Save the hillsides, save the floodplains

The comparisons are inevitable. There was a disaster in Uttarakhand and a disaster in Orissa. While nearly 10,000 lives were lost in Uttarakhand, around 30 were lost in Orissa. The authorities in Uttarakhand were unprepared, while the state governments in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh worked with near army-like precision. Almost nine million people from 14 districts in three days were evacuated in Orissa. By the time Cyclone Phailin struck, people had been brought to safety.

In Uttarakhand, there was no official response to the calamity for the first few hours and many people died for lack of help. Were it not for the Army, the death toll would have been higher. In contrast, the administration in Andhra Pradesh evacuated people into shelters that were equipped with essential supplies for a week. In Uttarakhand, government agencies, such as the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, were conspicuous by their absence. No one has been held responsible for the lapses and no accountability has been built into the system post facto.

Instead of being preoccupied with re-starting the puja at the Kedarnath temple and reopening the Hemkund gurudwara, the Uttarakhand government should pay attention to the welfare of the people of the state. It should draw lessons from the performance of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and set up disaster preparedness programmes, train people in what to do when calamity strikes and have contingency plans. After the disaster of the 1999 super cyclone in Orissa , the government built shelters and provided training to people in vulnerable areas.

Not only will the government in Uttarakhand have to put its disaster management agencies in order, it will also have to alter the destructive development path it has set itself on. About 70 hydropower projects are planned on the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers which meet in Joshimath, the epicentre of the June catastrophe. The construction of resorts, hotels and commercial establishments will have to be controlled and building on the floodplains should be banned. The sand mining mafia is destroying the floodplains and the timber mafia is stripping the hillsides. The ecology must be preserved if the people of Uttarakhand are to survive.

Suman Sahai is chairperson, Gene Campaign

The views expressed by the author are personal


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