Disastrous Management of Uttarakhand

By R S Tolia • Without Fear or Favour • 22 Jun 2013

The Indian people have a strange tradition, with which many of us may not concur fully, and that is if the rains are timely and crops are good they credit it to the inherent goodness of their King, but at the same time, if they have to undergo periods of draught and suffer from hunger and deprivation they equally lay it at the door of their King, indirectly holding him responsible for it ! Surely, the King can not have the option of taking full credit for the first but deny totally having any thing to do with the latter. It is a case of Hobson’s Choice and I leave it to our present Chief Minister,  to reflect on. I do not know to what extent Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna will be held accountable for the unprecedented human tragedy which is currently being spewed out by our electronic channels and print media, day in and day out. The details are going to be only more gory and worse as the connectivity improves and a massive human tragic experience is laid bare, stunning and shocking the viewers and listeners. I really sympathise with Chief Minister Bahuguna that he should been rewarded like this by way of his completing one year in office. Not many politicians today would like to be in his shoes, certainly not for sharing the deserved or undeserved calumny of horrid state of preparedness for  disaster management, or an absence of it — which has already begun to be shared by the survivors of the tragedy or the relatives of those whose life-less bodies may have by now traversed miles along the Mandakini, or even Alaknanda.  Haridwar has already reported arrival of 26 such dead bodies, tens of hundred may not be even counted as dead and missing. 

The Raj Dharma

Leaving the state senior bureaucracy and their political masters to debate and manage a seemingly unmanageable situation, mainly concentrated at this point of time to the Ukhimath Tehsil of Rudraprayag district, in particular the down-stream of Mandakini river valley, let me briefly deflect their attention to some other hapless border regions of the same state, presently the farthest from Dehradun. One senior statesman like persona of this country openly  reminded a Chief Minister, that as a  Chief Minister, besides serving his party and the principles it has short-listed to be followed by them in the running this pluralistic country are quite OK, but there is a much higher principle called the Raj Dharma, which treats every person on equal terms, and does not decide priorities based on the votes he or she may have cast in a particular election, or the caste or section in which that person may have been born by sheer accident. Every one knows that Chief Ministers being the ruling hand of today are expected to follow this Raj Dharma, first and foremost. While there are no two opinions about the over riding priority that requires to be given to Ukhimath-Kedarnath region there are other regions also which cry out for his and his administration’s attention. One is fully aware of the attachment Mr Bahuguna may have with Rudraprayag, as his father late Hemwati Bahuguna spent his child-hood there, in tutelage of his late Kanungo grand-father, but the situation in many other border regions is equally bad, if not worse.    

Preparedness of Local Administration

In this piece I am laying out bare identifiable facts, with designations of local officers given, which would prove that the local administration has not only failed totally to address the great challenge that the nature has posed to them but the way the things are they are the least competent officials to handle the grave situation that faces as many as 14 high Himalayan border villages of Pithoragarh district jeopardizing lives of hundreds of stranded people, many of them being small children who were taken up by their parents to these villages, may soon have a fate worse than persons who for no fault of theirs were washed away in the Mandakaini on the fateful morn of the last 16th June at Kedarnath. These would be deaths and casualties for which the local administration will have to be held fully and squarely responsible. All these facts have also been mentioned twice in two rounds of meeting, which this writer in the presence of several responsible local citizens have pointed out to the Nodal Officer sent in by the District Magistrate of Pithoragarh to manage the situation in 14 villages of the Malla Johar region of Munsyari tehsil. These facts are as follows:

1.       Local administration, headed by the present SDM, has absolutely no information, even after 5 days of a natural calamity as to how many men, women or children are stuck up and stranded, in the 14 remote border villages of Malla Johar region, who are all also tribal people ?

2.       The SDM, even though he has spent nearly a year, and has been earlier its Tehsildar, has never visited these villages, so he has no clue as what is to be done, as he does not know the lay of the land of any of the villages. What planning and action such a leader of disaster management can be done ? Learning this today a map was provided to him to make the suggestions intelligible to him so that he can take action ! Why such officials should be posted to such strategically sensitive regions who have neither ant interest, or sympathy of inclination to serve in such areas. Sure the disaster management under such official leadership could only be a disastrous management of the region and extending the logic, of the state of Uttarakhand.

