Sunday, May 4, 2014

Kedarnath opens, death (by negligence) beckons

Indians never seem to be troubled by the fact that so many people die due to criminal negligence. Disaster management is a joke (for 2013 CAG report excerpts see below). The flash floods resulting from cloud-burst had devastated Uttarakhand on 14-17 June, 2013. The entire Kedarnath temple complex was littered with dead bodies. More than 100,000 pilgrims were left stranded by the flooding and 5700 are presumed dead (many are missing, never to be found).

This was not the first mass murder by negligence and neither it will be the last. But for now everything is forgiven/forgotten. The devotees will march up the hills once more and if mother Ganga wishes to carry her children away to the promised next life, that is just your karma-fal (destiny).

Sacred portals of the Kedarnath temple were reopened to devotees amid elaborate rituals early this morning....Chief priest of the shrine (Rawal) Bhima Shankar Ling presided over the rituals as its gates were opened amid chanting of vedic hymns...About 1,252 devotees including eight foreign nationals visited the shrine on the opening day...Expressing happiness over the first day turnout, Singh said it was much more than their expectations. Makeshift tents have been pitched at several places en route to the temple to accommodate more than a thousand people.

The tragedy in Uttarakhand is symptomatic of a larger malaise. India is one of the 10 worst disaster-prone countries of the world. Of its 35 states and Union Territories, 27 are disaster-prone. Over 58 per cent of the landmass is vulnerable to earthquakes, over 40 million hectares—or 12 per cent of land—is prone to floods and river erosion. Of the 7,516-km-long coast line, 5,700 km is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, 68 per cent of the cultivable area is vulnerable to drought, and hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches. The combination of natural and human-induced factors—adverse climatic conditions to environmental degradation fuelled by non-scientific development practices accompanied by a burgeoning population—make the risks worse.

Bhuj India woke up to disaster management post the earthquake (even though the seeds of the idea were embedded in the 1968 Civil Defence Act). In 2004, it formulated the idea of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and empowered it with requisite legislation in 2005. 

The NDMA, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, was reviewed by the CAG between May 2012 and September 2012. Its findings submitted in March 2013 explain the chaos witnessed over the week.

  • The National Executive Committee of the NDMA which is supposed to meet every three months had not met between May 2008 and December 2012, and there was no advisory committee since 2010. This impacts evaluation of disaster preparedness.
  • The National Plan for Disaster Management had not been formulated till September 2012, six years after NDMA Act 2005, and there was no provision to make guidelines binding on states in preparation of state plans.
  • Only eight states have prepared emergency action plans for 192 dams as against 4,728 dams in 29 states, and inflow forecasts critical to mitigate risks from floods are available for only 28 reservoirs.
  • None of the major projects taken up by NDMA were completed.
  • The National Database for Emergency Management, which was to be completed by August 2011, was yet to be operational in September 2012.
  • Shelters on river banks are a serious risk but a 2004 draft plan for amending rules on construction in vulnerable areas—particularly for quake, flood and landslide-prone areas—approved in 2007 is yet to be formalized.

And there is more. The reason why the rescue teams were using satellite phones of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and Army is because six years after the receipt of the equipment, the satellite communication network is not functional. The cloudburst could not be forecast or sighted because the Doppler Weather Radars bought for surveillance of severe and weather system is paid for but yet to be operational. The National Disaster Communication Network and the National Disaster Management Informatics System are still in the planning stage, seven years after conceptualisation. The army and ITBP had to be called in because NDRF is hampered by shortage of manpower. Worse, only seven states had a State Disaster Response Force.


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