Disastrous Management of Uttarakhand : III

The aftermath of the Himalayan Tsunami, highlighted by the national electronic and print media focussed mainly on coverage of the Kedarnath-Ukhimath tragedy for the outer world, has brought to focus many administrative actions that will be required to taken, some of which have already been covered by the preceding three pieces in this series. As this writer was not burdened either by the excessive news coverage, or distractions he used to face while he was in Dehradun ever since he joined Dehradun on the 24th October 2000 to ensure an orderly installation of the first Governor Surjit Barnala followed by the first Chief Minister Swami on the wee hours of the 9th November 2000. Much water has since flown into the Ganges, the last unfortunately bloodied by the unfortunate victims of this year’s Char Dham Yatra, his stay has been useful for a micro-study of how our most remote border villages get treated by our highly insensitive administration. This assessment I have reserved after we are in a position to have direct and detailed interface with slightly under 1,000 unfortunate border people who were stuck up at 7,000 plus feet high villages. This assessment will be not only fully documented but also presented as a Case Study of how a sensitive administration should have acted, and act in future, when suddenly met with such a natural calamity. For any perceptive reader it would be clear by now that even though, at least in the case of the 14 villages of the  Malla Johar region, it has been addressed as a natural calamity, it was not so, and it was indeed purely a man made tragedy, the main actors being the insensitive local officials responsible for relief works, which were within their powers.                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Governor Dr. Qureshi has been quoted by the media that all out efforts were made by the State administration considering the suddenness and the gravity of the natural calamity, with all due respect to our Head of the State, it is to be submitted that it may be so in the Garhwal region but in so far my personal observations of the efforts made in Pithoragarh district, restricted to the most difficult 14 high Himalayan villages of Munsyari tehsil is concerned, it has been a case of which any administration would be simply ashamed of. A little helping hand certainly has been extended by the ITBP unit posted at Milam, as has been the case with our Armed Force and Air Force personnel, in the Kedarnath-Ukhimath region. This is being stated on the basis of facts on ground, after observing closely, the efforts of the worthies who were responsible during this one week period. However, it is also admitted that the man-made casualty in its entirety has not been only their’s, several Central Government and State Government departments will have to accept their respective contributions, bordering on an act of criminal negligence. The Border Roads Organisation, The Public Works Department, Civil Supplies, and various development departments responsible for rural and border development, panchayati raj, forest and wild life, have all contributed significantly to make the lives of the local citizens, thoroughly miserable ! Only the callous indifference of the present district and sub-divisional administration managed to add salt to a grievous injury. Local press and media persons also played their significant role quite admirably in successfully “ not high-lighting what should indeed have been roundly condemned months and years ago.”

First  Realistic Coverage  of  Malla Johar Situation

As  repeatedly warned by all the local citizens and brought to the notice of the Nodal Officer and the SDM, also today to the district Magistrate when he rang this writer up, the local press has finally realised its own  professional responsibility by carrying news items like – “ 35 people reach Munsyari by seriously risking their lives, adding these stranded people have some how reached back Munsyari, without food for many days, negotiating dangerous slips and slopes and they have also been witness to see cloud burst and breaking of Milam glacier .. death by drowning of more than 900 sheep and goats in a high Himalayan lake ( Poting )..and so on… ( Dainik Jagaran, 24 June, page 3 ) ”. Graphic and pathetic descriptions of difficulties that has been and being encountered by the stranded people in Malla Johar villages, are being recounted now.” This writer does not know whether this highly negative reporting now emerging is a result of his serious remonstration registered with the Bureau Chief of this news paper, when I told him that his local correspondent seemed to be hand-in-glove with the inefficient and indifferent SDM who has been posted here, or a self-realisation that they have been amiss in their responsibility towards the local people. This and other correspondents are now painting a picture which has no coherence whatsoever with their earlier reports, as this now reflects adversely on local officials lack of touch with the local population.  They have not even questioned as to why this SDM has been sitting here all these days, when local people have been drawing his and the Nodal Officer’s attention towards the horrendous situation  in Malla Johar villages ? This cutting of the news item should also be included in the administrative proceedings which ought to be started against such local officials. Earlier local people have even undertaken dharnas asking for his immediate transfer. However, the Nodal Officer sent by the District Magistrate and the District Magistrate himself appear to be quite impressed by this official’s competence !

