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Living in danger despite 2013 disaster

PUBLISHED ON JUL 08, 2016 09:41 AM IST

DEHRADUN/RUDRAPRAYAG: In Uttarakhand, history repeats itself year after year.

As many as 18 people have been killed so far in the cloudburst this year in the Pithoragarh and Chamoli districts of the state, spurring fears of a re-enactment of the horrifying Kedarnath deluge that claimed over 5,000 lives three years ago. Even as rescue teams continue search operations, more bodies are likely to be recovered from several villages in Pithoragarh.

According to the state government, as many as 160 families in the district are hit by the cloudburst. Over 400 villages in Uttarakhand were cut off from the district headquarters, leaving their residents with little hope of rescue in the likelihood of a disaster. The Joshimath-Malari national highway, which connects the Indo-Sino border in Chamoli district, has been cut off at several spots. Fearing the worst, over 60 families from Asi Ganga valley of Uttarkashi have migrated to safer places.

The scary part is, this is just the beginning of the monsoon. Uttarakhand’s nightmare is unlikely to end until the middle of September.

Many in the western Himalayan state have fallen prey to flash floods and cloudburst-related disasters over the last few decades. In its 2014 study, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) had observed that Uttarakhand is the most landslide-prone state in the country.

However, the question being asked is: Did the state government learn anything from the 2013 flash floods?

Right after the tragedy, Uttarakhand raised six State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) companies — comprising policemen trained in rescue work — on the lines of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). While the SDRF is effective to a degree, it cannot handle massive disasters on its own. This is why the Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the NDRF have also been pressed into relief work.

Retired IAS officer SS Pangti says the state machinery is yet to gear up for the challenge of a natural disaster. “Why can’t a mechanism to ensure advance rationing of food in disaster-prone areas and a back-up satellite communication system be put in place?” he questions, adding that the government should also arrange for choppers to provide for areas facing a shortage of food and medicines.

Chief minister Harish Rawat, however, maintains that there is no cause for worry because the “government machinery is quick to respond” in emergencies.

REASONS FOR LANDSLIDES

According to the GSI, about 0.42 million sq km or 12.6% of the land in India is prone to landslides. Of this, nearly 0.14 million sq km falls in the NorthWest Himalayan region – comprising Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.

“As it is practically impossible to prevent landslides, the task before the scientists, planners and administrators lies in the identification of hazard-prone areas and their zonation in different scales for preparedness and mitigation,” the report states.

In Uttarakhand, riverbed quarrying and frequent blasting for road construction purposes trigger cracks that cause landslides during heavy rains and cloudbursts. Pithoragarh district magistrate HC Semwal was quoted as saying that he has received complaints about illegal quarrying activities in certain villages, and he would conduct an inquiry after the present crisis has abated.

RIVERSIDE CONSTRUCTION

While hearing a writ petition on August 26, 2013, the Uttarakhand high court directed the state government to ensure that no construction takes place “within 200 metres from the bank of any river in the state”. But illegal structures continue to be built, as can be seen at Kedarnath Valley in Rudraprayag district.

Sample this – a big parking lot is being constructed by a private contractor at Sitapur, near Mandakini river in Kedar valley. Sitapur is located barely 15 km from Kedarnath town, where the revered Hindu shrine is located.

During the June flash floods, the Mandakini swelled up and washed away several hotels, lodges and parking lots in the vicinity.

Shockingly, none of the officials – by their own admission – have prepared any report on structures coming up near the river.

Rudraprayag sub-divisional magistrate CS Chaudhary said he did not receive any communication regarding the court order that bans construction activity within the 200-metre periphery of the river bank.

However, urban development minister Pritam Panwar told HT that state government is taking “strict” action against such structures.

“Enforcement agencies of the development authorities ensure that river banks are not encroached upon. District magistrates have been told to ensure that river beds remain free,” he said.

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