurgaon are indebted for the help they received from villagers of Burari and the old keeper of a hotel who sheltered and fed them for four days, till army jawans arrived to evacuate them.
Others like M.N. Srivastava and his family were lucky to have missed the fatal tirath yatra (pilgrimage) that they would have otherwise undertaken, all thanks to last minute changes in the schedule of his Singapore-based son.
Manish Kumar however, will have to live through the trauma of not being able to save his wife. She fell into a gorge when a landslide hit them near the Jungle Chatti area.
Besides the government’s allocation of an additional 4,000 tons of wheat and rice at an economic cost (which includes minimum support price plus storage and procurement charges), individual donations for supplies of ready-to-eat and ready-to-constitute food, medicines, torches, raincoats, umbrellas and blankets have slowly started reaching the state.
Meanwhile, Indian Railways will be carrying food, clothing, utensils, building material, free of cost from Jun. 25 to July 9, while several transport agencies like Transport Nagar have volunteered to carry relief material, and many volunteers have reached the state to assist in relief work.
As for medical aid, Dr G.C. Joshi, acting health director general, says that chlorine balls for water treatment and bleaching powder to oxidize dead bodies have been dispatched to affected areas in order to prevent an epidemic outbreak.
State authorities have appealed to the relatives of victims and those reportedly stranded or missing to keep faith and patience and look out for lists of missing or surviving people.
Google’s Person Finder can also be accessed for the purpose.
Meanwhile, the government has ordered for a mass cremation of bodies after their identification, post mortem and DNA preservation formalities.
The danger has not yet abated. The Central Water Commission has sounded warning bells for the possibility of Tehri and Ramganga dams overflowing with water levels already reaching 449 percent above normal, the highest in the country. If rains do not recede, excess water will need to be discharged by opening the sluice gates, which could amount to imminent flooding in downstream areas.
The government meanwhile announced that the rescue work was complete, Jun. 27. It was now time for relief and rehabilitation of the entire region currently estimated to take at least three long years!
As for the pilgrims, traditional puja or worship of Lord Shiva of the Kedarnath temple has been restored at Uknimath, while the Hemkunt Sahib shrine remains closed to pilgrims for now.
India’s woes have never been new and solutions have been very commonplace but lack of will on part of legislating and executing authorities has impeded proper planning and implementation.
For quite sometime, Dr. Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director general of Center for Science and Environment, has argued against the logic of having 70 dams built on the Ganga river in the state.
The country’s leadership need to be accountable and step up.
As it stands, the only choice for India to minimize cataclysmic climatic disasters, is to practice sustainable growth and regulated development, or face a future with recurrent furies of Mother Nature.
New Delhi, India
The flash floods triggered by very heavy rainfall and cloudburst in Uttarakhand on 16-17 June 2013, affected 12 out of the 13 districts in Uttarakhand. The 4 districts that were worst affected were Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh.
The deluge has washed away roads, bridges and other infrastructure. So far about 1000 deaths are reported and many are still reported missing. In Kedarnath alone about 75,000 pilgrims had been stranded due to landslides and flash floods.
In view of the devastating impact of the heavy rain fall in the state of Uttarakhand, Secretary General, Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) held a meeting on 18th June 2013 in his office with the senior officials from IRCS NHQ, IFRC and ICRC.The Indian Red Cross Society (National Head quarters) mounted an immediate response to the disaster by deploying relief and assessment teams to Dehradun, Uttarkashi, Rishikesh, Pithoragarh and Rudraprayag. Shri Gulam Nabi Azad, Hon’ble Chairman, IRCS (The Minister of Health and Family Welfare) flagged off the trucks carrying relief materials for the flood affected victims on 21st of June 2013.
Relief materials in the form of Non food items has been despatched to the Uttarakhand state branch by road for further distribution to the affected areas. Till date more than INR 2.2 crores worth of relief items has been sent.
Indian Red Cross responds to the Uttarakhand disaster
The Indian Red Cross responded to the Uttarakhand disaster by mobilising the National disaster response team (NDRT), Regional disaster response team (RDRT) and National disaster watsan response team (NDWRT) members who were alerted for possible deployment. The National headquarters despatched a two member team to Uttarakhand on the 19th June 2013 for carrying out assessment of the needs of the community in coordination with the officials of the Uttarakhand state Red Cross branch and to follow it with the organisation of relief work.
The General Secretary, Uttarakhand State Red Cross branch activated the Certified First Medical Responders (CFMRs) at the various districts of Uttarakhand. There are 151 trainers and more than 4500 CFMRs who are trained in First aid, psychosocial support, search and rescue, dead body management, PhiE etc with the Uttarakhand Red Cross state branch. A meeting with 30 CFMRs was held at Dehradun on the 19th June 2013.
The team deployed at Dehradun established contact with FMRs and Patwaris in these affected Districts and the FMRs prepared lists of people who were stranded in their region. The list had details about the place they were stranded in, the contact person they wanted to inform their whereabouts, a message they wished to convey, phone number etc. Around 50 such messages were delivered about these stranded people to their families that were waiting for information about their loved ones. A tracing request from Tamil Nadu was received regarding a group of pilgrims, their location was found out and medical assistance was organised for them. A meeting was held in state branch where around 30 volunteers participated who committed their time for relief operation activities. The NDRT team reached Uttarkashi on 21st June 2013 and met the 30 FMRs working since the day of disaster.
A high level team from the IFRC and National Headquarters consisting of the Head, IFRC; Deputy secretary, IRCS, NHQ and Advisor (DM) has also visited Uttarakhand for an on the spot analysis of the situation. IRCS is in close coordination with the Director (EMR), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for any requirement that may need to be addressed. On request, IRCS despatched 1600 body bags to Dehradun.
Relief materials in the form of 1050 Family tents (to accomodate upto 8 persons each), family packs (including kitchen sets, clothings, buckets etc.), stoves, lanterns and tarpaulins etc. worth INR 2,21,99,300 have been despatched to Uttarakhand.
A Red Cross camp has been set up near Vikas bhawan in Joshiyara, Uttarkashi. 40 tents have been erected and 24 families are at the camp presently. 35-40 CFMRs are working at Uttarkashi. Further as reported by the state branch FMR and Red Cross life members gave first aid, navigation assistance, medicines, etc to 1720 people. Assessment to document impact of floods on the local population is underway.
Another team of two National Disaster relief team members of the IRCS (NHQ) has been deployed at Pithoragarh on the request of the Secretary, Uttarakhand State RC Branch. The team went to BALWAKOT, NAYABASTHI, DARCHULA, GHOTI after walking for 5 – 8 km.The people are living in tents, administration is providing them ration. No major health issue has been reported. 5 FMRs are working in temporary shelters here since 17th June. Around 3000 people have been evacuated to safer places by ITBP. Mobile health unit has been set up by the government and Red Cross hospital at Balwakot is also functioning. A ’Restoring family links’ expert has reached Rudraprayag along with the NDWRT expert for assessment of needs and coordination in relief measures.
Daily review meetings are being held by the Secretary General in the control room set up at National Headquarters.