A Quick Re-wind : Uttarakhand Disaster 2013 ( Part I)

As the worst-ever rainy month 16 June -15 July in the recorded history of the 11 Indian mountain states comes to a close and while the various political parties stunned by the very suddenness and magnitude of the natural calamity and size of human loss and property are able to somewhat regain their wits and voices and jump at mixing up issues, sequence of events and resist a ‘real-time’ assessment of the exact magnitude of the calamity, it is about time to quickly diagnose as to what went wrong. Indian administrative machinery, as is well known is historically drilled and readied to address such unpredictable events and it is certainly a major cause of worry when it is found wanting in providing leadership and response, both so very critical under such situations. The time distance is neither too far into the past nor too close not to permit a dispassionate analysis.

Such a diagnosis is particularly important for a new state like Uttarakhand as it is far more important for such a disaster-prone mountain state, which also happens to be comparatively new among the comity of States. As precise official details and inputs are neither readily accessible, as the administrative machinery is still at the rescue and relief curve, nor really required for precise identification of the arrangements that either did not work or just did not exist, while officially it should have been. Unlike in the past, say at the time of the Uttar Kashi ( 1991 ) or Malpa ( 1998 ), an enactment like the Disaster Management Act, 2005 was also not in place. The very existence of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 permits for the first time any such dispassionate and non-partisan assessment, both of failures as well as successes, if any. More importantly such a diagnosis would be helpful to further improve the various provisions of this Act. For many, those who have raised an issue about its appropriateness to mountain situations, it would provide an opportunity to discover what merits immediate attention of the law-makers and disaster-management planners. In this preliminary diagnosis an attempt is made to examine reports that appeared in three major Hindi dailies that have wide reporting network in the interior and harmonize the emerging narrative to what this writer personally observed, located at a vantage point, Munsyari, some 500 kms away from the state capital, in a NE N direction at the Indo-China-Nepal borders.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Few Preliminary Takes on the DM Act

What struck to this writer as most surprising was the fact that the local administration kept itself firmly wrapped in a hard cocoon-shell, for a considerably long period, totally detached from the affected populace or their organizations who could have been in a position to respond with the local administration had there been a will or design. Easily the main flaw that has appeared in the over all scheme of things provided by the Disaster Management Act, 2005 ( hereafter DMA ) has been its over –emphasis and over-reliance reliance on the official machinery, without providing any space or role for the community at large, whatsoever. Even a cursory reading of 79 sections that constitute the DMA or the three sets of six ( 2006, 2007, 2008 ) Rules and one Regulation would reveal how indifferent has it been to what all can be achieved through the voluntary action by the affected people or those in their immediate vicinity. Even more striking has been the realization how precious little has gone in the name of awareness making and preparing all sections of the society towards the permanent dent that gets caused by an event like this June 2013 disaster. The website of Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation & Management Centre ( DMMC ) also reflects a serious lapse on these two counts. All that the DMA provides for as an apology of peoples’ involvement gets pushed to the very last, as always, by way of “Local Authority” ( sec 41 ); and there again these institutions are considered in just a compliant mode, bereft of any spontaneous expression that the constituent people may like to respond with. Quite unlike the Right to Information Act, 2005 ( hereafter RTIA ) the nodal institution, NDMA or SDMA or the NEC or the SEC, have not been allowed to have an independent existence of their own, embedded as they are deep into the government recesses. There is no autonomy whatsoever provided to the machineries accountable to deliver the results. This takes it further away from the people, affected or otherwise. Thirdly, the DMA is at best a paper tiger, with no teeth whatsoever, the so called punishment being against obstruction ( sec 51 ), false claim( sec 52), misappropriation of money or material ( sec 53), or false warning ( sec 55 ). While the “head of the Department” has been kept responsible in the enactment, under offences by Department of the Government, the provisions are such that no one could ever be brought on the dock as the practice of “collusive silence” will over-ride all consideration or the sheer opposition power of the government servants as the most powerful lobby. Finally, whatever has been provided in the Offences and Punishment section gets taken back by the “previous sanction clause” ( sec 59).

