The Himalayan Tsunami in Uttarakhand

Aug 2013 | No Comment

Thousands of people died in Uttarakhand, a state in North India due to devastating floods and landslides in June 2013. What went wrong?

Anoop Nautiyal

Social and political commentator, former
Chief Operating Officer
108 Government emergency services,

Uttarakhand is in absolute shambles. Disaster, with most people calling it more manmade than natural, has exposed the fragility of this beautiful yet ecologically vulnerable region. Untold and unimaginable damage has been done with surging rivers and flash floods bringing death and destruction together. Glaring manmade gaps and inefficiencies have been identified and highlighted. All of this has left the State, its people and the citizens of our country traumatized.

Crisis in focus

As Uttarakhand completes its first month after the recent disaster, it is amply clear that this is a huge moment of grave crisis for the State. This tragedy, the biggest ever to hit Uttarakhand, has brought into sharp focus the fierce debate around environment, development, governance, politics and disaster management. Though the fury of nature has been unprecedented, many questions are being asked about the role of the State Government. These questions, based on equal doses of frustration, sadness and anger, are mainly being raised about the lack of disaster preparations and the development model pursued by the Government.

By now several facts are well known. The Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority, constituted under the Chairmanship of the Chief Minister, has had no meetings since the past six years. Successive CAG reports have made scathing remarks on the lack of disaster management preparations in the State. Indiscriminate mining, haphazard urbanization, rampant cutting of trees and forest covers, use of dynamites for road construction, encroachments, buildings, hotels, guest houses and travel lodges on the river bed, too many hydropower projects, changing river courses, poor structural safety – this was clearly a Himalayan tsunami waiting to happen. Locals in the affected areas claim that this is only the trailer of the massive destruction that is lurking in this region of the country. Many others are calling it a ‘Human Tsunami’.

Challenges being faced

Uttarakhand is prone to frequent flash floods, landslides and cloud bursts. The mountain ranges are relatively new. Climate changes are impacting rainfall and cloud bursts in the Himalayan region, which have already seen increase in temperature that are 2-3 times higher than the average global temperature rise of 0.9 Degrees C. Against this background, the State has miserably failed to develop any systems of early warning, forecasting and disseminating rainfall and landslide related information. Technology is available that can predict cloud bursts at least three hours in advance, but no such sophisticated equipment is used in the State. In 2008, the Doppler radar system was sanctioned for Uttarakhand but due to lack of coordination between NDMA, IMD and the Uttarakhand Government it was not purchased.

There are other challenges too. Uttarakhand is politically as fragile as its mountain ranges. With six different individuals holding the Chief Minister’s position during the last 13 years, since the formation of the State in 2000, the average tenure of each has been two years. This has resulted in lack of continuity and failure in getting a firm grip on the issues plaguing the State. These figures look even more ominous when compared with Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand’s Himalayan neighbor. Himachal Pradesh has had five chief ministers during the past 60 years. Only two, Virbhadra Singh and Prem Kumar Dhumal, have held the reign of the State since the last 20 years.

The political fragility has resulted in ad hoc and unplanned development. Successive governments have failed in creating any sort of medium term or longterm plan or vision for the State. Most decisions appear unconnected and lack coherence. They are mostly random in nature and pander to the demand of the moment. Political instability and inexperience have also resulted in lack of articulation about the firm and correct position to be taken by the State in several matters that are most important for them. Programs and policies are started but often are not completed due to frequent changes. In this scenario, how is sustained development possible?

Who is responsible?

Clearly the major defaulter is the political leadership of the State and the Government of the day. The political leadership in Uttarakhand, with the exception of a few distinguished and sincere politicians, is widely perceived as being either corrupt and/or incompetent. Internal squabbles are hardly leaving any time for senior party leaders to give any quality time for public issues, strategic planning and the long-term development of the State. Just before the massive disasters struck Uttarakhand, five MLAS of the ruling party were camping in Dehradun, the State capital, for few days protesting against their own Government and complaining about the lack of development in their respective constituencies. Bureaucracy is being adversely affected. When politicians frequently complain that bureaucrats are not listening to them and the bureaucrats retort that the politicians do not let them work, the leadership deficit at the highest levels becomes clear and apparent. The Government is now staring at mammoth challenges. They need to act and act quick on multiple fronts. As Uttarakhand continues to grapple with inclement weather affecting relief operations, the next set of action items need to be ready. Detailed impact assessment of affected areas and the learning’s from this tragedy need to be documented. Immediate compensation of the locals needs to be finished on a war footing. Roads and bridges need repairs. Hospitals and food supplies need strengthening. Livelihoods dependent on the Char Dham Yatra need to be restored. It’s a long list that requires serious planning, coordination, strategy and execution.

