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Uttarakhand slept on state disaster report

Mail Today, New Delhi, 28th June, 2013

the Uttarakhand government received a 48-page report called 'Investigations in the Asi Ganga valley on the aftermath of flash flood/landslide incidences in August, 2012.'

A team of experts had examined the Uttarkashi disaster where a combination of heavy rainfall and flash floods had swept away vehicular and pedestrian bridges, cutting the Gangotri valley off from the outside world and killing 29 people.

As many as 85 villages were damaged and over 500 people were stranded on the Rishikesh–Gangotri National Highway. The report, complete with pictures of IAF Mi-17s evacuating stranded villagers and details of measures to avoid such calamities, said a disaster of such a magnitude was waiting to happen. And it did, within a year.

The report prepared by the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC) suggested a strict ban on construction in close proximity to the river channel in Uttarkashi.

"For this, a detailed survey of the area and identification of high risk zones is recommended,' said Dr Piyoosh Routela, executive director of the DMMC, a body headed by the state's chief secretary. It is not clear what happened to this report. What is known is that nobody acted on the report.

"This report has been sent to top district officials for further actions. We are also working on constituting a committee to do the survey of high risk zones. Please don't assume that we are not working at all," Routela said.

When asked if the chief minister was aware of this report, he tried to evade the question: "How would I know if he has read the report or not?" Routela also happens to support the state government in its opposition to a December 2012, notification of the Union environment ministry which declared the entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi, along the Bhagirathi river, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

This means no construction activity in the area. The state passed a resolution against the notification, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna even meeting the prime minister in this connection. "How can there be ban only in Uttarakhand?

Just because we have the holy rivers and pilgrims come to our state? There should be uniform policy for all the states. Why no such ban in Himachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir?" said Routela.

When told that he advocated a ban on construction, he retorted, "Only in dangerous areas." The Uttarakhand government list of failures has more. It failed to provide land to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) to install two Doppler radars in Nainital and Mussoorie.

The Central government had purchased 12 Doppler radars costing Rs 12 crore each from the US-based Weather Detection Systems to strengthen early warning indicators related to disasters; two were sanctioned for Uttarakhand in 2008.

The DMMC report observed that almost all the damage in 2012 had taken place along the river bank. This was caused primarily by abnormally high rainfall in the catchment of the streams.

This was, however, a normal phenomenon that had occurred in the past. What had not happened before was the destruction of infrastructure in such huge magnitude simply because there was not much construction along the rivers. But now there has been heavy construction activity in these areas.

"This can be attributed to long recurrence interval of such events and the short disasterrelated memory of the masses," the report said. The number of structures along the river increased rapidly even after the devastating floods in Uttarkashi in 1978 which killed nearly 1,000 people.

The report also takes note of the presence of large number of tourists during the time when such natural calamities are likely to strike.

"The monsoon season coincides with the peak pilgrim season of the state and people in large numbers from across the nation visit Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, Gangotri and Hemkunt Sahib shrines in the higher Himalayas. Pilgrims and tourists in large numbers were thus stranded at various places during the current monsoon season," said the report.

It could as well be talking about the June 2013 disaster. The report explained how commercial interests opened the gates to disaster. "It is a general practice in the hills to align roads along rivers and streams.

Apart from convenience and comfort, ever increasing economic opportunities in the vicinity of the roads encourages people to settle down in the proximity of the roads even if it implies being exposed to disaster risk. Increasing tourist and pilgrim traffic further promotes this tendency."

The Uttarakhand government, however, chose to ignore such uncomfortable truths and did not act on any of the recommendations suggested in the report. It said that structures damaged in the floods must be removed from the bank of Asi Ganga and construction of structures in close vicinity of the river should be banned.

Why did the Uttarakhand government ignore this report that pointed at certain doom? Perhaps it was the death toll of 29 that the 2012 Uttarkashi floods are credited with. A little too late It's relatively minuscule when compared with the devastation just 10 months later.

Routela said state government officials had a review meeting on his report on June 7 at Uttarkashi. But he could not explain why it took eight months for the first discussion over a report which was an unambiguously clear warning to the state government.