Uttarakhand Floods: The Long Road to Relief and Rehabilitation

Uttarakhand 1.0 @ June 2013

It was two years ago, on June 16-17  that the rain came in droves. Gushing waters, cloud bursts and flash floods at 12,000 feet above sea level wreaked havoc for several hours. Hundreds died within minutes and thousands more lost their lives during the next few days. Homes, bridges and roads simply caved in. This was the scene at Kedarnath, the abode of Shiva, and the neighboring towns and villages in Uttarakhand in June 2013.

With clarity, albeit slowly, the reality of the massive tragedy hit the authorities. The Army, Air Force and paramilitary forces had to be called in. Thus began the biggest ever rescue effort Operation Surya Hope. Since roads and bridges had been wiped out, people could only be air lifted out of  danger spots. Torrential downpour affected the rescue operations. Helicopters could fly only when there was no rain.  Food, medicine and other relief material had to be rushed in. The state government was taken totally off guard and failed to act with urgency and efficiency. Finally, it was the armed forces that did a commendable job and managed to rescue as many as they could in demanding and unfavorable conditions.

The media had extensively covered the tragedy and was on to their next breaking stories. The majority of other stakeholders like NGOs, civic society organizations, groups of concerned citizens, volunteers and corporates did their bit and left after a while. What remained behind were the scars of the tragedy in homes that had lost their sons and husbands. Villages like Deoli Benigram lost more than 50 men and came to be known as the village of the widows. The breadwinners were gone, forever.

Government relief efforts were high on rhetoric and low on delivery. Plans on paper did not manage to make it to the ground. The local bureaucracy had mostly been apathetic in the background of the lackluster leadership provided by their political masters during the days of distress. Public sentiment hit all-time low as frequent incidents of mismanagement and poor organization came to light.       

Far away from the scene of disaster, in Dehradun the state capital, there was sorrow and anger at the tragedy. Experts and environmentalists were unanimous in acknowledging that the devastation was as much man-made as natural. Though no formal studies have been done till date, it has widely been accepted that the ruthless and senseless handling, or rather mishandling, of the fragile Himalayas over the years had played a major role in the catastrophe.

Uttarakhand 2.0 @ June 2015

It has been two years since the disaster. The report card on relief, rehabilitation and recovery by the state government is uninspiring.  Political uncertainty, lack of governance and absence of administrative acumen have all impacted the rebuilding of Uttarakhand. Planning seems to have followed a largely piecemeal approach. Execution has been patchy.

Jobs are scarce and industries are not setting foot in the mountains. Be it horticulture or agriculture or any sort of culture, nothing has worked out. The oft-repeated cliche; of using Pahad Ka Pani Aur Pahad Ki Jawani (The water and youth of the hills for the hills) has become a jumla, empty without any meaning or depth.

It is in this background that extensive reports have recently emerged in the national media about the massive scam in the flood relief operations. These details have come out as a result of RTI responses received by a local activist. Widespread financial irregularities and anomalies allegedly committed by errant officials have been reported in the replies received from the affected districts in the state.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat has assured that the guilty will be punished. He has defended the officials and said there was no wrong doing. It is however a matter of concern that the track record of Uttarakhand in combating corruption has been woefully inadequate and slow. Umpteen inquiry commissions have earlier been set up to probe sundry corruption charges but have a poor record of bringing the guilty to book.

It is ironical that after two years of the June 2013 disaster the ghosts of the dead are coming back to haunt the government. Irrespective of the outcome of the investigations, this was an opportune time to take stock of the past two years. The BJP, opponents to the ruling Congress party in the state, seem to be in no mood to let go of the opportunity to corner them over the alleged scam.

Uttarakhand 3.0 @ Moving Ahead

There is a lot of work to be done, a lot more needs to be accomplished.  The plains-hills divide and the incessant mountain migration have been burning issues. Basics like schools without teachers and hospitals without doctors have added to the growing agony. Lakhs of unemployed youth have to bear the brunt of no industrial growth.

Uttarakhand as a state has also failed to carve a clear image and position for itself.  Once the state was known for its bounty of Jal, Jungle and Jameen (Water, Forest and Land), today it's better known for the mafia that controls them. Political instability has marred continuity.  Frequent changes - 8 chief ministers in the past fifteen years - have dealt a political blow to stability.         

Several steps can still be taken in the right direction. Uttarakhand will need to build its future and destiny on eco power, not hydro power. Eco tourism, ecology, eco-preneurship, horticulture, village tourism and allied activities are the only options for mountain development. Environmental concerns and the need for sustainable development necessitate a new mindset, a fresh approach.

The Himalayas are a resource, a raw material, an input for the entire nation. What is their contribution to the country? How to monetize and how to aggressively promote the concept of green growth? Development will need to be holistic keeping in mind the limitations, aspirations and requirements of the hill as well as the plain communities. This will require deft political and administrative acumen.  As Uttarakhand gets ready to pay tributes to the thousands who lost their lives two years ago, the time is ripe to make a fresh resolve.

(Anoop Nautiyal is the former Chief Operating Officer for the 108 government emergency services in Uttarakhand)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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