As the first few hours, and days, are the most crucial phase of the entire disaster management regime it is imperative that the role and responsibilities of the “local administration”, as separate and distinct from the “local authority” defined in sec 41 of the DMA, as also  the “district authority” in sec 25, be made more pointed and accountable not merely for obeying all the directions that may be forthcoming from the above but more particularly mobilizing and leading the local affected and neighbourhoods in providing whatever may be possible by way of first aid, it its largest connotation. From the colonial times all the field functionaries have been made responsible to “report” all unusual happenings and natural calamities that may visit their charge area but time has come that providing leadership and co-ordination work for relief, rescue and rehabilitation with the help and cooperation of the local people, as soon as the incident comes to their notice, be made a part and parcel of their duty and obligation. Any dereliction and negligence on their part may also be made punishable both under their departmental conduct rules as also under the DMA. Nothing short of this change, making the “government personnel nearest to the point of occurrence” responsible for immediate transmission of information and ensuring mobilization of local help will make this DMA effective. Mainstreaming of the letter and spirit of disaster management into the personnel management of the omnipresent bureaucracy is a sine quo non of any reform in the existing DMA regime. Needless to mention it is the provision of personal responsibility of the public information officer ( PIO) that has rendered the RTIA effective, to the extent it is operational. This connect is totally missing in the DMA and its trigger is too remote. Rule making powers in incorporation of these suggestions already vest with the State government vide clause (g), sub sec 2, sec 78.

Operationalization of DM Act in Uttarakhand

The Disaster Management Act, 2005 has been essentially brought on board to provide for a set of requisite institutional mechanisms for ( i ) drawing up , and ( ii ) monitoring the implementation of the disaster management plans, with the main responsibility preponderantly cast on various wings of Government. It is, therefore, an out an out responsibility of both the Governments, the Centre and the States. The people, as it were, have almost no role to play but for abiding by the directions issued under the DM Act, individually or as a legal entity ( local authority or a company ).    

The DM Act has been operationalized in as many as four phases, some parts coming in force on 28 July 2006; some on 30 October 2006, again on 1 August 2007 and finally secs 44 and 45 on 17 March, 2008. So by the time Uttarakhand was visited by the current tragedy the entire Act was fully operational for full 5 years, with as many as four reminders to the effect that the state should have taken full notice of it. Many people have questioned the lethargy shown in its effective implementation vis a vis the RTI Act, also enacted in October 2005, where the role of the State was absolutely minimal, compared to this law, where it was almost entirely their responsibility ! The first two phases basically related to setting up the broad outlines of the law and actions which were in the domain of the Government of India; it was indeed after 1 August 2007, whe the State government came into picture, and the real accountability of the States came into question. The Controller ad Accountant General has accordingly, reviewed the action taken on the part of Uttarakhand and other States after August 1, 2007, when they became responsible for its implementation ( Report 5, CAG, DM Act, 2005 ). Even here the actual notification was issued on 7th  May 2007.

Chapter III provides for the establishment of the State Disaster Management Authority ( SDMA), under the chairmanship of the state Chief Minister, with 8 other members, including the chairperson of the State Executive Committee ( sec 14); it was to meet frequently ( sec 15 ); officers and employees were to be appointed ( sec 16), an Advisory Committee has also been provided ( sec 17 ) ; detailed functions have been spelled out, as have been its powers ( sec 18 ), and other allied arrangements have been listed out such as issue of Guidelines for minimum standard of relief etc ( sec 19 ). Then there exists a State Executive Committee ( SEC), with the Chief Secretary in chair, ex-officio, as also as many as four Secretaries to the State government, and as may be presumed almost every thing has been left to this State Executive Committee, manned by the state bureaucracy.

