Emerging R & R Issues of Uttarakhand Disaster

Four articles contributed from Munsyari entitled Disastrous Management of Uttarakhand seems to have made some impact both in the field as well as at the Government level not to mention the spate of queries this writer received and continues receiving on the crucial aspect of the status of the ‘delivery mechanism’ –  the men on the spot. The issues raised and the counter points made by the readers of Garhwal Post and several other sites would easily make any government highly uncomfortable. It was suddenly realized by the government that by appointing Nodal Officers a patently wrong message was sent and the field officers thought that now it is up to these Nodal Officers to co-ordinate matters and they conveniently abandoned their own role as the front and field-officers ! Records would show district magistrate Rudrayayrag had to be air-lifted the next day, district magistrate Chamoli, kept himself parked at Joshimath through-out, district magistrate Pithoragarh just once accompanied Kumaon Commissioner in his visit to Dharchula, between 16 to 30 June, while the worst happened – people perished, system collapsed ; Kumaon Commissioner’s first visit to Munsyari was on the 3rd June, that too in the company of the local disgruntled MLA by helicopter, where he was accosted by angry crowds. Commissioner Kumaon admitted that the Government is too occupied with Garhwal and the pilots of helicopter are not under Government’s control ! Response of district magistrate of  Uttar Kashi, could not be known to this writer, located that he was in far away in Munsyari. I have already belaboured the point more than adequately, trying to establish that it was as much a man-made tragedy as it was a natural calamity, if not more and Bahuguna administration would do well to punish those who were found wanting, in initiative and courage, lest it is taken as a weakness of this administration. I wish to put a closure by reiterating to Chief Minister Bahuguna that field officers in Uttarakhand must be made to tour, and tour very very intensively, calamity or no calamity. I have gone to the extent of making a basic mountaineering course at any reputed Mountaineering Institute a basic minimum condition for all those serving in the Uttarakhand, beginning with the IAS/IPS, PCS/PPS and all supervisory ranks; that would automatically solve this nonsense of policy called “Sugam vrs Durgam”. Such a non-sense must be stopped forthwith and any request for not being posted to a Hill-post should be accompanied with a medical certificate by government ( not private which you can obtain dime a dozen ) medical practitioner counter-signed by the local CMO. This should also qualify such an official for being appointed to all senior posts available in his/her department, barring next promotion. Such disabilities must take their toll, and one can not be allowed to have best of both the worlds.

Emerging R & R Issues

Already Relief and Rehabilitation ( R & R ) issues are being raised from various quarters, including from the government itself, and unless Bahuguna administration wishes to get tied up it knots again on this front as well, it would do well to first clearly take on board all such R & R issues and without losing any further time get the follow up mechanism immediately institutionalized and fix clear and a time-bound responsibility for each set of Issues so identified  and thereafter mount a vigorous follow-up of the same. From the media and various inputs received the following types of major R & R issues already seem to have made their presence apparent :                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

1.       Evacuation, Rescue and Relief works pursuant to the post 16 June calamity at Kedarnath_Ukhimath and elsewhere in Garhwal and Kumaon – vigorous follow-up at all District, Tehsil and Block level, particularly at sites already affected and the 230 plus villages already declared disaster-prone by the State,

2.       Rainy season is still very much on so, Warn all ’district authorities’ to be on Alert and ensure that all imminent danger and threats are known to them and they are ready to address these, promptest response would now be expected from the district units now that weakness in response system has been more than underscored, punishment this time for any delinquency must be quick, demonstrable and exemplary,

