People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

June 30, 2013




Uttarakhand Tragedy


Put In Place a System of Safe Regulations



A HUMAN tragedy of grievous proportions continues to unfold in Uttarakhand.  The state’s disaster management minister has speculated the death toll due to the flashfloods could be around 5000.  Many feel even this is an underestimation.  Officially, more than 10,000 people are still stranded in different parts of the rain ravaged  pilgrim  destinations of Badrinath and Kedarnath.  The latter is the most severely affected area. 


Though there can be no accurate forecasts of when such disasters will strike, heavy rains were expected according to the meteorological department. Yet no meaningful preparations were made. The global sweep of westerlies, which triggered severe flooding across Central Europe fused with the south west monsoon causing these devastating rains.  Met officials state that extra tropical storms originating over the Mediterranean swept into northern Indian hilly states around mid-June where monsoon related low pressure systems had already formed.  The consequence was the heavy rains and the uncontrollable floods of the numerous rivers in this area. 


While such disasters are called `natural’ as science has not yet equipped us to master  such occurrences, a large element contributing to such disasters are man-made.  Cloud bursts occur when warm and humid air is pushed up the mountains forming thunder clouds.  Due to environmental depredation, upper level winds have become rarer which, otherwise, would have dispersed these thunder clouds.  The net result is the cloud bursts. Further, due to indiscriminate deforestation, the lack of vegetation cover on the ground results in these waters causing flashfloods. 


Six such major cloudbursts have taken place in Uttarakhand since 1998.  The destruction of forests, the unscientific damming of rivers and the indiscriminate mining of sand and stone  have created  a deadly cocktail in Uttarakhand  for such disasters to recur.  While the country continues to debate over safety of environment and ecology and safeguarding the eco-sensitive zones, Uttarakhand, unlike its neighbouring states, has not even defined minimum environmental flows for its rivers. It has planned hundreds of hydro power projects and built a few dozen already without a proper scientific study of the impact on the river flows.  The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) established during the UPA-1 tenure has either not risen to its mandate or, if it had made any  suggestions,  these have not been implemented, as is obvious. 


There is another man-made element in this entire tragedy.  Both these religious shrines have witnessed a four-fold increase of visitors in the last decade.  Between 2003 and 2012, Kedarnath’s number grew from 1.7 lakhs to over 5.75 lakhs and in Badrinath, it went up from 1.34 to nearly 6 lakhs.  Incidentally, during the same period, the inflow of foreign tourists declined ten fold! In the same period, there has been a five time increase in the registration of passenger vehicles, 70 per cent of which are devoted to ferrying pilgrims.  The regulation of religious tourism has been drawn to the attention of the government by the parliamentary standing committee as well as the Planning Commission.  Yet no such regulation mechanism has been  drawn up, leave alone implemented  in Uttarakhand on the lines of  the way pilgrims to Amarnath shrine are regulated  with a cohesive disaster mitigation plan.  Such regulations must be drawn up and enforced in all pilgrimage centres in the country. 


It is, indeed, unfortunate that some politicians are seeking to reap a dividend  by visiting the  disaster struck areas.  The media management machine of Narendra Modi has projected him having rescued 15,000 people reminiscent of the Hollywood wonder man `rambo’.  VIP visits in the name of expressing sympathy and solidarity with the victims of this disaster only detract from the massive efforts and energy required to save lives and transport people to safety.  On this count, the country’s Air Force has mounted rescue operations on a staggering scale.  The Indian Air Force has deployed 45 aircrafts and logged in over a thousand flying hours last week rescuing nearly 12,000 pilgrims.  Air Chief Marshal has told the country on Monday that “Our helicopter rotors will not stop churning till we get each one of you (trapped pilgrims and local people) out, do not lose hope and hang in there.”  Likewise, the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police are doing an equally phenomenal job.  Things would have been easier if the recommendations of the parliamentary standing committee on the establishment of helipads, so important for speedy evacuation in the case of such disasters, were implemented. 


While we mourn the death of our brethren, while we express our heartfelt condolences to their relatives and our heartfelt solidarity to those struggling for survivals and offer both material and human help, the country must marshall all resources at our command both to save precious lives and evacuate the trapped people to safety. This requires, apart from donating money and material, that the governments and the concerned authorities  must `pull up their socks’ to prevent the further  destruction of our environment and forests; draw up a scientific system for  minimum environmental flows of our rivers,  and, to put in place a system of safe regulations for religious tourism.


We appeal to our readers to respond to the call given by the CPI(M) for the collection of money and materials  for the victims of this natural disaster.

(June 26, 2013)