Even a cursory reading of sections following the constitution of the State Executive Committee, under the Chief Secretary ( sec 20 ), namely, constitution of sub-committees ( sec 21 ) and an exhaustive list of functions, as well as the most important duty of implementing the National Plan, prepared as required by sec 11 ), and State Plan ( prepared as required by sec 23 ), constitution of District Disaster Management Authority ( DMMA), powers of its chairperson, holding of its meetings, constitution of “one or more advisory committee”, powers and functions of the DMMA and most importantly preparation of a District Plan, plans by different authorities at district and their implementation ( sec 25, 26, 27 to 34) leaves no doubt in the mind of even a lay reader, that the shortcomings brought to light by the Controller And Auditor general ( CAG ) in their Report on Implementation in Uttarakhand is nothing but a neglect of a mammoth dimension on the part of the State bureaucracy.

This Disaster Was Waiting to Happen

Between 2007 to 2013 Uttarakhand has had as many as three Chief Ministers, two of BJP with one of them having had two innings, and one of the Congress; and as many as six Chief Secretaries, one of them having had two tenures, and we have neither a State Authority or a State Executive Committee ( SEC ) which could be called even bothered about its role; there is neither a State Plan in place nor District DM Plans for as many as 12 out of a total 13 districts ! Just one district, one is told by the CAG report, has had just two sittings in 5 years which have been reported upon by the National Auditor. Further, while neither the public representatives not the bureaucrats have time to attend to these mandatory provisions, we are told there are a slew of irregularities in managing the disaster management funds in almost every district ! Now, as thousands of Uttarakhandis and gullible pilgrims and tourists visiting this state have lost their precious lives and property there is every case to look into these very serious lapses, both at the State and Districts level, so that a clear responsibility could be fixed for the delinquent and negligent civil servants, upon whom and around whom the entire DM Act revolves and devolves.

If any Inquiry Commission under the Inquiries Commission Act was ever justified to inquire into the various acts of omissions and commission by our bureaucratic and political masters an Inquiry Commission for the period 2007 to 2013 should be demanded by the kiths and kins of thousands of those who lost their lives and the common people of Uttarakhand whose property worth thousands of crores of rupees has been either washed away by the angry and swollen rivers or lost for ever, it would be such a mother of all Inquiry Commissions. This might hopefully also put a stop to a sordid past time of witch-hunting in which our political parties have of late indulged in, instead of attending to overriding priorities such as a model implementation of the DM Act, 2005, providing leadership in major poverty alleviation and rural development Flagship Programmes etc, for which alas none of them had any time at all ! Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar has himself very candidly admitted this serious act of omission on the part of bureaucracy ( Hindustan, 28 June, front page ).     

Is it any wonder that a State and District authorities so unprepared and neglectful, as revealed by the National Auditor’s hugely indicting Report, were found totally lacking in any vision, leadership, action on the spot and relief and rehab measures which had never been planned ahead in the first place ? It would not be an exaggeration to say that leave aside a natural calamity of the magnitude of Kedarnath-Ukhimath but even a much smaller one would have found both the State and the affected districts looking as helpless, confused and paralyzed, as the national media found this state after the unfortunate triggering of disaster on the late and wee hours of the 16th June 2013.

If only, the figures of frequency of transfer of district magistrates in almost all the 13 districts during 2007-12 period were to be added to the litany of the gross human tragedy, for its cumulative effect, the political bureaucracy could also be made aware of their very own ‘not –so- insignificant contribution’ to this colossal administrative catastrophe. Shuffling district officials, as the easiest and ever-ready political or administrative solution, will always hand them down a corresponding quantum of unpopularity to our political masters, as has been manifest by this unfortunate derailment of administration. If the Supreme Court ever needed any robust rationale for immediately effecting some basic administrative reforms e.g. stability of tenures for Chief Secretary, DG Police, DMs, and SPs for a minimum period, as has been done at the Centre for some senior posts, establishment of mechanisms similar to the higher judicial services ( Service Boards ), or even Armed Forces etc; Uttarakhand Disaster 2013 could possibly qualify as the latest and by far the best example, as a Case Study. Recent Affidavits filed in the Supreme Court, on R&R measures taken so far, have also provided a proof of how our remote border-regions and tribal populations get routinely treated as second class citizens, in this new enlightened state.   

R S Tolia

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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