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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 35, August 17, 2013 - Independence Day Special

Natural Disasters: Lessons from Uttarakhand

Sunday 18 August 2013

by Saumitra Mohan

The recent cloudburst in Uttarakhand and subsequent natural disaster in the form of massive inundation should make many of us sit up and take notice. It is true that notwithstanding all disaster management plans, man is helpless against the vagaries of nature as also borne out by the regular loss of lives and property from tsunami, tornados, typhoons and hurricanes in developed countries like the USA and Japan. However, we can definitely be better prepared to face any such contingency for minimising the losses and damages. The clichéd but hoary dictum rightly says, ‘prevention is always better than cure’.

Darjeeling, which was ravaged by major earthquakes in 1898 (known as the Darjeeling disaster) and then again in September 2011, falls under seismic zone-IV (on a scale of I to V, in order of increasing proneness to earthquakes) near the convergent boundary of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. It also needs better planning and marshalling of resources and logistics to be well-equipped for any such natural calamity. Like any other region, Darjeeling too has a contingency plan and relevant paraphernalia to face up to a natural disaster; however there is still a lot which could be done for better mitigation and minimisation of the losses accruing from such sudden natural calamity.

First and foremost, there is a need for dividing the entire region into suitable eco-sensitive zones for better planning of the relevant developmental works, which are usually carried out without taking due cognisance of the geo-physical nature of the local terrain and topography. It is because of this that the Darjeeling hills are subjected to frequent landslides and land subsidence, often throwing the normal human life out of gear. The rampant and reckless felling of trees during the first Statehood agitation in Darjeeling in the better part of the 1980s has left large tracts of the Darjeeling Himalayas denuded of any vegetation, making them further prone to ecological disasters like landslides.

The unregulated and unabated building constructions and callous mountain cutting have further endangered the local ecology and human life. The development of human habitations in almost every part of the hills and the subsequent interference with the forces of nature has further distressed an already fragile ecosystem.

Hence, it is quite imperative that the all the agencies concerned with the development and disaster planning in this eco-sensitive region synergise their actions to save the Queen of Hills from any impending natural catastrophe waiting to happen. The regulatory framework relating to building constructions and other develop-mental activities, as already in vogue, ought to be strictly enforced. The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Sabha (the rule and policy-making body in the Darjeeling hills) in one of its meetings has already resolved to issue directives to the local municipal and rural bodies to ensure enforcement of the building rules and laws while also making it mandatory to have a water-harvesting plan for every proposed building plan in the private and public sector. Now, it should be ensured that the same is implemented with due earnestness.

The integrated watershed management plan (IWMP) is another flagship government programme, which, if properly implemented, has the potential to turn things around for the local ecology. There is not only a need for massive afforestation with due contour-wise green micro-planning, there is also a need for a well-designed drainage system so as to suitably channel the waters of hill springs and drains (called ‘dhara’ and ‘jhora’ in local parlance) to pre-empt and reduce the chances of further landslides. There is a further need for undertaking massive pre-emptive protection works including construction of protection wall, gully plugging, planned check dams, contour bunding, a zone-wise solid waste management plan, hill-sensitive water harvesting structures and irrigation channels to stem and minimise such landslides.

It should be ensured that all major development works including construction of roads, buildings and hydro power plants are not executed without first studying the environ-mental implications of the same through an ‘environment impact assessment (EIA)’ as made mandatory by the extant laws and decrees of the government. As per the studies carried out by the Geographical Survey of India (GSI) and National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA), large tracts of Darjeeling hills have developed into sinking zones in the aftermath of the last earthquake and massive human activities, making the local ecology further fragile.

If we don’t put in place the requisite regulatory framework, then landslides shall soon become the order of the day. Illegal mining of minor and major minerals in the lower reaches of the Himalayas is another area of concern which needs attention. And more than the regulatory enforcement, there is need for a political consensus to stop the same; otherwise landslides as big as one at Tindharia in the Kurseong sub-division of Darjeeling shall keep repeating themselves with a lot of damage to the life and property of the native population.

After we have done the necessary homework with regard to the preventive and regulatory works, we should concentrate on building popular awareness, which is abysmally low, to say the least. The native communities need to be made aware and conscientised of the pitfalls of ignoring and violating the relevant rules and laws as relating to various developmental activities as the same has serious implications for their day-to-day life. So, there is an urgent need for massive awareness drives and capacity building exercises of the local populace. The civil defence training relating to various aspects of disaster management and personal safety need to be undertaken in more and more parts of the region, more so for the local youths.

It has been a personal experience that more than anything else, it is the flow of information and communication during a particular disaster, which matters a lot. So, even after we have a state-of-the-art early warning system as put in place by the Meteorological and Disaster Management Departments, the flow of information to the right people at the right time is what proves crucial in any disaster management exercise. The real time coordination and communication among all the concerned departments at information and resource sharing to provide succour and relief to the affected people is what is most important to face any natural calamity or anthropogenic (read man-made) disaster successfully. The rescue and relief work becomes further easier and more facile with an already trained ‘quick response teams’ (QRTs) and relatively better aware, trained and sensitised civil society members.

A well-coordinated initiative of the State Government, local self-governments and local administration in coordination with the involved non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is already underway and trying to work on the above-mentioned aspects to make the same a reality. However, this needs to be done in right earnest by all the stakeholders concerned to ensure sustainable development for all. The diagnosis and remedial measures suggested above for Darjeeling ipso facto, with some minor alterations, apply to any and every part of the country. We need to do it faster all the more; otherwise the anthropogenic climate changes shall do us in sooner than later.

Dr Saumitra Mohan, an IAS officer who studied in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is the District Magistrate and Collector, Darjeeling (West Bengal).

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62