The NIDM Investigation of the Uttarakhand Disaster
The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), in one of its first reports on the Uttarakhand floods, blamed “climatic conditions combined with haphazard human intervention” in the hills for the disaster. Some broader findings of the NIDM studies can be summarized as follows:
- In terms of seismic activities, the region is traversed by several lineaments, faults and thrusts, which are considered to be geodynamically active. The area had suffered a 6.8 earthquake on March 29, 1999, which caused loosening of rock masses, ground cracks and landslides, besides killing more than a 100 people due to collapse of buildings. Thus, the geophysical conditions combined with climatic/weather conditions and haphazard human intervention made a conducive environment for such a disaster to take place in this valley.
- The geomorphological study of the area indicates that the surface slopes consist mostly of glacial, fluvio-glacial, or fluvial materials, which are mostly unconsolidated and loose in nature. The drainage studies indicate a migratory or shifting nature of the river systems. They also have high level of erosive capacity, especially when loaded with sediments (the erosive power of river with sediments is almost square of the erosive power without sediments).
- Loss of green cover due to deforestation and tree cutting for road construction, and other activities such as building construction, mining and hydel projects also resulted in increased surface flow and rise of river bed due to disposal of debris in the rivers.
- The abnormally high amount of rain (more than 400 per cent) in the hill state was caused by the fusion of Westerlies with the monsoonal cloud system. Heavy precipitation swelled rivers, both in the upstream as well as downstream areas. Besides the rain water, a huge quantity of water was probably released from melting of ice and glaciers due to high temperatures during the month of May and June. The water not only filled up the lakes and rivers that overflowed but also may have caused breaching of moraine dammed lakes in the upper reaches of the valley, particularly during the late evening on June 16 and on June 17, killing several hundred people; thousands went missing and about 100,000 pilgrims were trapped.
- The Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers (both tributaries of the Ganga) caused much destruction because they returned to their old course where buildings were constructed over period of time.
The report suggests the need to collect terrestrial, meteorological and anthropogenic data with particular focus on landslides, rainfall and other information relevant to the event. It also demanded necessary guidelines and action plans for tourist/pilgrimage places, hotels, lodges and guest houses, given the high concentration of people at such locations.
Vision-less Development in sub-Himalayan Region
It is an open secret that unplanned urbanization, industrialization, and unscrupulous development plans are responsible for most of the human deaths and destruction of private and public property.
The Himalayan region is a sensitive zone, full of water bodies, forests and glaciers and common sense dictates that the local ecology be treated with care and caution. The mad mania for energy has led to damming of practically all water bodies – small or big. When excessive sand is removed from the river beds, it hampers river flow systems. Intensive mining in the region is turning it even more fragile. Mining activities are particularly dangerous because of the way they are organized. They are leased out and the contractors generally go beyond their limits, often as an organized corrupt practice in collusion with bureaucrats or politicians. There is no mechanism to control it.
Every activity done in the name of development destroys trees and disturbs the local ecology. It has been going on for a long time and accelerated in the past decades after the so called economic reforms and liberalization in the early 1990s. The increasing influx of religious tourists and their activities further aggravated the situation.
But the blame squarely falls on the shoulder of state bureaucracy that has no clear integrated and sustainable development approach. They have also failed to realize that in the ecologically fragile Himalayan region, health of the ecology is supreme and all developmental activities must revolve around it. Doing anything otherwise is an invitation to disasters, more so when the climate change effects are threatening people and societies everywhere.
While these issues are of broader significance and need long term perspective and hopefully experts are busy doing it, regarding what went wrong in Uttarakhand and why, some broad comments can be clearly made on State’s disaster management apparatus.
