This is the third of the five part series on the hill state of Uttarakhand that suffered massive flash floods on June 16, 2013. The tragedy left scores of dead. The body count varies from 780 to 10,000. Officially thousands are missing till now and presumed dead. There is no count of the death of cattle and mules, the source of livelihood for many in the region. These posts will deal with the issue of tragedy, disaster management and the age old debate of development and conservation in the Himalayas. The title has been borrowed by the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna’s statement.
The Uttarakhand floods once again proved an oft repeated quote in India, “when an occasion arises, systems fail, individuals shine”.
National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) both have created elaborate plans for sensitizing the local population and also create contingency plans to mitigate and management the impact of disasters.
They include creating awareness, training of personnel etc. Every district in the state of Uttarakhand has a disaster management authority which is headed by the local district collector. Standard operating Procedures (SOPs) are also in place but in reality they don’t function when the need arises.
If we look at the tragedy from the beginning, it becomes clear that many systems failed to respond leading to such a disaster. To begin with the meteorological department couldn’t pin point or convey the location where extreme rain was expected. Even when they did the communication was vague and steeped into officialise containing scientific terms which conveyed little the enormity of the situation.
The communication from the Met department during those days and just before the calamity was, “meso-scale thunder storm expected”. The temple priest, Border Road Engineers and contractors, policemen, kiosk owners and least of all the pilgrims did hear the warning on radio but had no clue what “meso-scale thunder storm” meant.
Time and again demand has been made to rephrase the warning in a language which is understandable to the consumer. Had the warning been, “cloud burst expected in Kedarnath valley” people would have taken appropriate measures.
When the water started pouring in, some of the individuals, whether they were priests or road engineers, acted swiftly to take people to safer locations. They let their instincts rule them for the time being without caring for command from the top or the established wisdom that everything would be taken care off.
The moment floods started descending from the mountain top, the electricity supply was halted. It also stopped all the communication channels as mobile towers went dead due to no electricity. There was no provision of transmitters or any other communication channel.
Compared to this when the Birahi Lake breached in the 19th century British could contain the human loss as at that time due to construction activity they had a telephone line operational form the spot to Haridwar in the plains.
Third pilgrims who were stranded between Kedarnath and towns started taking shelter in the jungle and ate fruits and tree leaves to keep alive. They had little knowledge of the local flora and many died as they consumed poisonous leaves and berries.
While the state, district and city administration was floundering, one organisation stood apart for its cool professionalism –Indian armed forces. The first name and last word as far as disaster management is concerned in India. This organisation has acted as the prime mover of relief in any disaster and has been grossly over used by every central and state government.
The air force and the military working in tandem saved and evacuated more than 80 thousand pilgrims stranded in mountains in record time in inclement weather. As the weather was bad and time windows were short, on a couple of occasions there were unfortunate mishaps leading to the death of the soldiers. But on the whole this was the best executed part of the entire evacuation-relief-rehabilitation exercise in the region. The local administration, the police and disaster relief formations, were completely out of depth in dealing with the calamity.
While the systems were collapsing there were group of people as well as individuals who rose to the occasion. A village, Triyuginarayan, close to the Kedarnath shrine organised itself and saved 6000 lives by building makeshift bridge from fallen trees and fed the pilgrims for almost a week before they were evacuated. The village also refused to take any compensation except for the 22 porter families who had lost their loved ones in the tragedy.
Similarly a woman village head close to Guptkashi refused to take relief material from an NGO insisting that the relief should be first offered to the people of Triyuginarayan as they are the deserving candidates for the material.
Another brilliant action that saved further destruction was witnessed at Tehri Dam. Generally at these times of the year its reservoir is filled to the brim to produce electricity to meet the peak demands in Delhi and other cities. However, the dam officials posted at the site had learnt their lessons well from 2010 rains when the dam was flooded and started threatening its integrity.
This time around when they saw unusual discharge in the smaller rivers that join Alaknanda, they started clearing the dam. By the time the flood waters reached Tehri, the dam was almost empty and held back the entire fury of the raging river. This prompted the then chief minister of Uttarakhand to claim that Tehri Dam saved cities like Rishikesh and Haridwar at the foothills from certain devastation.
However, he was partially right. The truth should have been that quick thinking on the part of the dam officials saved the day. Had it been filled as it was during the 2010 floods, the story would have been completely different.
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