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Will we treat Uttarakhand as just another disaster?

Last updated on: June 24, 2013 20:48 IST

The horrific disaster that has struck Uttrakhand has been assessed as a mix of natural and man-made. In fact, the various media analyses indicate we were asking for it and there were enough warnings and indications that this would happen, says Lt Gen (retd) Prakash Katoch.

The previous similar smaller calamities in Uttrakhand over the years should have made us sit up, but we did not. Media reports indicate that the Comptroller and Auditor General had also recently warned that Uttrakhand is poorly geared for disaster relief and the National Disaster Response Force is inadequately organised and equipped in this state.

The million dollar question now are we going to learn anything at all or will we treat this as ‘another’ disaster with opportunities for disaster tourism and good excuse for donation collection by politicians of the Centre and the concerned state?

What is surprising is that the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahugana, Union Home Minister Sushil Shinde and Union Water Resource Minister Harish Rawat, all camping at Dehradun are apparently doing little beyond concentrating in asking donations -- witness the massive advertisements with Bahugana's photoatop asking for donations.

Where most of the money donated will go is anybody's guess. But when reporters inside the disaster area are repeatedly showing visuals of people not had anything to eat for six days and beyond, the least this bigwig politician trio could have thought of is collect pre-cooked food packets in Dehradun and other cities and air dropped/air landed them at all the cut off places.

The army helicopters were seen carrying some packets but then look at the number stranded and what is the responsibility of the state administration to feed the stranded? The population and NGOs would have happily prepared thousands of pre-cooked packets readily on a 24x7 basis.

Shinde admitted lapses in coordination but coordination can hardly be done sans common sense, which appears in short supply. Then of course Shinde, was fooling when admitting lapses for there were none as per Union Minister of State Manish Tiwari -- smells like Law Minister Kapil Sibal's quote of "only notional loss" in the 2G Scam.

The Congress has trained all guns on Gujarat Chief Minister Modi to divert attention from own infirmities and shoddy approach in both averting this disaster and coping with it, once it struck. The Congress gearing the entire media against Modi is nothing new but it is comical to see the criticism by interviewer Karan Thapar whose gains by lapping up to Congress are well known.

Remember his efforts to rate, former army chief General VK Singh as the 'worst army chief' in a bid to tide over the ghosts of his childhood when papa was army chief in 1962. Of course the interview with an inebriated former national security advisor was both dramatic and humorous.

Now imagine the insinuation that when Modi is so concerned, then why is Gujarat donating only Rs 2 crore.

But then surprisingly, the Times of India has let the cat out of the bag with the front page news that Modi has managed to take out some 15,000 Gujaratis out of the disaster area by chartering 80 Toyota Innovas and two Boeing aircraft.

But then the government cannot count that as Gujarat's contribution to the Uttrakhand disaster because these evacuated people can hardly be classified Indian, since they were rescued by Modi.

Besides the reason Modi helped them must have been because these Gujaratis are 'un-secular'. As to the Times of India report of Modi’s feat, editorial chairman of Outlook magazine Vinod Mehta heading the Times Group must be receiving calls why such a massive slip involving national security and endangering secular face of India has been allowed in the first place.

Notwithstanding the above, Shinde, Bahugana and Rawat could, in between sipping their scotch, could send some pre-cooked food, plastic sheets and blankets to the stranded. Despite fudging figures, it is easy to visualise that complete evacuation is going to take days especially with the weather deteriorating and forecast of more rain.

Despite the known politician-police nexus, should one expect Bahugana to instruct his police to ensure the stranded are not ravaged further by the merchants of greed -- Rs 500 for a bowl of rice and Rs 180 for a roti?

There are families that may have run out or lost their cash. All the more reason to supply them pre-cooked food free of cost. It is heart rending to read a Nepalese mother eating grass to ensure she can feed her baby.

As to the responsibility of the Centre, can you tell the nation what is the national plan for environmental security -- do you have one at all? Can your minister for environment address the nation rather than making point at international forums and visiting the beauty parlour prior to photo ops and TV debates?

Why is the minister hiding under the table and not being questioned? If you have one, what was the road map for it and what about its implementation? How about releasing a white paper on it? If you don't have one, how about making one and make it known to the public?

The world is bothered about the horrific rate at which forest cover is denuding in India, but our government obviously is not. Before the Maoists come questioning with a gun poking you in the face, it would do well for the Centre to review its policy of dumping all blame on the states.

Look at the millions of tonnes of grain rotting in the open in FCI godowns across the country that are controlled by the Centre, and then you talk of ‘food security’. Of course the rotting grain is not wasted, but gets siphoned off to distilleries; perhaps that is the surprise package with food security -- free beer cans with free food! 

Then is the capacity building in the NDRF. An organisation presided over by the prime minister himself should have no problem in following a road map to meet national requirements.

But then presiding over so many scams is so time consuming, there is little time left for anything else. As to those who are engaged in changing the face of India for the good - Aam Aadmi (Mango People for some) party, Right To Information activists, non-governmental organisations et all.

It may be worthwhile to inquire into what funds were collected and what actually reached those for whom it was meant in respect of disasters that have struck over the years in various parts of India.

This survey should also cover the official figures for relief provided during the various communal riots and killings such as the Mumbai riots, Gujarat riots, massacre of over 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi, Maliana and Meerut riots in UP, Bhagalpur/Jamshdpur in riots, killings and blinding, Bihar and the like.

Of course the government's response to such RTI's could well be ordering yet another Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry in case of Gujarat and say balance cannot be disclosed, being 'confidential'. But yet it may be worth the try!

As for the military, they as always can be counted upon to deliver the goods -- any place and any time. However, the government needs to examine one issue it has conveniently avoided all these years.

The military’s air effort, particularly helicopters used for various tasks like movement of civilians in difficult areas, disaster relief, operations against the Maoists and movement of politicians has eaten into the training requirements of the military, to the extent that in the last 15 years it has not been possible to have one single airborne or heliborne exercise at one full battalion group basis.

This requires to be taken serious note of, although China and Pakistan would clap in glee.

The author is a veteran lieutenant general from the Special Forces.

Lt Gen (retd) Prakash Katoch