The limited point that is being made by this writer in respect of such a subordinate official is with a view to score the point how such officials get protected by our partisan politicians, which in this state is now no more a news, but the major point that has been high-lighted is when our so called independent press and media starts playing a partisan role, protecting such officials, they indeed do greatest disservice to their noble profession. I have already brought this matter to the Bureau Chiefs of both the national dailies, which are in currency here. So our press and media to a great extent can contribute to the miseries of our suffering people, this I could learn from a very brief experience in my Munsyari stay. I have had the privilege of handling national press as Chief Secretary and have handled far worse situations, but that at the micro-level this could be so rotten, that was indeed an eye opener for me.

Role of Local Social Organisations in Natural Calamity

Just to draw further lessons from this brief but very painful experience Malla Johar Vikas Samiti ( MJVS), the local social organisation exclusively dedicated to the development of these 14 high Himalayan villages, proposes to collect experiences of each and every person who was stranded at these villages so that pro-active actions that need to be taken in future could be short-listed precisely, the policy and practices in regard to development of our strategically placed border villages could also be understood properly and brought to the notice of the Union and State Government. The petty minded-ness, at the local level, the limited vision which officers who have had no experience of the hill districts ( like the newly appointed District Magistrate ) but have been given charge of such highly sensitive districts could easily cause havoc to our national security, not least create a sense of deep frustration, which has already been witnessed in neighbouring Nepal. These are neither partisan views nor intended to harm any individual, official or otherwise, as they have the advantage of not been exposed to larger state and national perspectives.

This writer has absolutely no doubts whatsoever that the sum total of the experience which the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti ( MJVS), Munsyari proposes to collect documenting each distressed person who was stranded in Malla Johar will present a document and cumulative experience which none of the district official will be able to live down. In short the way they have handled the situation during this week has established the fact that do not have in them what singles out a good field officer from a bad one. Field experience is not gained by merely collecting information on mobile, from one person to the other, but jumping into the fray and feeling for yourself what the common man is seen enduring. These officers have certainly not covered themselves with glory, our Governor Qureshi and Chief Minister Bahuguna may give them testimonials, but the local people are going to hold it back.  

Malla Johar Vikas Samiti has on its own, as the local officials can not think of such a step, has mounted a recce team to find out how the people are coping up, and they have already reached over the Rara-mein-singh top, the ancient and extremely route local people have been made to negotiate thanks to highly incompetent PWD and now BRO, and they have started their contact and relief campaign. According to this MJVS team about 60 persons in Martoli have almost exhausted their rations and they having nothing to survive on, have no access either to Burfu ration godown or Bogdyar store, as both are not connected by road. Now, this smashes the claim made yesterday by the ITBP Commandant, Mr Meena, that a bridge has linked Martoli with the main road ! This is the difference between learning by mobile a la Nodal Officer mode via ITBP official report, and the reality on ground. But, more alarming news that has been conveyed by this team is that all told there are six women in advance stage of pregnancy presently at Milam and Tola, both presently not connected with the main road. Even for a normal man, the present road back to civilization ( Munsyari) has already been reported by now awakened local press correspondenet, and the question is how to bring these pregnant ladies back to Munsyari ! Air-lift is the only way out and the press has also carried pictures of vehicles of the Nodal Officer and the SDM waiting at the GIC playground turned into a helipad for the illusive helicopter, which they were promised and which never arrived. Now that the district administration and the state agencies have proved their utter unreliableness, indifference and reprehensible performance in the need of the hour, the decision to establish social organizations like the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti, exclusively dedicated to the welfare and protection of the Indo-China border villages, a case will have to be made out to the Union Government and the State Government to set up similar social organization, execute projects like Border Area Development schemes, TSP projects through them rather than institutions like ITBP, which are not meant for such works, as it can compromise their credibility, as has already happened in a few project in the very same area.

