All of a sudden the Government of India has found itself in a situation where highly uncomfortable questions are being raised in so far its role and responsibility in over all development of the mountain regions of India is concerned, particularly during the calamities of the size of Kedarnath-Ukhimath disaster. It is indeed a Catch 22 situation for Dr Manmohan Singh Government as it can not summarily pass on the responsibility to the State Government with dismissive comments like the “Disaster Management is a State subject and Centre’s role is that of a supportive mechanism or some such inanities we all have got used to hear by now,” as the State of Uttarakhand for the last more than year has been under its centrally hand-picked former MP, later made to don a state Legislators’ clothes, from a non-mountainous Constituency as no other MLA would oblige by vacating his seat ! Looked at from any side the Manmohan Singh Government has to account for both, multiple counts of failures on the part of the Central Government as well as that of a state where its writ runs without let or hindrance.
If the main Opposition party is trying to hide its snigger at the discomfort of the party in power, it is sadly mistaken, as its own track record is no better with its MPs and MLAs found wanting in making comments on construction of border roads that smacked of their rank indifference towards strategically important roads, and making no material contribution during the four plus years they have been in the Parliament or past one year in the State Assembly. There is hardly much to chose between these two major national parties, both have been extremely neglectful of the Indian mountain states’ concerns, from which ever angle one looks at it. Both are guilty on any number of counts, which keeps on mounting by the day. It is time its 30 plus MPs got together and demand accountability from both of them, as a Mountain Group of representatives accountable to their electorates, not to their parties.
Ministry for Mountain Development
First full marks to Maj General Khanduri, former Chief Minister, twice-over, the much touted Sher Shah Suri of modern times, for raising a demand for a full-fledged Ministry for Mountain Development, whose major trunk-road to Badrinath lies in a state of horrendous dis-repair and cause of much distress and dislocation in the Garhwal region. True, he has alleged that the Border Roads Organization ( BRO) has been short-changed by the Central Government by some Rs 650, 300 and 175 crores respectively, during the past three years. One hopes that the General is aware that the Lipu Lekh and Milam, the two equally important BRO strategic roads, during these very same years, have not added a single meter by way of ‘chainage’, besides adding a highly dubious distinction for its integrity in construction-work. Secondly, his head-line grabbing demand is 7 years too late and behind time, as there is one full Chapter in the Task Force of Mountain Ecosystems, constituted as a part of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, way back in 2006. This Task Force of MoEF, was headed by none other than this writer himself ! Lest, our Members of Parliament, elected to represent this mountain region, directly or indirectly, had missed this major recommendation, yet another Task Force, ordered by no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also added this set of Recommendation in the Task Force on Mountains, headed by the then Secretary Tribal Affairs Mr Mukherji, in 2010. This writer personally sent copies of both the reports to all MPs and MLAs. Apparently none of them had time to even mention this in their Parliament sittings, may be they did not think that raising issues such like this is their job. Recently, Water Resources Minister, Harish Rawat, was also reminded about it when he came to attend, the Second Meet of the Mountain States, convened at the India International Centre, on the 11th May 2013, the International Mountain Day ! He was accompanied by another MP, Mr Pradeep Tamta, again from Uttarakhand. Unless, this belated demand has come just like so many other statements that our leaders are prone to make it is hoped that demand for a dedicated Ministry for Mountain Development, will now see the light of the day, such human distress and misery means nothing to the Government of India and the mountain States like Uttarakhand and Sikkim. Mind you, of the 28 States that constitute the Union of India today there are as many as 11 States that are mountainous, and one state with two hilly districts. If sustainable development of 12 Indian mountain states is not the priority of the Union Government, one wonders what is the new definition of a or any priority ?
