Uttarakhand Disaster

Uttarakhand Disaster: Lessons to be Learnt – Abhay Kumar 

In June, 2013, a major disaster struck Uttarakhand,
a tiny state ensconced within the Himalayan ranges of mountains
, where floods
and landslides killed thousands and devastated the local flora and fauna. Most
of the victims were tourists as they were visiting one of the famous
Char Dham Hindu pilgrim sites, Kedarnath
temple located in the Rudraprayag district (Garhwal region) of the state. Many
more were rescued by the armed forces as the civil administration failed
miserably once again in the face of disaster.

The immediate reason for this disaster
was massive rainfall in a short span of time that caused landslides to hit the
temple town of Kedarnath. The calamity was further compounded by the fact that Chorbari tal (a lake formed by a
retreating glacier; about 3 km in the North West direction of Kedarnath town)
breached lateral moraine, pounding the Kedarnath town by a massive wall of

The frequency of extreme weather events,
such as massive rainfall in a short period of time (cloud bursts), has
increased in recent times. Climate change is said to be the reason for such
spate in extreme weather events. Climate change has also impacted monsoons in India.
Climate is a function of complex interactions
between land, air and oceans, and climate change is mainly caused by the
increased concentrations of Green House Gases (GHGs) in atmosphere.

The world has to grapple
with climate change in a sustainable fashion sooner than later. However, in the
meantime, it is important to mitigate its consequences on human society. In the
face of Phailin, a cyclonic storm that landed Orissa in October, 2013, a
determined government’s massive preparations ensured that human casualties were
kept to minimum. Once again, polar freeze that engulfed Canada and parts of USA
bringing temperatures down to minus 50 degree Celsius could have devastated the
region had the governments been not determined to minimize the consequences.
The point, therefore, is to tackle climate change on all fronts. While every
effort should be made to reduce the concentrations of GHGs in atmosphere, the
human society must be more prepared to face the impacts of climate change.

So, what is there to learn
from the Uttarakhand disaster so that we are not condemned to face similar
consequences in future? Some of them are discussed below.

The Himalayan
range of mountains is the youngest range of mountains on the Earth. It’s only
75 million years old. It originated when the Indian plate collided with
Eurasian plate to uplift Himalaya. Geologically it is still active and believed
that a few millimetres of the Indian plate is still penetrating deep into the Asian
plate every year, making it an earthquake prone region too. The ecology of the Himalaya
is said to be fragile, implying its high vulnerability. In the face of even
small perturbations, such fragile ecosystems decay to degraded state. It should
be noted that the Himalayas is home to the origin of some of the largest river
systems in the world, viz., Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra. It is, therefore,
of utmost importance that we conserve the Himalayan system and only a
sustainable model of development be allowed. In the last few decades, there has
been a spurt in the construction of roads and big dams in the region. Trees
have been felled indiscriminately. Most of these projects are devoid of any
sound scientific judgments and robust engineering planning. Greed and profit
driven motives have led to such state of affairs in the region.

When the
state of Uttarakhand was carved out from Uttar Pradesh in the year 2000, one
had hoped that the developmental paradigm of the region will not only be
sensitive to the uniqueness of the region but also be pro-people. However,
happenings of the last one and half decades have belied such hopes. The new
developmental paradigm of the state is not only bereft of any reliable
scientific and engineering prudence but is also conspicuous by almost complete
absence of people’s involvement in their own destiny.

of hotels, resorts and guest houses on river banks or rather on the river bed
itself was an invitation to danger. The entire temple town of Kedarnath,
proverbially, was sitting on the powder keg, waiting for disasters to happen.
Hotels, houses, resorts, guesthouses and such developmental activities be
allowed only in identified safe zones in the region. Safe evacuation routes
should also be identified in the region. This region is earthquake prone too.
Other such regions/areas should also find safe evacuation routes about which
people should be made aware. 

A moribund
warning system, whose warnings no one heeded and no one cared about, coupled
with an equally callous response system was perhaps the tell-tale sign of the
disaster preparedness of the government. No wonder that no one gave any heed to
the Indian Meteorological Department’s (IMD) forecast of heavy rainfall in the
region. Many believed it to be a routine warning that IMD keeps forecasting. The
State Disaster management Authority chaired by the Chief Minister remained a
mute spectator. The District Magistrate (DM) of Rudraprayag district suffered a
mild heart attack.

Eventually, it was left to armed forces and a few NDMA personnel to put in
gargantuan efforts to provide relief to thousands stranded at different places.
It was inexplicable as to why a nation, which competed with the best in the
world in the field of remote sensing technology, was left wanting in the use of
the same technology for itself. High resolution imageries do help in these
situations a lot. Quite clearly there was an absolute lack of coordination and
faith on each other among different organizations of the government. India’s
warning and response system should be technologically robust, up-to-date and be
ready to face any kind of disaster in no time.

failure to see the disaster coming and its inadequacies in meeting the
challenges in the aftermath of disaster has several lessons for everyone to
learn. The then Chief Minister became so unpopular that he now is being
replaced by his own party before the country goes for general elections. It has
important lessons to offer on environment, development and disaster
preparedness. Only there is a certain melancholy in this discovery.

(Views expressed here are those of the author and
not of the organisation that he is associated with.)