3.       The 14 hapless villages are at the minimum height of 8,000 feet and above, the road connecting them with the tehsil headquarters, is under the Border Roads Organisation, which has not constructed a single feet of road this year, from the Munsyari-Dhapa side, and of the 65 km stretch of this life-line, the BRO chose to do the easier part, Milam-Martoli-strtch, while parcelled out the difficult part to a private company, which was here in connection with construction of a hydro-power project. Even this private company has stopped working for the BRO, as the latter have refused to make payment to the tune of Rs 6 crores already, and they are preparing to go for an arbitration. The Brigadier in charge, sitting at Champawat, needs to be enquired for this serious lapse, holding back all work on a much hyped strategic road connection Indian border with China. Additionally there are serious allegations against the BRO functionaries working on the easier end. For the disastrous situation this Border Roads Organisations is to be held squarely responsible and their senior officials made accountable for this serious situation, where the main road is not in a position to be travelled !

4.       The maintenance of the Munsyari-Milam-Dung road ( MMD ) used to have a 60 plus Maintenance gang, which has now shrunk to less than six, and even these six functionaries are not there. The Executive Engineer, who has been attached from a neighbouring charge is also without any knowledge of the local road conditions and without any authority. Including an ignorant SDM an equally ignorant and powerless Executive Engineer PWD, makes it two most responsible officials , who are totally clueless about what is to be done and where and by whom ?

5.       The Gori river, in full spate, has already caused havoc far worse than the present, but the rainy season is yet to come fully, and the 14 high Himalaya villages are totally cut off from the main road, as the recent rains have washed away all the 7 girder bridges which had been constructed over this river. Milam, Burfu, Tola, Rhalam and all big villages, where several people have gone during April are today totally cut off and the top priority should be to immediately construct temporary bridges first at Burfu, wher we have food grains- godown and then at Tola, which links Sumtu, Khilanch and even Rhalam villages. Erection of these main two bridges, while as many as six or seven are immediately  require will take a minimum of 20 days, if all sanctions are given, which includes, selection of a local contractor ( who has come forward in the meeting held today ), who will take at least 20 labours, would need a written bond, permission to cut trees at Tola, Burfu and even Bogdyar, in worst situation, and proceed with written permission. Roads, bridges, food grains for the labourers who will go with the courageous contractor, permission to fell trees for the bridges, making them usable, local labour, transporting them to the erection site, all this and more, are damn tedious details to work on and push forward. An igonarant SDM, an equally ignorant Ex Engineer, a remotely seated DM and a Chief Engineer who has been talked to about this, make a team of people, who leave very serious doubts, Mr Chief Minister Bahuguna, in a mind of a person like this writer, that you have given us a team of officials who can deliver and can inspire confidence in the minds of people who are going to suffer, suffer very badly !

6.       The quantities of food-grains, that have been kept at Burfu, for the entire rainy season, and the back up stored food grains at the Bogdyar, store, requires lical handling and management. This year’s provision which should have been at Burfu and Bogdyar, was reportedly shifted to a local godown, where it should not have gone, and a considerable amount of papering-up has already come to knowledge of the SC/ST Commission Chairman, Mr Chanar Ram, during his recent visit. Unless all this stock, both at Bogdyar and Burfu, is not converted into “disaster relief” quota, and additional supplies are sent up, the coming days and weeks are going to have very serious consequences for the hapless persons, especially hundreds of children who might feel the impact of this criminal negligence in food grains supplies. Teams of Food grains department need to be immediately sent up, with additional food grains supply, to provide both for the current and the long term ( end of September ) needs.

7.       In one village alone, Rhalam, some 32 kms away from Munsyari which has no roads at all, as many as 250 to 300 people have got stuck up, not in village but some further 7 km due NE, and they have reported serious shortage of food grains. How on earth food grains are going to reach these hapless people , while such ignorant and innocent officials are managing the affairs of this place, can tell us ? What can be recommended is that as a punishment these officials can be ordered to go themselves and address the issue at such villages, will be the only remedy to educate such officials on administration and sensitivity they should have

8.       Neither the Nodal Officer nor the SDM were aware that as many as 9 Satellite Phones had been installed two years previously, in most of the villages which have been discussed above. Except one at Martoli, that too unconfirmed, is active today ! BSNL officials when contacted have no clue whether these are not working due to a technical fault, or lack of payment or simply because the follow-up has been mission. What on earth is the use of wasting such huge money, in the name of border development, when such schemes like Satellite Phone s are not kept functional. What is worse the local administration of even being aware of such provisioning having been made recently, is simply an unforgivable crime ! Will some one enquire the GM of BSNL at Almora, why such a show has been made of two years previously, if that is the ultimate use of such huge expenses. Even when these Sat Phones were being set up objections were rightly raised that these should not be kept with installations like the IRBP, as these are not access-friendly arrangements. Yet, these remain and remain outside the range of common people. If ITBP has wireless and so many other facilities why local people are considered as if they are enemy people and not allowed access ?