Using these Social Organization for Security & Development  

It is on record that these local officers have resented from the very beginning the initiatives such as setting up of MJVS because these are watch-dogs, watch-dogs against the misdeeds of officials like the present SDM. These institutions, which are characteristically exclusively tribal have to be totally insulated from the likes of the local officials and local politicians. In the North East such regions have been protected either by Schedule V or the VI, and it is rather a sad commentary that the Bahuguna Government has been dragging its feet on setting up of the Uttarakhand Tribal Advisory Council, itself had recommended and which has received the assent of the President of India. Besides, immediately establishing the Tribal Advisory Council, all the Indo China border villages, like those in Malla Johar, Byanse-Chaoudans, Darma, Niti-Mana valley ( only included exclusive tribal populations ) should be insulated from the kind of fickleness as has been demonstrated in Munsyari tehsils Malla Johar’s 14 villages.

Exactly one month ago ( 25- 31 May ) MJVS in collaboration JSKS and other organizations, had organized, as a major initiative – as many as six one day Seminars on ( i ) education, ( ii ) road and communication,( iii ) sustainable collection of Cordyseps sinensis ( Keera-jari), ( iv ) crime, law and order, ( vi ) establishment of Nagar Panchayat besides the annual sports tournament, something which should have been organized by the state government/local administration. Significantly, most of the shortcomings which have been highlighted during the present crisis were brought up and suggestions came up on most of them. For a pro-active and sensitive local administration such initiatives should have been God-send. An unusually large number of new-comers and youth who are presently stuck up, precariously so, are owing to the renewed interest in the natural resources which are now providing new source of livelihood to the poor families. Present situation has also become more problematic primarily owing to the increased influx of new-comers and first timers. The local administration should in fact welcome the fact that a new enthusiasm prevails towards visiting the border-village which were being abandoned, causing serious strategic concerns, as a de-populated Indo-China border presents the most challenging threat.

Fitness Qualification for Mountain-posting

Kumaon –experience of present tragedy and apparent dis-inclination on the part of important field officers like Commissioner, District Magistrates and even subordinate officials like the much quoted SDM of this series raises serious issues regarding screening of officers for their suitability to be posted to such regions where the road connectivity is poor and it is essential that the posted officers are not “afraid of walking in the remote mountain villages”. This hill state, with more than 10 districts being hills and high mountains, can ill afford government servants who are “afraid of walking in the mountain tracks”. Nothing could be more tragic that officers on paper are posted to these regions but they hardly ever take to mountain roads. Chief Secretary will do well to look at this aspect, immediately screen all major field officers especially the DMs and the SDMs and BDOs and check if they have toured on foot over the mountain tracks.

There is now need to prescribe “minimum touring days and compulsory walking to unconnected villages” norms so that officers can be evaluated about their fitness for mountain posting. Without naming the Commissioner let me reveal that there was one Kumaon Commissioner who admitted privately that he was “afraid of even motoring in mountains” forget about walking ! This Commissioner spent more than a year as Kumaon Commissioner. This entire “Sugam vrs Durgam” distinction is just sheer nonsense and any one refusing to do a mountain posting need not be retained in public service at all. Certainly age and actual disability considerations should be considered. Though I would not like to hazard the grounds of the withdrawal of Rudraprayag district magistrate to Dehradun on health ground there are cases, like the then DM Uttar Kashi who could not reconcile psychologically to the massive earthquake the district suffered. The biggest man made tragedy is to not pre-check suitability of DMs, SDMs and BDOs for posting to out boarder district and blocks, as they are bound to cripple relief works as has happened in Munsyari block of Pithoragarh district. One wonders if the DM and SDM are really fit to be retained, as per their conduct and behaviour, I leave this to the Chief Secretary, who himself has visited Milam and other higher regions. There is a clear case for having a strict screening policy of fitness for mountain posting before the officers are posted, and fixing minimum days norm for travelling on foot.    

