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Joshimath: 'Missing' disaster management, information system for Himalayan region

By Ishwar Awasthi* 

Unplanned and uncontrolled developmental work in Joshimath led to land subsidence and as a result several houses and roads developed cracks and triggered fear among the residents. Joshimath took place because the grim warnings of the massive flood due to cloudburst in 2013, resulted in fury of devastation and destruction in the state, had gone unheeded.Other towns may gradually see this kind of rage in fragile mountain region unless the development approach is focused on mountain perspective and sustainability.
Mountainous regions are prone to natural disasters and environmental degradation, primarily because of their fragility. Fragility arises from the excessive use of resources and neglecting the sustainable management of resources. This has an adverse impact on the land and forest resources. Floods, landslides and earthquakes are some of the common consequences causing significant loss of life, property and resources. Most of the hill states have experienced several natural and human induced disasters that have had disastrous impacts on human wellbeing.
Uttarakhand has a long history of disasters, particularly landslides and earthquakes that have taken a heavy toll on lives and led to massive losses of infrastructure and property. Since the last century, this part of the region has experienced recurrent disasters. The biggest flash flood in mid-June 2013 took over 10,000 lives and caused heavy damage to property. It is a grim reminder of the insensitivity of the government while chalking out the development trajectory for this region.
In recent times, heavy construction activities have crossed the bearing capacity of the region, thereby damaging the ecosystem of the already fragile 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 that have disturbed the eco-system of the hill region.

Sinking Joshimath

The recent land subsidence in Joshimath was 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 National Thermal Power Corporation Limited, 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. Committee recommended short and long-term measures to avert the crisis. 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 and continued with mega projects and indiscriminate and reckless construction.
The Planning Commission in 2013 expressly recognised 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. Therefore, sustainable development ought to be central to developmental activities in this region. This is essential to maintain a balance between environment and economic development while striving for faster and inclusive growth, as also emphasised in Twelfth Plan document”.
Despite the recognition of synergetic relationship between environment and development, the region suffers from detrimental effects of insensitive development activities causing massive loss to the region.
Disasters have a volatile and sudden occurrence, causing large scale property and livestock losses which have profound bearing on the socio-economic factors, institutions and structures. The psychological impacts are intense, which are often neglected by the relief agencies and thus psychological needs are rarely incorporated in the disaster management plans. Mental health aspects of disasters are widely recognised and studied across the countries, including India. Mental health care principles have been identified that needs interventions in different phases.
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 in these mechanisms when looked at from a holistic perspective. The achievements of the state have not been satisfactory in grappling with natural disasters and mitigating their impact even after formation of State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) in 2007. The role of the state has been castigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in dealing with disasters.
The CAG report 2010 clearly emphasised in what follows:
“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".
Disaster management has been missing in the development agenda and no reliable information system was developed. There is, therefore, a clear need for incorporation of the disaster management component in the development agenda of the state.
The framework of disaster typically involves four distinct stages namely, risk reduction, relief, early recovery, and recovery and reconstruction. Risk reduction entails risk assessment, prevention, preparedness and early warning. The relief measures primarily include lifesaving (search rescue, medical care and basic needs).
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 which should essentially collect data at disaggregated levels.
The data collection should primarily be aimed at better management of disasters and a successful policy response. Technology plays an important role in forecasting, accessing and sharing information on disaster related data. Good institutional and community-based organisations are often critical in mitigating disasters at different levels.
The number of subsidence affected homes in Joshimath is close to 850. This has a profound bearing on human lives, massive loss of livelihoods, property and entitlements and sources of income resulting in people feeling threatened and vulnerable. The provision of immediate relief becomes challenging and relocating people in safer locations is of paramount importance. The interim relief of Rs.1.50 lakh per household is inadequate in view of the losses.
Provision of immediate relief is challenging. Interim relief of Rs.1.50 lakh per household is inadequate in view of the losses
Rehabilitation and reconstruction are the principal tasks of the state government as part of bringing relief to the people. These efforts require a short, medium and long-term strategy and corresponding action plans. Short-term measures include providing immediate relief such as evacuating people in safer locations and providing necessary help in terms of access to food, medicines and other essential requirements.
Medium term measures include provision of livelihood and relocation. Long-term measures take into consideration sustainable development that complements environmental protection with social and economic development.

Policy response

Mountain regions have generally followed a development trajectory that has neglected their distinctive character. The development activities are often guided by 'normative' development strategies, disregarding regional or mountain specificities.
There are several instances where a large infrastructural project has been created in the region disregarding its fragility and associated environmental hazards. It has been noted that whenever the mountain perspective is disregarded in the development agenda, it has adverse implications on the ecology, environment and livelihoods of the people in the region. 
The occurrences of frequent landslides, earthquakes, floods and its adverse impacts on human and animal lives and erosion of livelihoods is a testimony of the pattern of development taking place in the region. Clearly, disasters are inevitable outcomes due to the neglect of the perspective of mountainous regions in development.
The ongoing protests by residents of subsidence-hit Joshimath town completed 100th day recently but the state administration has paid no heed to their emotional sufferings, economic loss and huge dislocation costs.
There is no mystery in explaining the failures and occurrences of frequent disasters and catastrophes. It is the apathy of successive governments that pushed for indiscriminate development leading to such disasters.
*Institute for Human Development, New Delhi


Unknown said…
A detailed analysis with background , previous recommendations , failure to implement recommendations , in adequate compensation etc. Hopefully government will take cognizance and act.
Dr R P Bhatt said…
Its right thattoday'great challange is the process of development happening in Himalayas.

People are living in mountains since anicient times and with the passage of time and all round development in science and technology ( unfortunately adopted by us from west) and also human desires to live in equal comforts with other counterparts in the country there has been a intense deman of development to raise the materialistic standars of people lot of development activities begin after the ondependance of country as a democratic republic of India.
The entire political and sicial system including the low grade infrastructure development activity has lead to rampant unplanned activities accelerating the disasters in Himalayas fie whoch the rulers and the citizens all are responsible.

Now the question today is what is the way forward and what are the policy decisions need to be taken and executed by a honest system abd how this will hapoen?

This is the time when a common citizen make this
an issue and it becomes the issue for electing a Government.

This is a very big political issue and cant be dealt by few intellectuals through facts finding.


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