9.       Till such time these simple but seemingly Herculean efforts are made for simple, peaceful, non-violent, tribal and border-people, the minimum that should have been done was to arrange helicopter sorties, for dropping food-grains and lifting serious medical cases, even women and children. No, we have just one sortie, one lot of American tourists, and just one local lady, is allowed and food grains dropping are subordinated to a “white-man’s burden mind set”. When we will start treating Indians, especially the hapless tribal people living in harsh border regions, as ordinary individuals needing same priority as white Americans, who are already having excellent back-up of first class local tourist guides and hoteliers ? Why should the honourable MPs and Ministers be rubbing painful salt into the wounds of stranded local people, tourists and needy women and children stuck up in these places through aerial visits of the calamity affected regions beats every body’s mind, while the sorties required for food-grains droppings among stranded people are given a go bye just like that ! We are simply ashamed of such mind sets among our politicians and people must not forgive them for not coming in the way of relief, in this callous manner. No brownie points will go in their favour, they needed to be reminded,

10.   Now that this writer has decided to locate himself in Munsyari only last fortnight a series of half- day seminars were organized, partly with the help of our Tourism department ( I am not sure if their sanctioned amount is going the same way as all such Announcements made by our Chief Minister have gone so far, ask the local people here and they will remind the Chief Minister that it is more than a year since he made them in the local sports ground !), where in most of the issue that have been covered in this piece were not only high-lighted but also discussed with the senior most officials of the state. The news papers which covered these half day seminars would vouchsafe the fact. No every one attends it, even coming as far as from Dehradun, but not the great lords who come as SDMs, BDOs, DMs, even when trouble is taken to invite them ! These officials simply refuse to be educated, informed, made aware of the local problems. The issue of connectivity, the road conditions, the bridges, the scandalous food grains, all ae discussed openly, local people are there to share it, but where is the need to learn all this, know all this, if you have politicians as your backers, inept senior officials to listen to such inefficient, insensitive local officials ? Had they time and sensitivity to be a part of the local issues and problems being faced by the local people, the state of inaction, ineptitude and inefficiency would not have bee there, and the local people made to share the agony and hardships, and

11.   In the meeting organized by the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti, a registered body to focus on development of these neglected villages of high Himalaya, one member reminded the Nodal Officer that while dropping food grains for the stranded people, do spare a thought for the lakhs of mute but needy sheep and goats and their poor herdsmen, presently in these parts only, to add bagsful of salt that are needed for these sheep to survive in these difficult times. One wonders when even poor humans are getting such a shoddy inhuman treatment, who bothers about these sub-humans and their feed requirements ?  

Revamp Search & Rescue System by training Local Youth

The sheer magnitude of Rescue Operations required in the Ukhimath and Rudraprayag region in particular, even though their requirement is really universal in Uttarakhand ( which is difficult to understand by those who sit in Dehradun and Haldwani most of the time), would register it very forcefully that we have to immediately revisit the way we have gone with our Search & Rescue System. Today, as many as at three locations these Rescue Training packages are being delivered, HAI, Mussoorie, Naini Tal Mountaineering Club and recently a few more centres have been co-opted. This writer personally finalised the course package with Mr Chamoli and his team at HAI, and it was with some effort that these Rescue Course moved forward with the help of Disaster Management department. Records will show you, Mr Chief Minister, that Uttarakhand was the first mountain state to set up a Disaster Management department, a budget for it ( much of it is now at the mercy of our over-bearing politicians, hell bent on its mis-application and mis-direction ) and even a Centre ( DMMC, at the Secretariat itself ), up-scaling a similar Centre which this writer started at the then UP Academy of Administration, Naini Tal.