Non-existent or non-functional disaster management system
Disaster management is a state subject. The Uttarakhand government has been honest to admit that it has been way behind the disaster preparedness standards laid down by the NDMA – this fact was also highlighted by CAG. It was a classic case of failure of a system that existed only on paper. It is nothing new in Indian bureaucracy; most things exist only on paper. The only problem this time was that the system was supposed to save human lives. The whole world watched how non-existent the disaster management chain of command was in Uttarakhand. Clearly people trained only to put papers into files and write report to complete office procedures (typical routine of government employees at all levels) couldn’t know what to do when the hill state was suddenly attacked by rains, floods and landslides that washed away ground transportation infrastructure and inclement weather that cut-off areal access to several remote regions. No wonder the only response they could count on was to blame the weather authorities – but that could not provide relief to people in eminent danger. What else Sarkari Babus could do!
But the disaster management authority in the state (SDMA) and other bodies with specific mandates under it were set up exactly to perform in such hopeless situations. They clearly proved utterly unprepared for the task. Their reactions reflected the hypothetical response of untrained and uninformed soldier at the battlefield.
But here is what the top-level disaster management system at the state level should look like:
“At the State Level the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), headed by the Chief Minister, lays down policies and plans for disaster management in the State. It performs the same duties as the NDMA at the national level. The State Disaster Management Department (DMD) which is mostly positioned in the Revenue and relief Department is the nodal authority. State Executive Committee (SEC), headed by Chief Secretary, will coordinate and monitor implementation of National Policy, National Plan and State Plan.”
Now, the DMD is suppose to have a functional Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) for information dissemination and to provide situational awareness to all government ministries and the public at large to aid coordinated response. In Uttarakhand, the NDMA was performing this role – it was releasing bits and pieces of information as and when it was available, possibly through the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
The EOC of Uttarakhand was also required to coordinate relief operations at the state level, ensuring suitable responses by various ministries such as defense, railways, food and supplies etc. But the non-existent EOC obviously could not perform.
Probably the most important issue for the ordinary citizen is the advance warning of the looming danger. In India’s disaster management framework, the Indian Metrological Department (IMD) is the nodal agency for gathering information from the concerned agencies and issuing disaster related early warnings. In this case, the IMD warned the Uttarakhand government of the likely heavy rainfall in the region 48 hours in advance. At the national level the warnings related to high water levels and flooding are generated by the Central Water Commission (CWC) and sent to IMD for dissemination.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told the media that his government received IMD’s warning on rainfall but there was no indication of cloud bursts, flash flooding and landslides. He did not know that the interpretation of the early warning in terms of its implications with respect to the prevailing local conditions of soil, river flow, among others, is the responsibility of the local disaster management officials.
To be fair to the IMD, it must be stresses that any early warning suffers from two classical pitfalls: One, of the clarity of interpretation and the second, proper sharing of information with the general public so that they know what the situation is.
In Uttarakhand, both pitfalls materialized due to ineptitude of the local disaster management officials. As a result, citizens at both the landslide hit areas and downstream complained of absence of any early warning.
Fragile Communication Network
Communication is another critical area – both among the government agencies and citizens. Fortunately, the mobile communication tower at Kedarnath survived the devastation wreaked by the flash floods and worked till the power supply lasted. Had the cellular communication survived, it would have greatly aided in the relief-rescue work and coordination of the areal efforts and provided much needed psychological support to the people trapped in remote locations.
In the current disaster management framework, it is another grey area as there are no guidelines from the Department of Communications for telecom companies for disaster-proofing their infrastructure and taking measures for early restoration of the communications network.
Why the Disaster Management Responsibility Rests with Bureaucrats
Given the reality of India’s bureaucracy, it seems surprising that the execution of disaster plans is entrusted with pure bureaucrats. From the practical angle, it appears more realistic that the bureaucrats should be confined to disaster management policy making and all the executive aspects should be in the hands of people who have real life experience of disaster handling, say defense personnel and civil society activists.
Therefore, except for the apex policy making bodies, all other disaster management bodies should be manned with people with disaster handling experience; one or two bureaucrats can be put for sake of dealing with other government bodies and doing paper work.