Indian disaster response falls short
By Malini Shankar
DEHRADUN, India - A fortnight after floods trapped thousands of tourists and pilgrims in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, search and rescue operations are still under way. At least 3,000 people are reported to be missing. More than 580 bodies have so far been found. Hundreds more will likely never turn up. Survivors say they are suspended in a kind of nightmare, either haunted by memories of their brush with death or desperate for news of loved ones.
Known as the Land of the Gods, this Himalayan state was transformed from an idyllic prayer site into hell on Earth when, on June 15-17, torrential rains led to flash floods that swelled the two headstreams of the holy river Ganga and carried off thousands of
people along with roads, homes, shops and large chunks of the mountains.
Although "military and paramilitary forces have so far evacuated 108,653 stranded pilgrims from remote locations", thousands are still trapped, even as the threat of landslides and earthquakes looms large, V K Duggal, a member of India's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), told IPS. At the time of writing, only the pilgrimage town of Badrinath has been completely evacuated.
"The death toll is expected to increase after search and rescue operations cease and recovery commences," he said, adding that the list of missing will be confirmed by July 15.
Headlines and searchlights have largely focused on immediate events, bypassing the long-term, structural implications this tragedy will have on disaster management in India.
Already, the rescue operation is straining from a lack of coordinated action: families fear that their missing loved ones, living on nothing more than prayers, will not last much longer, while experts warn that swift and sanitary disposal of the dead is vital to prevent the spread of diseases; some scientists even fear that an outbreak of plague in the Himalayas is not far off.
When a rescue helicopter crashed in a valley thick with wildlife on June 24, killing all 20 personnel on board, it provoked legitimate fears that the NDMA was floundering. Confidence plummeted still further when a 3.5-magnitude earthquake struck Uttarakhand on June 27, sparking panic that it would trigger landslides.
Requiring precision, highly trained personnel and a tight organizational command structure, search and rescue efforts have largely been entrusted to the armed forces.
Over the course of 10 days, the Indian Air Force flew approximately 2,000 sorties, averaging about one every five minutes, with help from the Indian Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the state police and civil administration. An additional 600 sorties have so far carried 24 tonnes of food into the affected areas for survivors and the displaced.
Troops have helped erect temporary steel bridges at crucial access points, as many bridges and long stretches of road were washed away in the rapid waters. Paramilitary forces like the ITBP and the NDRF are rescuing frail and infirm people trapped in tough terrain while drones scan caves and scour remote terrain to evacuate those stranded on riverbeds or clinging precariously to fragile, wet embankments.
Grateful to be alive, Shobha Karandalaje, a politician from the South Indian state of Karnataka, told IPS, "It was a scary experience. We were on our way to Kedarnath (a popular pilgrimage town in Uttarakhand) when suddenly the downpour worsened; rivers were in full spate, land sliding all around us," she said.
"We were stuck in our jeep for a full five days in Rudraprayag [a bustling town on the forest's edge at the point of confluence of the Alakananda and Mandakini rivers], surviving on snacks, sipping water. We trekked back 35 kilometers to Yamunotri, where road construction workers helped us reach Dehradun [Uttarakhand's capital] safely."
Successful rescues notwithstanding, disappointment hangs thick in the air, with scientists lamenting that the tragedy could easily have been minimized if developers had heeded warnings about the fragility of the surrounding ecosystem and if the state government had paid greater attention to weather forecasts.
India's NDMA, set up in 2005 after the calamitous Asian tsunami of 2004, is tasked with taking measures to reduce the risk to human lives and livelihoods before calamities strike, embodying the "paradigm shift from the erstwhile relief-centric and post-event syndrome to pro-active prevention ..." according to the official guidelines.
Determined to avoid a tragedy on the scale of the Boxing Day tsunami, the government invested huge amounts in forecasting services that could deliver accurate reports to the NDMA, which is expected to take all necessary measures to minimize loss of human life.
Accordingly, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a forecast of heavy rains in Uttarakhand starting June 15, which failed to elicit a timely response from the state.
Addressing a press conference on June 17, State Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna justified his government's inaction by claiming that the "generic forecast (delivered ahead of the floods) was not actionable … (and) evacuating residents and pilgrims in the peak pilgrim season was impractical."
He skirted allegations that unsustainable tourism development on the steep hill slopes coupled with forest denudation for the construction of numerous dams across rivers in landslide prone areas were largely to blame for the catastrophe.
Nor did he respond to activists' long-standing grievances over mismanagement in disaster preparedness at the state government level.
Despite the Government of India approving a budget for a Doppler Weather Radar system capable of predicting a cloudburst, the state government has not granted the necessary land to house the forecasting equipment, effectively prioritizing tourism development over disaster management.
Money for the acquisition of 200 satellite phones for the NDRF is also mired in bureaucratic delays, officials admit.
Being plugged in to a vast network of state and district-level offices, the NDMA should have monitored dam discharge, identified arterial routes for evacuation, stocked up on emergency supplies, created communication hubs and kept ambulances on standby in preparation for responding rapidly to forecasts. Instead, the agency was caught off guard with barely minutes to prepare for the crisis.
The Central Water Commission, authorized to issue flood forecasts in India, failed to raise the alarm even on the night of June 17 when the Mandakini River was already in full spate.
The CWC's director of the food forecast monitoring directorate, V D Roy, told IPS this was due to the fact that the raging water was technically "below the statutory warning level of 539 meters at (11 pm) on June 17."
But scientists and advocates refute this claim, insisting that the Commission ought to have foreseen the calamity heading for the most vulnerable regions of Uttarakhand like Uttarkashi, Hemkhund Sahib and Kedarnath. Others accuse the government of failing to utilize India's massive media apparatus to minimize the tragedy.
"Weather reports are disseminated to all public broadcasters, such as All India Radio and Doordarshan. If there is a specific warning, all broadcasters … should interrupt normal programming to disseminate this warning. This protocol must be developed and put in place," NDMA Vice Chairman Shashidhar Reddy told IPS.
Malini Shankar is a photojournalist, radio broadcaster and documentary filmmaker based in Bangalore, India.