Char Dham Yatra halted: Country’s disaster management totters on the edge!

More than 50 million people are affected by natural disasters annually, but despite this the second most populous country in the world suffers from serious lack of disaster preparedness.

Rashi Aditi Ghosh/Zee Research Group

More than 50 million people are affected by natural disasters annually, but despite this the second most populous country in the world suffers from serious lack of disaster preparedness.

Gaps in disaster preparedness have yet again been revealed as the famous Char Dham yatra of Uttarakhand was halted within a few days after its seasonal opening. The yatra, in which devotees visit Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines, was halted on Wednesday as the Rishikesh-Badrinath national highway (NH) and the road connecting Kedarnath-Gaurikund were blocked following heavy downpour and landslides since Tuesday.

Despite losing more than 5,500 people last year, the state government and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) are yet to act strictly on the low disaster preparedness. As a matter of fact, when the intervention of NDMA was required urgently, its vice chairman M Shashidhar Reddy and five members resigned from their posts on June 19, 2014.
No learning from best practices

Ironically, while Uttarakhand has been repeatedly failing to provide effective disaster preparedness, Odisha government and National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) successfully set a great example of disaster preparedness through effective response during cyclone Phailin in October 2013.

According to NIDM, the death toll during Phailin was fewer than 50 after the successful evacuation of nearly a million people to cyclone shelters and safe locations in the state and in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian Institute of Management, Raipur, conferred the International Conference on Humanitarian Logistics 2013 award to Odisha State Disaster Management Authority for excellence in humanitarian action.

NDMA fails to pick up pace

Admitting that India’s disaster response plans were in a mess, on June 21, 2013 former Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde appointed ex-NDMA member VK Duggal as the nodal officer to coordinate rescue and relief operations for the Uttarakhan disaster. It was expected that disaster preparedness and rescue operations in the state would get better.

But that did not happen as Duggal praised the rescue operation in Uttarakhand and found no major gaps in coordination among agencies. While speaking to media after the meeting Duggal said, “There are really no gaps in coordination. All agencies are doing their best. They have done remarkable work, barring some operational issues, which have been addressed.”

The Home Ministry also rejected NDMA’s national flood risk mitigation scheme in January 2013. The ministry also said that multi-purpose shelters, which could have provided medicine and food to Uttarakhand victims, and inundation models that would have allowed authorities to generate early warnings for villages at risk were missing.

Merely a year later, the role of NDMA and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was put under sharp scrutiny after dead bodies of several pilgrims were recovered from a Jungle Chatti of Kedarnath that was devastated in last year`s cloudburst, torrential rains, flashfloods and landslides.
Political fallout

Facing deep criticism from the opposition and pressure from Congress for shoddy rehabilitation work carried out by Uttarakhand government after last year’s flashfloods, the then Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna resigned in January this year. But it seems the series of criticism is proceeding to clutch the present CM Harish Rawat too.

Accusing the state government for failing to carry out its duty of handing over bodies to the next of kin and not undertaking rehabilitation works even a year after the flashflood tragedy in the hill state, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has asked for dismissal of the Harish Rawat government.

Failures of the past

On August 18, 2008, heavy monsoon rains and poor maintenance caused a breach in the Kosi embankment. Water passed through the breach inundating multiple villages in Nepal and hundreds of villages in northern Bihar. The flood affected over 2.3 million people in the northern part of Bihar.

In 2004, a destructive Tsunami in the Indian Ocean was triggered by a powerful earthquake, measuring 9 on the Richter scale. Over 10,000 people were killed in India alone. Perhaps, it was the most powerful Tsunami in history; the disaster severely affected 150,000 people in 11 countries. Experts say the Tsunami was so powerful that its impact equaled the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

At least 20,000 people and 700,000 cattle died in the devastating cyclone during 1999 Orissa cyclone. At least 90 million trees were uprooted or damaged and over 20 million people became homeless. Over 5 million farmers were out of work and at least 1.2 million hectares of standing cropland was destroyed.

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