Role of Ministry of Environment & Forests ( MoEF )
With hindsight and a sense of deepest disappointment it can safely be said today that one of the worst decisions ever taken at the national level has been to include “mountain development” in the charter of this behemoth of a Ministry. One was indeed shocked to learn that even the word “mountains” did not exist in the preamble and objectives of this Ministry and its Business Rules, even though it dealt with a Central Institute ( the celebrated Govind Ballabh Pant Himalayan Institute of Environment & Development, Kosi-Katarmal, Almora: GBPHIED ) and a regional international Centre for mountain development ( International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, ICIMOD). It so happened, as the private grape-wine goes, that it is out to spite the Director General of the latter, the then Secretary MoEF, created the former ( GBPHIED, Kosi-Katramal ), as when this “bull-dog” of a Secretary did not see the DG, ICIMOD, in person at the Tribhuvan airport to receive him during his visit to Nepal, he never wished well thereafter of either of ICIMOD or his creation of spite, GBPHIED.
Born of such historic ‘noble intentions’ GBPHIED Almora continues to be a central creation which does not have a single worthwhile contribution which a common hill-man, scientist or otherwise, can relate as its contribution, even though it has celebrated more than 30 long years of its creation. ICIMOD, with such fiery baptism from a highly arrogant Secretary, MoEF, who barely needs any introduction in India, has not been able to feel “comfortable” at all in the Indian mountains, as the gentleman left such nasty remarks about its top-management, that MoEF has to consult the Ministry of External Affairs, every time it warms up to that ill-fated regional Institution. This writer is perhaps the only individual who is privy to such a relationship, hence this revelation. So, the net result is, MoEF, while the only Ministry which has mountain development in its charter, business rules, has hardly done any thing and it is high time that this Ministry is asked to account for lack of any response to a tragedy such as the current Kedarnath tragedy, besides the Ministry of Home Affairs, who is supposed to look after Disaster Management and Natural Calamities. Ironically much of this bad-blood between ICIMOD Board of Governors, mainly supported by the Germans and the Swiss, arises out having a series of DGs who have American connection. In the entire history of ICIMOD, there has been no Asian DG, the only concession being given is a Deputy DG, invariably of Nepalese origins. So much for Asia having some of the finest institutions dedicated to Natural Resource management, as well as various aspects related to Himalayan geology, ecology and sustainable development. It is high time that the GoI takes a view about its role in this regional outfit called ICIMOD, and if it still suffers from the congenital effect of its birth it should get out of this ensemble. This regional outfit ( ICIMOD ) also requires to be clear as to what purpose it wishes to serve in India, the Indian mountain states that is. It must not, repeat must not, become another hide-out of just scientists, whom no one knows in their country of origin, for having contributed anything worthwhile for its mountain-people, other than improving their individual CVs of “doing science”.
It is therefore high time MoEF’s role in mountain development is openly debated, together with an independent assessment of the performance of GBPHIED, its main institutions, thoroughly and the recent constitution of a ‘Mountain Division’ for name sake is also reviewed critically. MoEf with its already over-flowing charters is probably the least qualified Ministry today to simultaneously look after the interest of the 11 Indian mountain States, environment as be its main obsession rather than development. The alternative suggested was to include the three western Himalayan States of J&K, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand with the Ministry for Development of North East Regions ( MoDONER ), and upgrade it as Ministry for Mountain Development ( not Himalaya Development, which has different and non-international connotations.) We all await with bated breath to learn what MoEF or the newly established “Mountain Division” has to say about the present state of mountain tragedy, its own role in its mitigation or otherwise and the role that its nodal organisation, the GBPHIED, at Kosi Katramal Almora has to contribute by way of solution, if any. So far there has not been a single word coming out from MoEF, responsible for mountain development according to the Business Rule of GoI.