3.       Rehabilitation and Reconstruction,

4.       Capacity – building, learning from the current situation,

5.       Miscellaneous Issues not covered by Disaster Management Act, 2005, and

6.       Review of Disaster Management Act, 2005 and its re-orientation for mountain situations.

Miscellaneous Issues First

Easily the most eminent miscellaneous issue that has emerged from this calamity has been the fact that its centre of attention has been one of the premier Dhams of this country’s majority religion, a Hindu destination of pilgrimage. How vulnerable are the various religious destinations belonging to various religions in this state that is the first question and the next attendant question that begs resolution is how to ensure that its restoration, post calamity gets attended in such a manner that does not add to avoidable discussion and debates so that valuable public time is not spent on these issues while other ‘non-religious issues’ cry out for equal, if not more ready redressal. Take for example this case itself. Kedarnath is a Shaivite, Hindu temple and as well all know whatever has to be done with regard to its physical and ritualistic restoration of all past practices has to be strictly in accordance with the sectional approved practices. This reminds this writer about the controversy that got raised with regard to management of all religious establishments of Uttar Pradesh when Dr Chenna Reddy was its Governor. Like Governor Dr Qureshi presently, Governor Chenna reddy also took considerable interest in ‘reforming’ the then prevailing management of various Hindu temple establishment. The net result of Governor Dr Chenna Reddy’s well intentioned efforts were that more heat than action was generated and the matter rested where it always have been, continued mis-management of most of UPs religious establishments.

Governor Dr Qureshi has suggested that a single Authority should over-see the various religious cum development aspects of the celebrated Char Dhams situated in this state. Well, Badrinath and Kedarnath already have a single enactment. However, Badrinath is a Vaishnavite temple and Kedarnath, a Shaivite. Already some discussions have appeared about the Kedarnath Rawal not restoring the ritual, as he should have, and so on. Without going into the details of such matters, which is best left to the religion or sect concerned, it is worth considering whether we should not leave such matters best left to those who are best qualified to do so. This writer recalls his days as a Member of Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, as an ex-officio member, being District Magistrate of Varanasi ( 1982 – 85 ). It had a Vidwat Parishad, a Council of Experts, presided by Raja Kashi, which decided all matters related to matters ritualistic and procedural, declaring the Shastra-compliant version, and that was considered the final word. Varanasi has had a contentious religious background and this writer suggests that a similar system should be in place, not only for only Kedarnath temple, but all religious establishment. Readers would recall that a similar controversy was raised when the Birla business house offered to renovate the Badrinath dham, and the offer was not accepted. As Chief Information Commissioner this writer had set up a Committee of Experts, consisting of Head of History Department of Garhwal and Kumaon Universities, when he found that no official documentation existed on either of these great religious establishments. This writer learns that the Committee is still far away from its assigned task. If one goes into the recorded history of all Peeths reputedly established by the Adi Guru Shankaracharya, it is the line of succession of this first Peeth ( Badrinath Dham ) that alone has remained interrupted, besides necessitating the office of a Rawal. The other three Peeths ( according to some the fourth one, a deemed one ) have an uninterrupted line of Sankaracharyas. It is also well known in learned circles that there are two dates of the birth of the Adi Guru, separated by a few centuries ! That is, however, not the point at issue here. Bahuguna administration would do well to avail this opportunity and address development issues raised by Governor Dr Qureshi’s suggestion, and ritualistic issues that have been raised, resolved by processes akin to the Vidvat Parishad, of Shri Kashi Vishwanath, Varanasi. These issues are best decided and left to such learned bodies. Point to note here that in Uttarakhand we have, unlike other places, a religious angle to such disasters as well, as briefly discussed. Let this be addressed, as suggested and if acceptable.            

Institutional Issues : Disaster Management Act, 2005

The remaining five issues that have been listed, it would be clear, these all are already included in the Disaster Management Act, 2005.  Many people have raised the issue how seriously this state has implemented The Disaster Management Act ( DM Act ), enacted the same year as the Right to Information Act, 2005. One reader asked me as to why the DM Act, enacted the same year as the RTI Act, has not been made as effective as the other Act ?  While this writer may attempt a few suggestions with regard to the RTI Act, having been responsible for its implementation, as the CIC, the reply in regard to the DM Act will have to be searched some where else.

According to a Performance Audit of Disaster Preparedness in India, published by the Controller And Auditor General of India ( CAG: Report No 5 of 2013 ), the following shortcomings of Uttarakhand were not only published but taken up with the State Government as well, as a follow up. The main shortcomings pin-pointed by the CAG were:

1.       In the state, the frequency and intensity of various disasters had not been identified.

2.       State Disaster management Authority ( SDMA ), headed by Chief Minister, although constituted in October 2007, had not formulated any Rules, Regulations, policies and guidelines. State Executive Committee ( SEC ) was formed in January 2008 but NEVER MET SINCE ITS CREATION ( letter rendered bold intentionally to highlight human laxity and indifference ). District Disaster Management Authority ( DDMA) was constituted in Naini Tal in December 2007. Since inception, DDMA met only twice ( April and May 2011 ). Thus, the state authorities were virtually non functional.

