Right Lessons from Uttarakhand Tragedy

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 8 Oct 2013

Fourth month running Kedarnath, Ukhimath and other images of recent Uttarakhand disaster continue to haunt every one’s memory and hog lime-light in print and electronic media. For instance on 5th October while all national and local news-dailies carried full page advertisements announcing resumption of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Yatra, with ample dose of safety instructions to the interested incomers for the first time, on other pages one found Prime Minister Manmohan Singh availed the opportunity of 9th Formation Day of the National Disaster Management Authority to exhort all States to learn “right lessons” from Uttarakhand tragedy. His prescription of the “Right Lessons” consisted of components like ( i ) securing gadgets and machinery critical for disaster management e.g. forecasting, early warning and communications systems to disseminate disaster alerts, ( ii ) making disaster risk reduction strategies an integral part of development process, ( iii ) better co-ordination between various stake-holders responsible for the complex exercise of disaster management, ( iv ) putting in place effective disaster management plans and standard operating procedures for responding to specific vulnerabilities, regularly updating and testing them, and equally ( v ) strengthening panchayati raj institutions and local communities who first responded to any disaster situation. Prime Minister Singh pointed out that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events had increased globally  but this had serious implications for sustained growth of a growing economy like India as in case of failure in our preparations ‘scare resources’ get deployed to address the negative consequences of disasters. It is in this context that it was imperative that we have ‘to integrate and mainstream disaster risk reduction strategies into our mainstream development initiatives’.     

Old Words, New Meanings

None of these components are either new or unfamiliar to those who have been involved in any part of disaster management architecture or implementation procedures. As we all know that post Uttar Kashi earthquake and later Malpa disaster management measures had been undertaken and a miniscule Disaster Management Centre at the Up Academy of Administration, at Naini Tal, the new State of Uttaranchal had taken the initiative of not only constituting a full-fledged upgraded Disaster Management department, with a Centre dedicated to disaster mitigation and management ( DMMC ) it had also undertaken several pioneering capacity building initiative like commencing a 21 day Search & Rescue Course by three of its mountaineering Institutes, placement of Search & Rescue kits at more than 120 locations prone to road-side disasters. With the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 the DMMC had acquired legal legitimacy and a law to enforce and mainstream all the past initiatives. Notwithstanding the assistance provided by UNDP to strengthen the disaster management out-fit in each of the 13 districts, it seems, we became remiss in not following –through the early initiative this State had taken even prior to its formation in November 2000. Thus, even though we were fully familiar with all the steps that have now been repeated by Prime Minister Singh, we have now become an example of ‘what happens when a State is not fully prepared’, and hence the exhortation to all other States to draw “Right Lessons” from the Uttarakhand tragedy ! Post Kedarnath, each of these old words now seem to carry new meanings. The CAG report has very tellingly told us and almost every other State how amiss have we been in not implementing what we should have turned into a perfection by now, with as many as six long years intervening since the DM Act, 2005 became fully operational.


Vulnerability Atlas ( September 2001 )

Reflecting on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s exhortations to learn ‘right lessons’ this writer retraced memories of his years of service in UP and Uttarakhand and wondered whether we have really learned any lessons from the Malpa ( 1998 ) and Varunavrat ( 2003 )  incidents, as both represented a most dominant type of occurrence which not only Uttarakhand but almost every mountain State has experienced and is fated to experience for years to come, namely the Landslide Hazard ? Landslides, as we all know, have been among the major geoenvironmental problems in the mountain regions triggered due to heavy rainfall, earthquakes, and at time anthropogenic activities. Malpa tragedy of 1998 in district Pithoragarh had resulted in death of a substantial number of Mansarovar pilgrims and thus drew greater attention of the planners towards scientific inputs for mitigation of landslide hazards. Department of Space on the direction of Government of India took up a project for demarcation of landslide hazard zones in the most critical areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh States. Accordingly a major study was taken up for preparing Landslide Hazard Zonation ( LHZ ) maps, on 1: 25,000 scale, using high resolution remote sensing data from the Indian remote Sensing Satellites ( IRS), collateral and ground data. Based on a series of interaction with users, the important pilgrim/tourist routes in the Himalayas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, totalling about 2,000 km length were covered. This study was carried out by National Remote Sensing Agency ( NRSA ) at the lead, in association with RSAC Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh; Wadia Institute of Himalayan geology ( WIHG), Central Building Research Institute, Defence Terrain Research Laboratory, University of Roorkee and some other Centres of Indian Space research Organisation / Department of Space.

