Preventable tragedy

Preventable tragedy

The conflict is not between development and ecology Both can take place in harmony, provided the right intent is there.

Uttarakhand disaster was an entirely preventable tragedy, if only there was no callousness, no unchecked greed and corruption amongst the politicians – ruling and non-ruling and the bureaucrats – businessmen, the small real estate contractors and several others. It is a big ‘if’. Time and again this ‘if’ has come in the way of rational thinking and proper implementation of the policies in our country. The tragedy that has taken place and is as yet continuing to take place in Uttarakhand is only an example. If it was not Uttarakhand, it might happen elsewhere. One is pained to say so, but it points to a nation that has seemingly lost its conscience. 

In this backdrop one must acknowledge that the ITBP, Air Force and other defence personnel are doing an extraordinary job of rescuing the people trapped on the mountains. But, the time is running out. Some more heavy downpour is expected shortly.

Does it need a specialist in ecology or an environmental scientist to tell us that with dams constructed at almost every 6-7 km distance, the disaster was waiting to happen? When that entire pristine Himalayan area is ravaged by mining – some legal and mostly illegal – is it difficult to predict as to what would befall that region? When the timber mafia denudes the area of its beautiful green cover and rapes and ruins the virgin region, did we need additional indicators for a horrifying catastrophe? Has the nation lost its wits? When we speak about the ‘nation’, that term includes all: the governments at the Centre and the state, the businessmen, the intelligentsia, and even the so called common man.

Even at a time when the calamity has struck, the Central and the state governments were busy covering up their vulnerabilities to the extent they could. Just about a few days ago, Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was putting the figure of the human toll at 250. When houses had been falling as though they were houses of cards, due to the massive landslides, it was obvious that the toll would be much higher. The entire area around Kedarnath and Badrinath has collapsed. The number of pilgrims, as we all know, was in several tens of thousands. A large number of them generally are old people who cannot withstand being stranded for days on end without food and even water to drink. That they would not have been able to extricate themselves from the debris of the landslides and slush and mud is obvious.  

Wisdom is in accepting one’s faults, learning a lesson from the disaster and taking steps so that such calamities never ever repeat in the future. But the greed – of votes, of power, of position, of money – comes in the way of the wisdom. How were houses and hotels allowed to be constructed right on the banks of the river? Why was mining allowed? This goes on. Has one not seen ‘sea zone’ rules restricting construction in the vicinity of the coast being flagrantly violated by multi-storied apartment builders in Navi Mumbai? It is a series of disasters waiting to happen.

Current context

We as a country are not short of various agencies supposedly taking care of the various issues of governance. We have, in the current context, a National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA). The purpose of its existence is to prevent the preventable disasters and give a prior signal of those disasters that are waiting to happen. One wonders whether this agency did the job, in the case of the current calamity, as per its mandate. When the Himalayan ranges and rivers were being mistreated on such a large scale, what was the role of this agency? Whistle-blower has to blow the whistle loud and clear. Moreover, NDMA is not just a whistle-blower. It has a more pro-active and also reactive role. 

Unfortunately, in India, we have several commissions, committees and agencies created. But, several of them are almost inoperative for various reasons. For instance, one fails to see the impact that an agency like the Planning Commission has in today’s Indian society. If planned development was or still is the goal, one notices it more in its absence. If even the supposed ‘growth’ had been planned – by planning we mean taking into account all the human, social, ecological, scientific, technological and economic aspects into a holistic decision – such disasters would not happen. If a rare disaster does take place, it would have minimal negative impact on the citizens and the environment.  

Uttarakhand disaster is not the only one that Indian citizens have suffered. There are droughts and famines in various parts of Maharashtra. There are recurring destructive floods in coastal upper regions of Andhra Pradesh and cyclonic disasters in Orissa. There is unimaginable hunger in Orissa and in parts of Bihar; it is a silent tragedy repeating year after year. There are many other disasters like health disasters. A disaster need not be a Tsunami always. Have we really planned in the real sense of the word for all our disasters? Because, the word ‘planned’ has the phrase ‘will be implemented’ included in it. Planning is not sans action. 

This calamity is not about the conflict between ‘development’ and ‘ecology’. Both can take place in harmony, provided the right ‘intent’ is there. When the intention is to benefit a few already powerful segments of the society, when the intention is to turn a blind eye to the plunder by those who may be useful in an organisation’s or individual’s avaricious ambition, the natural balance between ‘development’ and ‘nature’ is less possible. Take out ‘greed’, put in ‘sensitivity towards fellow citizens’ and things should be all right for India. 

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)