By: Satyakam Bharti
Floods in the Gangetic plains and Eastern India are nothing new. As if a ritual, every year rainwater presents a ‘pity’ (or pretty) picture of vast plains dotted with half-visible rooftops. Television channels and newspapers carry moving pictures of the catastrophe of national magnitude giving enough opportunity to the powers that be for appropriate photo-ops with the affected multitude. Perhaps, that’s how the country has come to know calamity, except for disasters of much greater magnitude like the recent tsunami and earthquakes – the relief measures anyway well short of required effort. That’s the state of disaster management in the country, and a state like Himachal Pradesh has much to lose from it.
So while Bihar lost around 100 lives over a month of floods, the Centre declares it a national calamity with a relief package of Rs 1,000 crore. But, when nearly 50 people die in a span of just 24 hours due to heavy rains in Himachal, hardly anybody is moved by the tragedy. Of course, half-submerged houses in flooded plains make good pictures for the crisis-obsessed media, but the destruction caused by a cloud burst or heavy rains is hardly visible, thus making it appear as if nothing happened.
Over the years hilly states like Himachal Pradesh have been the worst victims of the unpredictability of weather, but there is hardly any realization of the fact that disaster management strategies in the country and in the state need to be re-planned. For a state like Himachal, where slight change in climate can bring about major changes in weather, the need for area-specific strategies is even more. Difficulty in carrying out relief work in Malana village after the devastating fire last winter is testimony to this fact.
At the national level what appears is that the natural calamities have become good measures for bargaining for Central aid, which hardly reaches the affected people. Himachal has no such scope assuming that the state machinery is not that corrupt and indifferent, and more importantly because the state has hardly ever been able to put up its case at the Centre in right earnest. Following the recent rains, the state government appeared quite content with relief and reconstruction measures undertaken by it, and therefore no strong voice was raised for Central assistance.
So if the state government has accepted that hardly anything of national magnitude can strike Himachal, then it should at least be prepared to deal with catastrophes of local nature, be it a cloudburst in Chirgaon, fire in Malana, a landslide in Chamba, stampede at Naina Devi or tourists stranded in Spiti valley.
Time and again the state looks for help from the armed forces, who may again have their own limitations, and that leaves scope for lot of ground work. The administration wakes up only when a calamity strikes the state and then begins the patch-up work. Every year property and infrastructure worth crores of rupees is destroyed, and yet there is no strategy to minimize the losses.
Knowing that the state in exposed to high risks, the government needs to look at disaster management as a separate activity, which requires the attention at the very top level. Perhaps, a separate department may be designated to look after all such activities.
But, is the government listening.