A large number of risk-prone places were identified, a standard rescue kit was finalised and as many as 190 plus locations, mostly Police Stations, Tehsils etc were identified, where these were kept for emergency use. What needs to be done immediately is to undertake these Search & Rescue Training packages ( this used to be a 21 days schedule ) on a very large scale, not as a cosmetic course by school students, but strictly limited to local unemployed and physically fit youth, who could be immediately deployed or could use such training received by them. Uttarakhand has very successfully trashed many such initiatives as I recently learned when a few trained persons were called for rescue work at nearby Madkot village, these “trained Search & Rescue” personnel simply refused to go ahead ! So these Search & Rescue training must be now strictly provided to local rural youth, who are going to stay in the villages and who may be trained in the already risk-prone identified villages ( said to be nearly 220 plus villages ). On a large scale all armed constabulary battalion personnel should be mandatorily made to take this course. The Police PTC at Narendra Nagar, if it has come about by now, must include such Search & Rescue course package as an integral part of their training, women police –work force also included. The OSD Adventure Sports, about 9 , were selected and Mountaineering course was made mandatory. In all Hill districts these OSD Adventure Sports should be exclusively made responsible for this large scale Search & Rescue courses, not among school and college students, but local rural youth of the risk-prone villages of Uttarakhand. Chief Minister Uttarakhand is the Vice President of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering ( NIM ), and we own 50 per share of that Institute, it would do well to request Defence Minister to make the CM Uttarakhand as its President so that the facilities of NIM can be fully turned to promote Adventure Sports, especially mountaineering as the base for Search & Rescue.

The Auli Complex was approved by the then Chief Minister, Mr Narain Dutt Tewari, as the Uttarakhand Institute for Adventure Sports. Our time serving officers, without caring for the spirit and rationale behind such a practical project, over ruled that Institute and curried favour for a Water Sports Complex at Tehri ! I have nothing against Water Sports or currying favour of the present Minister, but why trash such useful projects which you do not understand ?  Mr Chief Minister, in the name of thousands who are dead but who could have been saved through a massive Search & Rescue operations, I seek your immediate attention to put in place that Auli Adventure Institute, mobilize on a very large scale these Search & Rescue courses for the benefit of our future generations, ensure proper selection of the trainees who would prove to be a major reservoir of voluntary help, as and when disasters of the scale of Ukhimath – Kedarnath occur in future, occur these will I can assure you.

Let every dead face you see in coming days and weeks remind you of this suggestion of mine that perhaps this person could have been saved by a Search & Rescue team, had the Search & Rescue training programme been run with the seriousness that it deserved. Dead persons never speak, so I speak on their behalf. DMMC should spend more time and energy is operationalizing such schemes and projects rather than spending money on glossy publications, which serve no purpose whatsoever. Further, Mr Chief Minister, make a basic mountaineering course compulsory for all civil servants as many of them are “afraid of mountains and mountain districts” forget about their loving them. Once you make it compulsory only those will remain and come to your state who know that their fate and future is intertwined with the fate of future of the mountains they have come for their livelihoods. No civil servant should get a field posting who has not undergone such a mountaineering course. Let all realize that we are a mountain state and any one not ready to serve in mountain districts is not needed here. This is the stark lesson of Kedarnath tragedy, every one should be made to internalise it.

An unfinished and defectively constructed artificial rock, located mindlessly at the Dandadhar ridge of Munsyari by our scheming officials of Youth department, without any technical man-power back up which could have been used for such trainings in these remote regions, stands testimony of the wasteful expenditure that is being caused in this state. All these shortcomings call for a major inquiry fixing accountability, as soon as the present crises is under control.  

Waiting for More  Mandakinis ?       

This writer could have gone on and on, being a local person, and shown that it is not just the resources, not also a detailed planning that will manage the disasters this state will have, prone as it is to such natural phenomenon, but a set of highly sensitive, accountable, people-centric, apolitical and efficient local officials who will demonstrate to the people in grief, in need of support, that the state has a Chief Minister who cares about their immediate needs and requirements and he will come with a heavy hand on those who betray this trust of the people in the government of the day.

Let the disaster management of the state not be perceived as a synonymous of disastrous management of the state, at least by the local Uttarakhandis who look up to the local administration for such sensitive handling of difficult situations  by insensitive officials who are presently posted to these difficult border regions. Mind you, the main rainy season is yet to officially begin in these parts, and God forbid that the local Gori river turns into another Mandakini, and we consider it as our misfortune to have been in the state when you were at the helm of affairs. In closing, already two young tribal women had to be per force cremated in the high Himalayas soon after they died there, search is still on for the body of a ITBP personnel also reported dead, who was on leave from his unit, and we are not sure that this fate also awaits how many more who suffer due to miserable connectivity of roads, wholly corrupt and irresponsible food grains supply system, uncaring health set up, and of course, a local administration who could not care less ! Certainly, while a natural disaster you cannot prevent from occurring you could at least ensure that these disaster affected regions are served by those who visit the villages and care about local people. This is the essential Raj Dharma, I am in a position to remind you about, without being in politics myself, the last being the farthest from my thoughts.     

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