Failing the disaster test

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Left in the lurch Unattended relief materials lying at Govind Ghat
Left in the lurch: Unattended relief materials lying at Govind Ghat. Photo: Getty Images

The true test of any leadership is when a crisis strikes. In this context, the recent disaster in Uttarakhand has revealed the true nature of the state government led by Vijay Bahuguna. While the government says it has no experience in dealing with such calamities, the truth is that its response lacked adequate seriousness and will power. The political and administrative leadership of the state had no idea about the resources available with them and how to use them properly during a crisis.

The government may argue that it was an unexpected disaster, but neither was this calamity unexpected nor was it the first time that the state has dealt with such a crisis. There is a history of cloudbursts and landslides in the area. The Met department had already issued a warning. Even nature had given several signals before the calamity reached ghastly proportions. But the government failed to detect the problem in time and didn’t show sufficient wisdom in dealing with the crisis. And the result is there for all to see.

Although the Kedarnath disaster happened on 16-17 June, thousands of pilgrims were already stranded since 13 June, following heavy rains in the mountains. Having reached the state 15 days ahead of schedule, the monsoon had created palpable tension in the air. On 15 June, the Met department had forecast heavy rains in the next 48-72 hours. By the evening of 15 June, the rivers were in spate and there were reports of damage and loss of life in Phata, Rampur and Sitapur in Rudraprayag district.

In spite of all the warnings, Bahuguna left for Delhi on 16 June. The same afternoon, the Bhagirathi river had started destroying houses built on its banks. In the night, the floods washed away a portion of Kedarnath, and also destroyed a large section of Rambada and Gaurikund, located 7 km and 14 km away, respectively.

Sources say this first deluge of water and rubble claimed several lives from Kedarnath to Sitapur, located 20 km below in the valley. Several bridges and houses were washed away. The state government and the district administration knew about all these incidents. News of the destruction caused by the Bhagirathi and Mandakini rivers had increased the worries of tourists and their families. The Alaknanda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Asiganga rivers were flowing several metres above the danger level. The Ganga, made up of all these rivers, was also flowing above the danger mark in Haridwar. By 16 June, there was an official confirmation that 123 roads had been damaged.

All this while, Bahuguna was taking stock of the situation while sitting in Delhi. On 17 June, he reached Dehradun, but by 8 am, the floods had completely destroyed Kedarnath and its low-lying areas. Even then, the chief minister did not discuss the widespread damage caused with his ministers during the state Cabinet meeting the same day. This shows that either Bahuguna wanted to tackle the problem himself or he considers the opinions of his colleagues unimportant.

Every state has to send information to the disaster management division of the Union home ministry daily about any calamity and the damage caused. Records show that the Uttarakhand government had not given any information about the loss of life and destruction caused on 16- 17 June. By 17 June, Kedarnath had already been destroyed, so what was the state government waiting for?

By 18 June, the weather cleared up. A minister and several officials of the state government reached Dehradun after an aerial survey of Kedarnath. They even shared photographs of the destruction at Kedarnath. After seeing the magnitude of the calamity, officials from all over India reached Dehradun and started contacting people from their respective states.

On the other hand, it was business as usual at the state Secretariat. An official of the disaster management department was overseeing the rescue and relief operations alone. He was also answering queries from other states. No additional officials were employed to deal with the relief and rescue operations. The situation was the same for two more days.

On 18 June, instead of taking stock of the destruction in Kedarnath and Uttarkashi first, Bahuguna chose to visit the constituencies of his two favourite ministers in Dehradun. He finally made an aerial survey of some of the affected areas before the 19 June visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. The same day, a senior official of the administration, instead of talking about the relief operations and the state’s plan of rescuing stranded people, said that they had surveyed all the affected areas and had asked for Rs 3,000 crore for relief and reconstruction from the Centre. The priority of the state government can be gauged from this statement.

The state government became active after the visit of Manmohan, Sonia and chief ministers, ministers and officials of other states, but it did not have any plan in place and no system to conduct relief work. By this time, several meetings of the Central government had taken place in Delhi. But Bahuguna was trying to deal with the calamity in the state with just two of his colleagues and one senior official. Since the calamity happened, there had been no meeting of the Cabinet to take major decisions. The ministers and several MLAs were flying around in helicopters and wasting precious resources, while thousands of stranded people on remote mountains were watching these helicopters fly past in hope of being rescued. On 20 June, Bahuguna asked some of his Cabinet colleagues to take charge of different districts. They were only able to reach the affected areas by 21 June. Five days had passed by then.

Like the political leadership, even the administrative leadership seemed directionless. On 18 June, after seeing the situation in Kedarnath, the Rudraprayag district magistrate fell ill and was admitted to a hospital in Dehradun. For the next four days, the area was without a district magistrate. No administrative official was posted in his place, experienced enough to coordinate between the administration, army, ITBP and senior officials of the Centre. As a result, the whole system collapsed. The army and ITBP were carrying out relief work on a war footing but there was no system in place to get information on who died, where the injured had been admitted and who were still trapped. No deputy collector was posted in Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Sonprayag, Phata and Guptkashi for five days.

Even after a huge outcry, the political and the administrative leadership did not get their act together. Sources say that from day one of the calamity, several young officials had come forward and offered to work in the affected areas, but no one responded. Only on the evening of 21 June did the state government issue orders for posting 12 young officials as nodal personnel in the affected areas.

These officials reached the remote areas by 22 June night and the afternoon of 23 June. By this time, six days had passed and the time for saving people and providing information to the affected families had already passed. Several lives could have been saved had the state government used its available resources properly. But this did not happen.

No one is ready to answer why the state government took a week to take major decisions. If this was how the government performed in a state of calamity, one doesn’t have to think too hard to gauge the state of affairs during normal days.

Translated from Hindi by Saif Ullah Khan

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