Mountainous regions such as Uttarakhand are prone to natural disasters and environmental degradation, primarily because of their fragility. Floods, landslides and earthquakes cause significant loss of life, property and resources.
Uttarakhand’s biggest flash flood in mid-June 2013 took over 10,000 lives and caused heavy damage to property.
In recent times, heavy construction activities have crossed the bearing capacity of the region. This has been further intensified by upcoming hydro-electric projects, dams, unchecked construction, excavation of tunnels, large-scale blasting, construction of ropeways, mountain railways, and indiscriminate mining and quarrying activities.
The recent land subsidence in Joshimath is a grim reminder of what happened in Kedarnath in June 2013. Successive governments have ignored the recommendations by scientists, geologists, environmentalists and expert committees.
The Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project of the NTPC Ltd, construction of the Char Dham project and unbridled construction activities have resulted in this disaster. The Mishra committee report (1976) had warned that the town was situated on an old landslide zone and was sinking.
The Committee recommended short- and long-term measures to avert the crisis. A Supreme Court appointed panel under Ravi Chopra had recommended that no new hydro projects should commence in the State till the complete impact assessment on ecology and environment is done for the earlier projects.
However, the successive governments at the Centre and the State did not heed the warning. The Planning Commission in 2013 said that “the Himalayan region has a very fragile geomorphology and provides valuable ecosystem services to the nation in general and to the people living in Indo-Gangetic Plain in particular”. Disasters occur all of a sudden, causing large scale property and livestock losses. Mental health aspects of disasters are widely recognised and studied across the countries, including India.
Although, institutional mechanisms are in place at the national level to the district and sub-district level for management of disasters, there are severe lacunae. The achievements of the State have not been satisfactory in grappling with natural disasters even after formation of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) in 2007. The role of the State has been castigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).
The CAG report 2010 said: “The performance audit of Disaster Management revealed the State Government’s lackadaisical approach towards implementation of important aspects of disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. The State Government had yet to frame the guidelines, policies and rules as envisaged in the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Further, the State Disaster Management Authority was virtually non-functional since its inception in October 2007”.
Framework for disaster
The framework of disaster typically involves four distinct stages — risk reduction, relief, early recovery, and recovery and reconstruction.
Early recovery consists of basic facilities such as health and education, and recovery and reconstruction comprise of infrastructure, livelihoods and other basic needs. It is also necessary to build an information system on disasters in each phase.
The number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath is close to 850. The interim relief of ₹1.50 lakh per household is inadequate in view of the losses.
Rehabilitation and reconstruction are the principal tasks of the State government. Short-term measures include providing immediate relief such as evacuating people in safer locations. Medium-term measures include provision of livelihood and relocation. Long-term measures take into consideration sustainable development.
The writer is on the faculty of Institute for Human Development, New Delhi