The same story repeats year after year in the hill state of Uttarakhand — scores of people get killed, maimed for life and lose their love ones because of recurring flashfloods and cloudbursts.
The rainstorm on Friday morning in Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts killed at least 18 people in remote villages and many more were buried under debris of landslides that the weather freak triggered, bringing back memories of the deadly floods which killed more than 5,000 people three years ago.
The killer Kedarnath deluge in June 2013 was a watershed event for the country’s disaster management teams as it tested their skills in real-time conditions. They struggled to reach isolated villages and stranded tourists and pilgrims, slowly trekking along roads dotted with landslides in heavy, unrelenting rain.
The pattern unfolded this summer in Pithoragarh and Chamoli, which so far accounted for 15 and three deaths. Rescue and relief toiled under incessant downpour, digging through mounds of mud with shovels and spades to extricate bodies in villages nestled in precarious Himalayan mountainsides.
More bodies are likely to be recovered from the debris in Pithoragarh. But the progress is painstakingly slow because the rain-ruined road will not allow heavy excavators to move in until the weather lets up.
It is just the beginning of the rainy season, the monsoon, and will continue till mid-September.
The government says the cloudburst has affected 160 families in Pithoragarh.
More than 60 families in the Asi Ganga valley of Uttarkashi district have migrated to safer places. The nearby hilltop may slide down any day soon, they feared.
They may have to wait out the rains for another three months.
The villagers fear cannot be wished away as baseless. The Geological Survey of India (GSI), in a 2014 study, said Uttarakhand is the most landslide-prone state in the country.
“It is practically impossible to prevent landslides. Therefore, the task before the scientist, planner and administrator lies with the identification of hazard-prone areas” and zoning them under different scales to prepare and preempt disasters, the GSI report says.
But the state probably has not learnt its lessons yet — even after the 2013 catastrophe.
In the Kedarnath aftermath, Uttarakhand raised six companies of State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) on the lines of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), conscripting trained policeman for relief and rescue.
The SDRF is effective but cannot handle massive disasters alone. The army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and NDRF chip in when needed.
But the main culprit is the “slow response”, which aggravates problems in a natural disaster, retired IAS officer SS Pangti says. “Why cannot a mechanism be in place to ensure stocking of food in disaster-prone areas and backup of choppers and satellite communication system?”
Shortage of food and medicines is a major problem in disaster-hit areas.
Chief minister Harish Rawat has, however, said the government machinery’s response is quick. “There is nothing to be worried about.”
The rampant landslides in Uttarakhand have a human hand too. Quarrying in rivulets and rivers, besides blasting rocks to build roads, trigger cracks that eventually lead to landslides during heavy rains or in the event of a cloudburst.
The Uttarakhand high court had directed the government in August 2013 to prevent constructions “within 200 meters from the bank of any flowing river”. But lax policing ensured that unscrupulous elements gave two hoots to the order and illegal constructions continued.
The Kedarnath valley in Rudraprayag district is a glaring example.
A large, permanent parking lot is coming up at Sitapur, close to the Mandakini in the Kedar valley, and barely 15km from the popular Kedarnath shrine. A swelling Mandakini had washed away several hotels, lodges and parking lots close to the river in 2013. But all that is forgotten, it seems.
Strangely, officials are clueless about the court order. The sub-divisional magistrate of Rudraprayag, CS Chaudhary, denied receiving any official communication regarding the order.
The government maintained its stand, that of being “stern” about riverside constructions.
“Enforcement agencies ensure that river banks are not encroached upon. The district magistrates have been told to strictly ensure that river banks remain free,” said urban development minister Pritam Panwar.