Uttarakhand - Hidden agendas don't have people as priority

  • By Biju Negi
  • September 2013

The  most tragic trait to emerge in the recent Uttarakhand disaster,  clearly the worst and most widespread ever in the history of this  mountain region, is an utter lack of farsightedness, awareness,  seriousness, sensitivity and humility in its leadership. This lack of  leadership and capacity is equally apparent in the State’s  administrative machinery and the opposition parties. We cannot even  give them the benefit of doubt that they are dumbstruck at the  extreme scale of the tragedy – perhaps they are; but leadership  today has become a cruel mask and a faux  pas.

In  close to two months since the disaster, most of the discussions in  big and small circles, in the print, electronic or social media have  underlined the need to take this tragedy as a final Himalayan warning  and learn a lesson from the crisis. But this has been absent in the  discussions and statements coming from the leadership. It did talk  about leaving no stone unturned in its relief and restoration  efforts, but not once did it humbly accept that “we too are to  blame for this disaster and we will learn from it.” Not surprising  really! The leadership is a bit obstinate about being unwilling to  learn.

This  is amply clear from the decisions or announcements that the  Uttarakhand Government has made, and which can only be termed  foolish, worrying, dangerous and even cruel. These decisions relate  to missing people, the opening of the roads and the commencement of  the char-dham yatra / restoration of puja at Kedarnath, etc.

One,  the overturning of the June 30 decision, which was that those who  continue to remain missing at the end of 30 days of the tragedy will  be considered or accepted as dead and their dependents would  accordingly be provided compensation. The official figures then were  dead 580, missing 3973. This number, however, was questioned by the  Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly Speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, who  only a day earlier had said that the number of dead could be well  over 10,000.

But  on the completion of the one month cut-off period, when the official  figure of those missing was 5748 (including 924 from Uttarakhand),  the State Government refused to honour its earlier decision to accept  the missing as dead. Accordingly, the government said that instead of  compensation, it will now give the dependent relatives financial  assistance of Rs 5 lakhs. And it also attached two riders to this.  One, the dependent relatives of a missing person will have to  formally apply to the Government for assistance; and two, they will  have to submit an affidavit declaring that should the missing person  return, the financial assistance will be returned to the Government.  This change at best befits the twist and turns of a television soap  serial, but was a cruel joke on the families of the dead. Why is it  that where a little sensitivity and forbearance would have helped,  the Government tends to become progressively impatient, insensitive  and cruel.

It  is one thing that the Government exercise caution in giving  compensation and financial assistance, but it has so soured the taste  of compensation that the dependents of the missing (who are almost  surely dead) can neither swallow nor spit it out.

Imagine  that a missing person returns or is found after a few months, a year  or two years. Undoubtedly, for the family, it will be a matter of  great joy and relief yet, a family which had got shattered and which  is now only beginning to find its feet again, will hardly be in a  position to return the financial assistance received? Certainly not a  family which make two ends meet by providing labour or ponies to  carry men or material, by running a tea stall, photo shop or small  kirana shop, by owning a small lodge or working in a hotel as a cook  or bearer, by working its less than one acre land to grow food for  some months in the year or by being employed at low or middle level  in a Government or private organization!

Is  the Government unaware of this?

The  State Government’s decision is going to have a profound impact on  the insurance concerns of the people. It is assumed that this  disaster affects the four Government insurance companies alone to the  extent of Rs 3 crores. These companies had reportedly got together  and even taken some decision on honouring the death claims in the  event of the Government declaring the missing people as dead. But  now, with the Government reversing its stand on the missing, all such  claims will be left hanging indefinitely or the claimants will have  to run from pillar to post to get a measure of it. As always personal  tragedies get so subsumed in official apathy.

If  the missing person was the head of the family, and of who now there  is no actual hope of being found alive, then the problems for his  family become manifold. In the absence of a valid death certificate,  the family is going to face immense legal hurdles relating to house,  land, bank accounts and deposits succession papers, besides being  deprived of many Government facilities and entitlements.

Reopening  of the Char-Dham yatra

The  other issue that indicates that the Government is obstinate about not  learning anything - unless there is a well planned conspiracy - is  its announcement that the Char-Dham  Yatra, with the exception of Kedarnath, would be reopened by end September  for the other three pilgrim centres of Yamunotri, Gangotri and  Badrinath, and that, in fact, the puja at Kedarnath will commence on  11 September.

The  argument that the stoppage of the Yatra in  the aftermath of the disaster in June has badly affected the  livelihood of thousands of people and economy of the region is  legitimate, and road-opening needs priority attention. And of course,  a vast body of local population is also dependent to those roads and  will benefit from their becoming functional as soon as possible –  but that is not the stated aim of the Government. At least it does  not appear to be so.