Environmentalist accuses U‘khand govt of ignoring NRSA report

Accusing the Uttarakhand government of sleeping over a report of National Remote Sensing Agency, noted environmentalist and Magsaysay awardee Chandi Prasad Bhatt today said had the government taken the report seriously “destruction in and around Kedarnath shrine would have been much less horrific”. “The scale of destruction at the Himalayan shrine could have been far less if the state government had paid adequate attention to the report of National Remote Sensing Agency, whose scientists had identified the natural calamity prone areas of Uttarakhand and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh way back in 2001,” the Magsasay awardee said. “The report identifies the areas around Kedarnath including Rambara, Gaurikund, Ghindurpani, and Garuriya, which have been the worst hit in the recent tragedy, as highly prone to landslides and natural calamities,” he said. The report, termed as ‘Hazard Zonation Mapping’, was prepared by arond 100 distinguished scientists from country’s leading research institutes at the initiative of the Indian government and was submitted to the state government in 2001. “But since then, it has been gathering dust in the offices of district magistrates who have done precious little to implement the recommendations of the panel,” the environmentalist alleged. The expert panel had recommended a host of measures for the calamity sensitive area of the state and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh including planned mining, biotechnical measures for channelisation of water in the catchment areas of rivers near Kedarnath, afforestation of Rambada and Jungle Chatti areas, soil conservation and slope modification measures in Gaurikund besides construction of retention walls in Hanuman Chatti which have all been severely damaged in the deluge. “Had even five per cent of the recommendations of the panel been implemented, the scale of destruction in and around the Himalayan shrine would have been much less horrific,” he said., June 23, 2013

What next?

Where does Uttarakhand finally move to from here? This is not only a time to mourn, but also to reflect and create a blueprint for its future and destiny. The policy makers can move in any of the two directions – either follow the path that they have taken earlier and rebuild Uttarakhand on the poor foundation of unscrupulous and unplanned development. Or take a radical, new path and come up with a unique, innovative and inclusive model of development built on the foundation of modern disaster management techniques and equal concern for the environment and livelihoods. This needs to be the starting point for this development strategy. This path will further require an open mind, belief in science and technology, exemplary leadership and genuine compassion and empathy for Uttarakhand. This is where the whole concept of exceptional leadership comes in.

As the ones who have lost their loved ones try and desperately get their lives back on track and the others limp along, the question that still haunts many is what next? With confidence in the political class at an all-time low, the rehabilitation hopes of the people of Uttarakhand are very low. Though the Government has announced relief and compensation measures, this is clearly not enough to rebuild shattered lives and reestablish broken homes. Much more needs to be accomplished to get things done and to inspire hope for the future. Only exceptional leadership can turn this around.

Defining leadership/ Leadership in question

There are hundreds of leadership definitions. In this time of incomprehensible crisis, the one that appeals the most to me are the famous words of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States of America – “If your actions inspire others to do more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” The level of leadership that Adams had in mind when he said these famous words is the only level of exceptional leadership that can take Uttarakhand ahead. Politicians and bureaucrats can make plans and announcements, but without exceptional leadership Uttarakhand would continue to lick its wounds and forever feel sorry for itself.

What is the starting point for this exceptional leadership? This has to be leadership that can act quickly and is able to create that sense of extreme urgency. There needs to be leadership that operates on strong principles of alliances and partnerships, and is able to motivate various agencies and institutions to come forward and support the rebuilding of the State. On a sensitive note, this has to be leadership that can deeply feel the pain of the people who have perished and others who have lost everything. Is this level of exceptional leadership possible in today’s cut-throat and highly competitive political environment in the State? The non- believer would obviously say no, but in this hour of extraordinary gloom and misery, it is only outstanding actions and exceptional leadership that can heal Uttarakhand and make it move ahead.

What should the leadership in Uttarakhand be doing right now? There are three things to focus on. Creating a vision, communicating that vision and executing the vision is what the leadership should concentrate on. Working on multiple fronts, the leader will have to inspire the millions of ‘Uttarakhandis’ and the rest of the nation who are all looking up to him for creating a holistic and consolidated strategic long-term rehabilitation and development plan for the State. Integrity, competence and plain old hardwork are just few of the components that are needed for exceptional leadership to have a long-term impact on life and livelihoods in Uttarakhand.

Blueprint of development

Why is creating a vision necessary? In the Cold War era of the 60s, the Americans were lagging behind the Soviets. John F. Kennedy, the then US President, needed a vision to inspire his country and said in the Congress – “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Critics called it fantasy while many others termed it pure lunacy. Kennedy’s dream was fulfilled when on July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong stepped foot on moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” If the Americans could create this extraordinary vision more than 50 years ago, why can’t our leadership get inspired and create a vision for the rebuilding of Uttarakhand? Leadership needs to come out with a vision that is clear and articulate. It needs to be simple, inspirational and time bound. In the absence of a vision, as a State, Uttarakhand will once again fail and falter, as it will operate on a day-to-day basis without any long-term goal or plans.

Once the vision is clear, it needs to be clearly communicated and understood. The fulfillment of the vision for Uttarakhand should get utmost priority over everything else that matters. This will require an iron will and the ability to take bold steps at every moment making steady progress towards achieving that vision. The people of Uttarakhand would need to have a deep faith in the vision and would have to truly own that vision. The ability to inspire others would only come with exceptional leadership.

Implementation of goals

How will the vision get fulfilled? This is where the ability to conceptualize, to create institutional frameworks and to deliver outcomes comes in. Creation and communication of the Uttarakhand vision needs to be backed up with execution and results on the ground. The bureaucratic machinery needs to be energized and organized. Deft political handling of opponents within and outside the party needs to be undertaken as a preventive measure. All this would require exceptional leadership.

The cynic, as always, is bound to sneer and call the exceptional leadership dream for Uttarakhand equivalent to making castles in the air, while the optimist agrees to move on the path towards a safer and new Uttarakhand. But for the State to feel optimistic there needs to be an exceptional leader to hold her bruised hands and show her the path. Time alone will tell if Devbhoomi Uttarakhand, the mystical land of gods, legend and lore, was fortunate during its worst times to have had that exceptional leadership.


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