This Atlas published in November 2001 was prepared using an innovative methodology which involved integration of remote sensing based inputs from space and conventional data. A number of thematic maps like rock types, geological structure, landforms, land use/cover, slope. Soil and drainage were generated through the use of satellite data in Geographic Information System ( GIS ) environment and the land slide zonation was arrived at employing a specially developed knowledge-based decision-support module. Significantly, the LHZ maps show different categories of landslide hazard from severe to low. Moreover, a separate map with suggestive management plans for different hazard zones is also provided. It has been averred that while triggering mechanisms of landslides could be many, including extraneous ones, the outcome of this project would nevertheless provide useful inputs for reducing incidence of landslides in these zones. The then Secretary of Department of Space, Dr K. Kasturirangan, in his Foreword had urged ‘the concerned authorities in the States of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh to take full benefit’ of the valuable information. Typically, the Atlas was made available “ For Official Use Only ” and it is  o wonder that existence of such a valuable Atlas in known only to the departments to whom it was made available and of course, the various offices and Centres of Department of Space ( This writer obtained the only copy available in the Uttarakhand Space Application Centre, Dehradun, for making its use for this essay ).

Suggested Management Practices

As is well known one of the biggest ever landslide that occurred in Uttarakhand was crumbling of Varunvrata Parvat late in the night of 23rd September 2003, overlooking the district headquarters of Uttar Kashi district. This writer happened to be the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand and the entire initial post-occurrence measures were undertaken under his supervision, commencing with constitution of a Technical Committee under the chairmanship of the Regional Director of the Geological Survey of India, Dehradun, as a new State Uttarakhand had neither the wherewithal / resources or the technical expertise to address such a major natural hazard. Why this Atlas suddenly came to this writer’s recollection is the fact that much later, after the Varunavrat repair work had progressed into a satisfactory stage, it was sheer out of curiosity that this Atlas was cross-checked by him. It was to his utter surprise that this Atlas very precisely had earmarked not just one but all active and Old Landslides as Map 53J/5 SE & 53 J/6 NE, Uttar Kashi district, on Rishikesh-Uttar Kashi-Gangotri-Gaumukh Route. The Varunavrat Parvat, that indeed gave way to Bhagirathi river’s tug, was clearly marked with shaded lines, in left hand side bottom legend as “old Landslide, ( may be reactivated due to triggering factors ) “ !

The opposite full page provides extensive and updated data on Triggering Factors, namely anthropogenic  activity, Rainfall and Earthquake Occurrences; followed by Inputs like Lethology and Geological Structure, Slope and Land Use/ Land Cover. It goes on to enlist “ Suggested Management Practices ” and at the bottom tight-hand side page a Satellite Image with Route Corridor has also been added. Various Management Practices that have been suggested cover a whole range e.g. retention wall with drain-holes,  Channelisation, Slope Modification, Bio-technical measures, River training, Retention wall with drain holes, Planned Mining, various of slope modification, forest conservation, afforestation and so on-each management plan has been shown with different colour. It has also been pointed out that the LHZ is indicative and this is for regional planning and during micro-level planning detailed investigations would be naturally required. For a layman even this kind of indicative planning is more than adequate input for further action.

Test of the Pudding

As the Varunvrat repair/stabilisation work took a long time and this writer superannuated earlier to take up as the first Chief Information Commissioner in 2005 it was not possible for him to cross-check, earlier than this time, to find out whether those who were involved in its repair-work could take any benefit from the suggested management plan or better, if they were even aware of the existence of this Atlas and the prescriptions it made in the first place ? This writer distinctly remember that before October 2005, when he demitted office, no technical person ever referred to this Atlas or the fact that such a suggested management plan existed for a potential landslide, as early as in year 2001 ( nearly full two years ahead of the actual event ! ). It was much later, in fact around 2011, that it came to light that Varunavrat landslide stabilisation had been presented as a Case Study at the 6th International Conference on Case Histories in Geotechnical Engineering, Arlington, VA, in August 11-16, 2008. The presenters were CMD, THDC ( Tehri Hydro Development Corporation ), RST Sai and four other engineers of THDC. A reading of this Case Study suggests that neither the team that took up fractured Varunvrat Parvat’s first diagnostics nor the technical team which completed its actual stabilisation been unaware of this Atlas and its suggested management plan for its eventual treatment. At least, this has not been mentioned in this Case Study, and this writer has also not heard anyone associated with Varunavrat Parvat stabilisation mentioning about this Atlas.

This raises the all important issue of a highly disturbing disconnect between all scientific diagnostic studies, such as this LHZ Atlas, prepared with an express objective of it being used by the eventual users, various Governments/departments, and the fact that such scientific and very useful results not being used in actual practice – why, at times even their very existence not known to the ultimate users for whom this exercise was undertaken in the first place !

A  Perpetual and Continuing  Tragedy

This writer has a nagging suspicion that this happens to be true, right now, in the post – Kedarnath rehabilitation and reconstruction phase. Extant updated information suggests that the World Bank and Asian Development Bank joint assessment of current disaster is under examination of the State government and it had not been possible for the consultants engaged to visit the affected area or access primary data, for obvious reasons. This means that the assessment is based only on existing data and information supplied by the related authorities. According to information the World Bank is likely to focus on Rural Roads, Study/Planning, Shelters/Housing, Public Offices and facilities and capacity building of the State Disaster Response Force ( SDRF ). Asian Development Bank is to focus on the Main Roads/Highways, Tourism Infrastructure, Heliports and Drinking Water /Water facilities. As the World Bank has already been implementing the PMGSY or the Rural Roads Programme the rehabilitation project will now focus on te damaged rural roads. So far no specific target sites or routes have hitherto been identified by the State government.