Role of Union Home Ministry
That the Union Home Ministry has also failed to cover itself with glory is also exemplified by the fact that the National Disaster Management Authority ( NDMA ), whose National Executive Committee (NEC) is chaired by the Union Home Secretary, and whose Disaster Management Division functions under Secretary, Border Management, has recommended suspension of its Commander of National Disaster Response Force ( NRDF), Manish Kumar, for dereliction of his duties and slackness in implementation ( 28 June, Dainik Jagaran). On paper the Disaster Management Division, supposed to have functional Emergency Operations centre ( EOC) with the state EOC, both required to provide periodical situational awareness to all government machineries and public at large, has singularly failed to do its bit. Both the EOCs, miserably failing in their charges, have proved to be mechanisms on paper only. The Indian Metrological Department spokesperson, after some initial bravado and making statements to the effect that he had issued serious warnings more than 48 hrs in advance, now has received better counsel, has refused to make any comments at all now ! If IMD has been silenced for the time now, the Central Water Commission ( CWC), who was responsible for high water level inputs to the IMD, refuses to be dragged into any controversy. So much for our preparedness. To cap the comic picture and sense of grave human misery now news comes of 50 pairs special boots meant for our Search & Rescue teams arriving at Gauchar only a day back, after major rescue work is nearly over. Newspaper reports had earlier mentioned that the wireless set meant for Kedarnath never moving beyond Rudraprayag!
Only today a former functionary who had worked with this writer when he had set up the first Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre ( DMMC) at the Up Academy of Administration, Naini Tal has sent me a very revealing bunch of information, some of which are shocking beyond words ! As in this piece we are trying to go over the Union Government’s role in this unprecedented human tragedy, suffice it to say that the disaster management work in Uttarakhand Collectorates remain with the CRA, the Chief Revenue Accountant, a ministerial functionary, primarily looking after the drought and relief operations of the British times vintage. This correspondent has also enquired as to why the Disaster Management Act enacted in 2005 has remained so much unattended and taken non-seriously while another Act of the same year, the RTI Act, now has not only an All India appeal and effect but so transformational in its outcome ? Surely, this calls for deep analysis as to where the Union Government and the State Governments have jointly failed to flag the supreme importance that this enactment has for the common man, especially in disaster prone states like Uttarakhand ? Implementation of the Disaster Management Act 2005, as of now in the light of the present review, appears no less than a disaster in itself, when it comes to its ground implementation. Like the Commander of the NRDF unless some head also roll at the state-level, at the senior-most level, one does not believe that it would be taken seriously at all. It must start at district magistrate’s level, at the minimum, to make some impact. Mind you RTI Act started with imposing fines at the higher level and recommending administrative action at the Divisional Commissioner level, which made an ossified bureaucracy a little bit concerned.
Role of Planning Commission and Finance Commission
Union Planning Commission arguably is one organization in the Pantheon of Union Ministries which today has the weakest defence when it comes to over all lack of preparedness, relative backwardness of our mountain States and the utter state of disappointment prevailing among mountain people today. By the time the latest Task Force on Mountain Development and Problems of Hill Regions came out, on the direct orders of Prime Minister of Dr Manmohan Singh, the cupboards of our Planning Commission were already spilling over with past Reports of Working Groups, Expert Panel Reports and a number of Task Force. Each one of them starting with the Backward Area Commission way back in 1983, via Dr Swaminthan, Dr SZ Qasim etc were replete with sound recommendations, each to be either put through a paper-shredder or whatever fate awaited a particular Report. Setting up Commissions, Task Forces and Expert Panels became an end in itself, so much so that the Chairman of the last Task Force ( Mukherji ) refused to attend a Study Committee, latest in the series, as no action whatsoever had been taken by the Planning Commission on the report which was submitted by him ! This writer, an inveterate optimist that he is, continues to be a Member of yet another Study Committee, set up under Mr BK Chaturvedi, Member, Planning Commission, which again has been set up under the orders of the Prime Ministers Office ( PMO). As many as 5 meetings have taken place but no final word has come on its recommendations. The Twelfth Five Year Plan does mention ‘making a plan within Plan’ for marginalised regions like our mountains but in practice there is no evidence to translate that acceptance of ‘inclusive development’ to be of any practical use, when it comes to caring for mountain regions. On the contrary, Flagship Programmes like the National Rural Livelihoods Mission ( NRLM) is Uttarakhand is such a situation that this writer, much against his wishes, sought an interview with the Chief Minister, pointing out that in a Planning Commission review, held on 4th April 2013, Uttarakhand was placed at bottom serial no 19, among 20 big and average states. Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh visits Uttarakhand, according to newspapers this month, but keeps mum about this abysmal record of this state of the most important National Flagship Programme ! Even for the Ministry for Rural Development Ministry, a Congress led State Government can commit no crime. How low can the Ministers in the Union Government can stoop, one wonders, when it fails to warn a State for its abysmal non-performance and fails to deliver to the poorest of the state when they need it most ! This writer has now decided not to waste further time in waking up a seemingly somnolent but wide awake politician, whose heart is not at development of the poorest in the state.