Some Concluding Observations & Suggestions

Many readers might feel shocked by some of the suggestions that this writer now wishes to make and the only excuse he presently has for not elaborating it further lies in the fact that during the past 42 years in his service he has been fortunate to observe the developments in these parts of the country, and has held almost all possible responsible positions which were possible, and added to that his PhD work has also been on the evolution of administration in these parts since these were wrested from the tyrannical Gurkha rule in 1815 by the East India Company. He will be more than happy to join issue either through Garhwal Post columns or any other appropriate fora for elaborating these recommendations into practical structures further :

  1. Restructure the present administrative architecture continued from UP days to rationalise the administration from good governance point of view by ( 1 ) Abolishing the two posts of Commissioners, Garhwal and Kumaon, as these are anachronisms in a small state like Uttarakhand and no North Eastern state of the size of Uttarakhand has it, ( 2 ) Merge their existing staff either with the various district administrations, especially the biggest administrative district presently within the existing Commissioner-ship, this would take care of the resistance of the existing staff, give them their preference of district and adjust them there,
  2. Create a new Super-time, or even Additional CS scale post, compensating the IAS cadre strength resulting from reduction of two super-time posts of Divisional Commissioners, and post this Officer as Addl CS & Border Area Development Commissioner, exclusively charged with infrastructural and developmental activities related with Uttar Kashi, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts, all requiring accelerated infrastructure and other developments. This may remind many senior civilians of the Seemant Vikas Vibhag, and later Hill Development department, in UP days. Being Addl CS rank this official, should also be assisted by an Addl IG or IG rank of Police officer, from the IPS who could effectively co-ordinate all security and border surveillance related issues. Obviously, this Office will also require additional and supporting staff, which can come from the exiting two Commissionery staff or from elsewhere, by adjustment and not by additional creation of posts. My vote for this office’s location would go for Gair-sain, where in any case, a Vidhan Sabha building has been inaugurated by Bahuguna Government  recently. The only justification is Gairsain’s centrality and strategic position. Only from Gairsain, or some such border place, such a proposed office would be able to draw its justification,
  3. Governor Dr. Qureshi’s suggestion to bring all four Dhams under a single Development Board, on the lines of Thirupathi Devasthanam, utilization of their collected resources for development of related infrastructures and basic tourist necessities like medical and health, electricity, drinking water etc, earlier mooted by Governor Dr. Chenna Reddy be seriously considered and implemented as soon as possible,
  4. Establish over delayed Uttarakhand Tribal Advisory Council for which Presidential assent has already been received, a reminder has also come from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Govt of India, and also insulate our Indo-China border villages under tribal development safety mechanisms like those provided in the North Eastern States and Himachal Pradesh, by bringing them under Autonomous Councils mechanism,   
  5. As this series was triggered by a calamity which has been termed as a Himalayan Tsunami, re-locate the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre ( DMMC ) also at Gairsain, making this new senior official exclusively responsible for its effective future development. DMMS and the Disaster Management Development department should also be headed by this new senior official, which would make handling of future Himalayan Tsunami type calamities much more manageable. Ex-officio, this new senior officer could also be provided powers in all related departments, e.g. transport, tourism, border region development and so on,
  6. Design and enforce suitable Regulation for Sustainable Collection of Cordyseps sinensis ( Keera-jari) before the next collection season, as while it has extended enormous opportunities as a labour-based income generating activity its good collection practices is a sine qua non for sustainable development of the source region, and
  7. Last but not the least, screen all Commissioners, DMs, SDMs, BDOs and other supervisory officers for their fitness for being posted to the difficult and border districts before they are posted and fix strict monthly norms of tracking by foot to unconnected hill villages and include them in their annual assessment report mandatorily.

This writer only hopes that the above seven preliminary suggestions ( remaining to be provided after a fuller assessment of current tragedy ) that he has made towards the end of this Series , and the suggestion with regard to isolating our Indo-China border regions and villages from petty local politics, in order to ensure our country’s much larger strategic priorities, would be taken in the spirit these have been offered. In the series this writer has often castigated, at times harshly, the rather immature and callous attitude of some of our field officials, no harm is meant to them by these remarks, but if these were not made they might turn into “bad eggs”. Stench arising from such bad eggs is far worse than the accumulated stench we have to put up with, what with dead bodies rotting unattended in deep recesses all over Uttarakhand, where even best of our Search & Rescue trained volunteers might find it difficult to retrieve, for many many years. The last thing we should now allow in this state is to add stench that arises from the “sarkari bad eggs”.

This writer hopes that he has not unwittingly triggered a far bigger non-Himalayan Tsunami in our administrative circles, diverting attention from issues arising from Kedarnath-Ukhimath calamity, by making such arguably contentious and ‘seemingly outlandish suggestions’ for re-structuring of our state administrative set up and other administrative norms like screening before posting !

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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