3.       The State Disaster Management Plan was under preparation and actionable programmes were not prepared for various disasters.

4.       We noticed irregularities in the management of State Disaster Response Fund. These included non investment of funds which resulted in potential loss of interest of Rs 9.96 crore during 2007-2012. There were delays ranging from 80 days to 184 days in the release of the central share during 2007-11 and no funds were released in 2011-12 as the state government did not submit utilization certificates and Annual report of Natural calamity.

5.       No plan was prepared in the state for early warning. The communication system was inadequate. This resulted in delayed information to vulnerable population.

6.       Hazard Safety Cell of the state government had so far identified 7374 buildings in three cities out of which 1109 buildings were found to be vulnerable to moderate earthquake. These buildings needed to be retrofitted, but no such measures were taken.

7.       Geological Survey of India in June 2008 identified only 101 villages as vulnerable out of 233 disaster affected villages. No measures were taken by the State Government for their rehabilitation, despite a lapse of four years after their identification .

8.       The State Government did not sanction any post for the State Disaster Management Authority which affected the establishment of the Management Information System. In DEOC ( District Emergency Operation Centre ) at district level, there was an acute shortage of manpower. In 13 districts, only 66 posts ( 56 %) were filled against sanctioned manpower of 117 ( 9 posts each in 13 districts ), and

9.       It was also noticed that no master trainers were trained to impart training to  the staff at the district, block and village level engaged in the prevention and mitigation of disaster management. Medical personnel were also not trained in hospital preparedness for emergencies or mass casualty incident management.  

So, it is nobody’s case that the national auditor brings such serious lapses that have been reported which is a sad reflection of the commitment, dedication and fore-sight that is required in a State like Uttarakhand as prone to almost all kinds of disasters, other than coastal and high-seas.

Accountability 

Even a cursory reading of the DM Act would reveal that clear provisions exist with regard to the responsibilities of departments of the State Government ( sec 39 ), disaster management plan of departments of State are to be made ( sec 40 ) and there is provision for various acts of omission and commission, some punishable with even imprisonment up to one year, with or without fine, for obstruction of refusal to comply with directions which results in loss of lives or imminent ganger thereof ( sec 51 ), which may extend to two years. Further, there are various provisions which enables the Central Government to issue direction. The State Governments have been given powers to make Rules to give effect to the aims and objectives of the DM Act ( sec 78 ). While the effective implementation of the RTI, during the past 7 years, has brought in an era of far greater transparency and public accountability, in contrast what one sees in regard to implementation of the Disaster Management Act, during the same span of period, an utter sense of disappointment, rank derailment of administration and a reprehensible indifference on the part of all those responsible, towards the life of those who lost their lives on account of the failure on the part of those who were supposed to work this enactment. As the CAG’s indictment would show the Government predecessor to Bahuguna Government, namely Khanduri Government and Nishank Government, are also, perhaps much more, answerable to all those who have lost their lives, property and in many cases even any hope to live the remainder of their lives, for not having taken implementation of the Disaster Management Act, with the kind of seriousness that it certainly deserved.  

While the Relief & Rehabilitation issues get debated, it is incumbent upon both the major parties now to ensure that as both have been found compromisingly amiss in not preparing this disaster-prone State by taking the various steps that have been highlighted in the CAG Special Report they must now make up for the lost time and impress upon the State bureaucracy to ensure that implementation of the Disaster Management Act in this state is now to be given top most priority and a time bound action is not only prepared but its progress of implementation is debated both in the State Assembly, at its very next Session, and a separate Session of the Kedarnath-Ukhimath disaster is devoted to what all further measures need to be taken to give assurance to all those who have lost their lives and life long earnings that no such recurrence would ever take place in this State, in so far as human effort and endeavour can insure. Hopefully, as both the major parties have been found far short of their commitment towards their obligation to save the lives and property of the Uttarakhandis, and millions who visit the State as their guests every year, this Special Session would be dedicated to discharging all various serious issues which now seem to blight this hapless State, the top most being an ideal and complete implementation of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. While forming Rules and Regulations the same may not be done in the casual manner it was done in formulation of the RTI Act recently. As Bahuguna government has shown its limited understanding of this state they would do well to involve all those who have stakes, long term stakes in the welfare of the state and are not mere mercenaries, living off the state and its people. 

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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