As far the Finance Commission is concerned, it has a very marginal role but considering its track record, one hopes that this recent tragedy of a sensitive, average size mountain state, would provide it an occasion to look at very specific eco-systems where “maintenance of durable assets and basis minimum facilities” have a totally different connotations, compared to the non-mountain ecosystems. One hopes that the State Government is taking its responsibility with the seriousness that it deserves, marshalling all the arguments at it command, co-ordinating its efforts at preparing the Memorandum for the FC, taking full help and assistance from other mountain states. No one relay expects Chief Minister Bahuguma to match the knowledge and charishma that Chief Minister ND Tewari wielded with the FC which toured during latter’s incumbency but one hopes that he remembers that much is expected from him.
Indian Mountain Initiative ( IMI )
Indian Mountain Initiative, is an initiative which has its origins in Uttarakhand in the sense that the Inaugural Sustainable Mountain Development Summit ( SMDS I ) was organized at Uttarakhand Academy of Administration and it was inaugurated by Governor Margret Alva, on 23 May 2011; who reminded all participants that it was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who attended the Stockholm International Conference on Environment & Development. The IMI is purely a civil society initiative, pushed forward by die-hard mountain lovers, which held its second Summit at Gangtok, Sikkim during May 2012, continuing the movement forward. The Initiative, a meeting of concerned people, has been recommended by the last Task Force constituted by the Union Planning Commission. While the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Environment & Development, have not taken any initiative to implement the recommendations made by the last Task Force on Hill States, it is this group which has taken upon itself that this time over, the Task Force 2010 recommendations will not be allowed to meet the fate which awaited several recommendations in the past.
The backwardness, the marginality of the mountain people residing in the 11 Indian Mountain States can not be allowed to be taken for granted, and each of the 11 Indian mountain states is going to be reminded, through these annual Summits and various other means that mere lip-service for the development of Indian mountains is a thing of the past, and especially after what is being folded out, day after day, through the electronic media and print media is nothing but a deliberate and perhaps conspiratorial neglect of the mountain-people. The IMI wishes to make the Indian people “proud of their mountains and mountain people” and not show them in a light that becomes a collective shame for a nation that is posturing to be major international and regional power during the current century.
The IMI Summits are going to raise all these issues and more, both from the Union Government and the State Governments, and expect them to come together and share their individual and collective experience, as the various Ministries and other development mechanisms in place, like the MoEF, Mo Home and others have only revealed how unprepared and indifferent have they been all these years, which has brought the current set of miseries as reflected by the Kedarnatha-Ukhimath tragedy. Thousands of Indians, and thousands of Uttarakhandis who have lost their lives and livelihoods will not allow all those who have been accountable for this sorry state of affairs will not be allowed to go scot free, un-punished and un-repentant.
As I conclude this article Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar also goes on record to say that the state bureaucracy has not been less responsible for the present tragedy ( Hindustan, 28 June ) as the records now show that had they taken a serious note of Met department had given very timely warning of excessive heavy rains and land-slides to all the three affected district magistrates and Secretary, Disaster Management, even including advising the likely affected families to move over to safer places and had the concerned persons taken this seriously so many lives could have been saved. How many lives could have been saved, well we should brace ourselves with the final numbers ahead of the final numbers, as this is going to be a number which will haunt all these worthies throughout their civil service careers. We look forward to some heads to roll by way of administrative accountability and such dastardly negligence should having fitting finale in termination of every person who was found wanting in his duties. Unless this happens Kedarnath will repeat itself, again and again. In my previous article I have unequivocally shown how district magistrate Pithoragarh, SDM Munsyari and Commissioner Kumaon, just remained glued to their mobile phones, sitting in their respective offices, if the news-paper reports about these so called field officers is any proof.