Without going further into the details of the on-going negotiations between the State government and the external funding agencies suffice here to say that first the real-time details will take some time to procure to firm up details of funding plan, and even after these plans get prepared the releases would be subject to several well-known and mandatory conditionalities e.g. environment clearances, securing available land for construction etc and one learns that there would be other commitments that the State government will have to undertake. Add to these there are serious reservations about the capability of the State government to handle additional work connected with this huge fund-flow, already over burdened as the Public Works and other state utilities are with their existing over-load of unfinished works, a backlog of many past years. The State Disaster Management Authority ( SDMA ) through whom all these projects will have to be processed, executed and monitored, has but only the already over-burdened State utilities and public works departments.

In the midst of all these discussions and planning what one misses out is the harsh realization that the real challenge is not construction, re-construction or repair of the damaged or destroyed roads or public buildings. As one hears of the resumption of Yatra to disrupted Badrinath- Kedarnath temples, though the main highways of Char Dham. No one seems to be aware that as far back as in 2001 a Vulnerability Atlas had been prepared by the Department of Space with the help of several related organizations, the Vulnerability Atlas had covered all the roads leading to the four main pilgrimage destinations and worked out detailed management plans for all active and old Landslide locations, prescribing indicative management plans for treating these potential hazard zones.

It is no more a surprising and disturbing fact that this Vulnerability Atlas prepared way back in year 2001, immediately after the infamous Malpa tragedy, has remained in the shelfs of related organizations and no action whatsoever has been taken on the detailed suggestions made by this excellent diagnostic study. Now, as thanks to attention that the Kedarnath tragedy has drawn towards this permanent problem, active and old landslide hazard all along the four main pilgrimage routes and a Cabinet Committee oversees the on-going efforts and the Planning Commission is also working out a Uttarakhand Package for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, the following steps be taken up on top priority :

( a ) The Landslide Hazard Zonation Mapping prepared by the National Remote Sensing Agency ( NRSA ) , Department of Space, Hyderabad in 2001 be taken up on priority and  the Management Plan proposed for the Uttarakhand segment of the 2000 km length be taken up with the help of World bank, ADB of funds from other willing external funding agencies,

( b ) The site-specific recommendations made by this Vulnerability Atlas be also simultaneously updated, as additional landslide hazard zones must have appeared between 2001 and 2013, for which additional Hazard Zonation Mapping be undertaken, using the same or updated methodology that was used way back in year 2001, and

( c ) Since after 2001 several legal and administrative changes have taken place improving the disaster management architecture at the national level and the State of Uttarakhand, an intensive review be immediately undertaken for further strengthening the institutional, financial, administrative and legal architecture of disaster management. One change that certainly seems highly desirable is to bring the Space Application Centre, presently under the Department of Science and Technology, under the Disaster management Department so that this Centre and DMMC could work out further improvement in Landslide Hazard Zonation ( LHZ ) Mapping and their effective management at the ground. i.e. district and site-level, and

( d ) Like the celebrated Varunavrat Parvat Stabilization Case Study there are a large number of successful and unsuccessful stabilization Case Studies, which must be in the possession of various public works organizations e.g. Border Roads Organisation, Public Works Department, Swajal for rural drinking water, Jal Nigam, Jal Sansthan, Irrigation Department, Jal Vidyut Nigam etc which must be compiled and put to good use, while we spend millions of rupees provided for ‘Reconstruction’ of a devastated and demoralized Uttarakhand. World Bank, Asian Development Bank and JICA must insist on collecting all known and ‘unknown’ Case Studies and draw suitable lessons from each of them. If there be a Mother of all Conditionality before the millions of financial assistance is made available to each public construction agency they must be made to compile a Compendium of all past Case Studies and the lessons there from, which should be the main basis of application of the fresh tranche of funds for construction or re-construction, and

( e ) Disaster Management Department must commence compiling Case Studies of Successful, Failed and On-going construction projects, district-wise, and get these Case Studies prepared by Groups of Technical Experts and these Case Studies must later be converted into Standard Practices by concerned departments. These Case Studies must be made use of in all future projects, funded by Government of India or through bilateral funding agencies. Each technical department does have Case Files of all such technical problem and it is time that these Case Files be converted into Case Studies and lessons drawn from them should be constantly improved upon. Whenever a new technology is introduced its introduction should also be documented at the earliest and shared widely. DMMC must development these experiences as  a part of their Knowledge Management project/task.

“ Right Lessons ”, referred to by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, from Uttarakhand should consist of lessons learned from  such past Case Studies, Varunavrat Parvat being just one among them ( in so far as the technical aspect of the stabilisation is concerned ), and use of the existing Vulnerability Atlas on all identified Landslide Hazard Zones for application of site-specific management plan, could also be the starting point of the present Reconstruction Plan of Uttarakhand. 


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