On  the yatra front  too, there are major issues to look into.

We  are barely two-thirds through the monsoon season, and every other day  there is news of cloud bursts, landslides from some part of the State  or the other. We all know, the month of Bhadon (mid-August  to mid-September) sees the heaviest downpours and maximum disasters.  In such a situation, the already precarious roads to Yamunotri,  Gangotri and Badrinath will be repaired and opened for regular  traffic by end-September is either a blatant boast that provides  false hope to the local people dependent of tourism or was just a  statement issued to suppress the opposition voices.

Moreover,  by end September, the temperature in the higher hills begins to fall  rapidly and even in normal years, the number of pilgrims coming in  that period is rather scanty. The arrivals pick up a bit during  Dussehra and Puja holidays, but that is about all. However, this is  no ordinary or normal year and so it is anybody’s guess how many  people would actually be visiting Uttarakhand Char-Dham.  Moreover, as studies from across the world have shown, tourist  arrivals is the most fickle (or sensitive) phenomenon or figure whose  graph shows an instant downslide in the event of any disaster or  disturbance in the region, and it requires quite an effort and time  to retrieve the situation.

This  year, Deepavali falls on 3 November and Bhaiya Duj on 5 November,  around which time, the Char-Dham temples close for the winters. So, it is only for barely a little  over a month that the government wants to have the yatra routes  helter-skelter repaired.

In  any case, even the most optimist supporter – with the possible  exception of contractors and sub-contractors - will take the  Government’s announcement with a fair pinch of salt. However, there  is a more serious point of concern that needs to be voiced, should  the Government actually rush to act on its announcement. Right across  the State and the yatra routes, there are innumerable points and stretches where the roads  have actually to be cut and aligned anew. So, will the concerned  department, agencies and contractors then employ the same methods of  road construction which have come in for grave criticism and are  considered a major cause of landslides and devastations year in and  out!

Questions  and criticisms of the Government’s entire tourism vision and  policy, which often get suppressed by the issues of local economy and  employment, are beginning to emerge more clearly now. In the  Uttarakhand Government’s vision of tourism, it appears, mountains  and tourist places are a milch cow and that it is entirely valid and  legitimate to inject the cow with BST hormones to extract the last  drop of milk from it. We are all aware of what becomes the state of  the cow following such injection.

Tourism  in the state has grown to take a terrible form where human and  vehicle carrying capacity and ecological concerns are scandalously  brushed aside, together with an equally worrying utter lack of proper  services and facilities, with the operators at all levels given a  sort of free licence to loot visitors. Almost every year, ministers  and departmental officials go on foreign jaunts under the pretext of  observing and learning from tourism operations there, and even the  Chief Minister, his wife and several officials were slated to go to  Switzerland in end-June. But learning the practices, promotion and  management of tourism in Switzerland, Austria or the European Alps  cannot be at the cost of mountain area sensitivity, conservation and  preservation; the Himalaya is a very unstable and still-growing  mountain chain.

Tragic  though the premise is, the Uttarakhand disaster allows us a moment to  pause and reflect, and provides us an opportunity to turn it into a  positive outcome. That is, of course, if we are willing to pause and  reflect and learn. Following the disaster, we need to debate the  pilgrimage vs. luxury tourism paradigm, or how the cocktail of the  two has been a heady mix that is driving us down the hill.

We  need to investigate and underline widespread social, environment and  ecological problems and concerns as a result of the current tourism  ideology and practices. We need to do a serious look-in on issues and  questions such as benefits and harms of tourism, local  people-oriented and people-benefitting initiatives versus the  high-end tourism. We need to accept the need to overhaul the present  dominant tourism concepts and scenarios.

So,  the major question is - why is the government in such haste? What is  happening behind the scenes? Who are the participants influencing  such backroom decisions? Your guess is as good as mine.

But  secret discussions and hidden agendas don’t keep people as their  priority, and decisions taken therein reflect neither farsightedness  nor sensitivity and humility. This is even more so when people’s  trust of the Government is at its lowest and the leadership holds the  reins not to provide the society a positive direction, but to seek to  overawe the people, have one’s own way and for personal  aggrandizement.

The  author is a renowned environmentalist

First  published Click Here To View

Also  read
1. Himalayan Tragedy: Is Kalidasa Prophecy Coming True?
2. Report on Uttaranchal relief work and Appeal by RSS trust Dehradun
3. Flood relief work by the Ramakrishna Mission
4. Embrace the sacred, dump the secular
5. Rudra tandava of Ardhnarishwar
6. Don’t blame nature for the Uttaranchal flood disaster
7. Kedarnath - Wrath of the Devas
8. Divine Retribution in many ways

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