Time to rebuild

Flood-ravaged N Karnataka


History tells us that many cities of the world have turned the aftermath of the adversities like periods of wars, calamities and pestilence into opportunities for rebuilding and offering a better quality of life for people. It needs enormous resources, great deal of planning and meticulous execution, and above all, leaders with vision to bring about the required transformation.

The entire north Karnataka, consisting of about 14 districts, is slowly recovering from one of the worst natural calamities in recent memory. Apart from taking more than 200 human lives, the disaster has left lakhs of people without a roof over their heads and means of livelihood. It will take months or even a couple of years before these unfortunate people are rehabilitated.

North Karnataka, despite having abundant natural resources like fertile land and being served by magnificent rivers, is among the most backward regions of the country. Almost all elected governments since independence and reorganisation of states have been guilty of neglecting this region, with the result it fares poorly in most human indices, including levels of income, education, health, nutrition and so on. If Karnataka is languishing in the 10th or 11th place in terms of development in the country, the lack of any meaningful and sustained effort to focus on this region’s growth has been mainly responsible.

The devastation caused by the floods gives us an opportunity to reach out to the people of north Karnataka to help them not only rebuild their lives, but offer them a better future. Thousands of families have lost whatever little they had, including homes, cattle, sheep and other means of livelihood while the public infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools and hospitals also need to be rebuilt.

The state government has an important role to play in this gigantic task which has suddenly been thrust upon it. Though relatively inexperienced, the Yeddyurappa government is on the right track attending to emergencies like organising relief and rehabilitation for the displaced people on a war-footing, mobilising funds from its own sources of revenue and the Central government, besides ordinary people and institutions.

After initial dithering, the Centre has come forward with a generous contribution of Rs 1,000 crore and offered to make additional grants after an assessment of the damage and the funds required for the rebuilding process. The common people have rallied behind the government overwhelmingly with generous contributions, which already account for about Rs 1,500 crore.

The Information Technology sector, the high-profile state industry, has also responded positively to the chief minister’s appeal and is planning to build houses for the displaced.
The state government is seriously considering raising revenue through additional taxes to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore. Increasing the sales tax on petroleum products and hiking the value added tax on some of the goods are said to be on the government’s agenda.
The sales tax currently being levied on petrol and diesel is already among the highest in the country and the move to hike it any further is bound to be resented by the people. The VAT will also push up the prices of essential commodities which are already ruling high and making a big hole in the family budget.

The government should steer clear of such unpopular measures, and the priority right now should be to effectively utilise the funds already available — which is not insignificant by any means — and approach the Centre if more money is needed.

In the past, Karnataka had been guilty of not fully utilising the Central funds and failing to submit utilisation certificates, forcing the Centre to withdraw the utilised part of the funds to the state’s embarrassment. Chief Minister Yeddyurappa should at least now ensure that the bureaucrats chalk out plans for using the funds in a time-bound manner and be ready to move the Centre again with fresh proposals.

The present calamity should serve as an opportunity to build well-planned colonies with necessary civic amenities in areas less prone to floods. In fact, the government has done well to come up with model plans for construction of houses so that there is a certain order and uniformity in the habitation to be raised.

Sensible move

The government is also being sensible in offering to hand over the land to private institutions which have come forward to build houses and other amenities. The government’s role should be limited to speeding up all the paper work required (including, giving ownership rights to the affected families) and ensuring that the other infrastructure like schools, water sources and clinics are in place.

That brings us to the basic question of whether the floods could have been averted in the first place. There is no doubt that the huge dams that states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have built across Krishna, Godavari and Mahanadi have the potential to create such man-made disasters because of the sheer volume of water stored and released downstream when the water levels rise.

In fact, a public interest litigation has been filed in the Andhra Pradesh high court, accusing the Andhra state government of not responding to the Central Water Commission’s warning 26 hours in advance of the impending disaster because of the rising levels of water in its dams. It’s time all the riparian states set up a joint monitoring mechanism and work in close coordination with the CWC so that such devastations are averted in future.

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