Edit & Opinion

Flooded & Submerged: Toh? Ki pharak painda hai!

By Poonam I Kaushish

Ok, fellow countrymen let lose the volley of expletives, curse all you want. Deadly Covid 19 is growing exponentially, China has dug its heels in Ladakh and the Congress-BJP battle it out in  Rajasthan. Alas, if only curses could put an end to our miseries one would have no regrets. But year after year, our annoyance falls on deaf ears. Whoever said when it rains miseries, it pours, was dead on!

In summer many parts of India was in the doleful throes of drought, come monsoon heavy rain changed that to devastating floods in much of north, west and south. Killed over 3,500 people displaced 5.9 million people in Assam, 4.7 million in Bihar with over 300,000 now living in relief camps in both States, affected 150,000 in UP and another 100,000 in Kerala relief camps even as heavy rain lashes through West Bengal, Andhra, Karnataka, Odisha, Gujarat. and Maharashtra. Bringing life to a virtual standstill.

Millions of words have been written and millions more will continue to be written. But it’s like water off a duck’s back. The basic question is: Does anyone really care?  Not at all, given that cloudbursts, landslides and flash floods are an annual affair wherein thousands die, lakhs are rendered homeless and property worth crores is lost.

Oh, so predictable is our netagan’s response: an annual nautanki, yawn. Everyone goes through the stereotype motions — deluge and relief are freely bandied about. Prime Minister Modi announces compensation and Chief Ministers follow. The Government sets up a crisis management team. The State Government seeks Central relief. Babudom analyses the flood situation and its aftermath over official lunches. Their ideas and remedies as water-logged as the floods under discussion. Everyone is satisfied that they have done their bit for the nation. This is our India.

Everything is kaam chalao! See the absurdity—food grains and fodder arrive at their destination days after the calamity has struck, thanks to cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. Rations are air dropped. Never mind if half land in water and the remaining spark off food riot and killings.

Funds are doled out from the Calamity Relief Fund. Little realizing that instead of helping the people, most State Governments use this for purposes other than disaster management or to create infrastructure for which money is provided in the regular budget and nor do the State Disaster Boards implement any project properly.

Why do politicians always measure the problems in monetary terms? How does a problem get solved by the monies sanctioned by them? Why is it assumed that one who sanctions hundreds of crores has done more for floods than another who sends only a couple of crores. Who will be held accountable for the Administration’s ineptitude? And which head will roll?

Moreover, why do our netagan prioritise floods only at crises time? Why is so little done to develop are long-term responses not developed to what is an annual expected problem? Tragically, exposing the political and administrative callousness towards human life Remember, similar floods struck Kerala in 2018, Gujarat 2017, Chennai in 2015, Uttarakhand and Srinagar 2014, Delhi 2013 and Mumbai in 2005.

According to the National Disaster Management Authority around 40 million hectares of land is exposed to floods (12% of the country’s total land area), 68% is vulnerable to droughts, landslides and avalanches, 58.6% landmass is earthquake-prone, and tsunamis and cyclones are a regular phenomenon for 5,700 km of the 7,516-km long coastal line. Such vulnerable conditions have placed India amongst the top disaster-prone countries.

In fact, India is the 14th most vulnerable country in the world, due to extreme weather-related events states the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index Report with floods being the most frequent disaster accounting for 52% of the total occurrences of calamities, followed by cyclones 30%, landslides 10%, earthquakes 5% and droughts 2% losing around 2,736 lives in 2017. In spite of India being a signatory to the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, little has changed on the ground.

Primarily because flood policies are based on the assumption that flood disasters result from nature’s actions and are not man-made. Whereas, in actual fact the damage and misery are mostly caused by human error. Mainly, poor land management and myopic flood-control strategies.

World Bank analysts aver that though weather forecasts are more accurate now, dam managers, read bureaucrats, are reluctant to authorise advance controlled releases as operating schedules usually specify that dams must be filled up as soon as possible and must be full by the end of the monsoon. While the world has moved to dynamic reservoir operations based on weather forecasts, our dam managers are reluctant to risk their careers and order controlled releases in advance, barring Bhakra dam.

Further, the frenzy of ill thought out development has also worsened the impacts of the intense rainfall. In the western Himalayas, for instance, there has been a massive thrust in building infrastructure that has put enormous pressure on the region’s natural environment. Further, despite warnings of endangering the fragile mountain ecosystem, the Government has embarked on the contentious Char Dham highway project to connect four Hindu shrines in the Uttarakhand.

Alongside, India’s infrastructure for disaster preparedness is deplorable. Worse, the Government seems to be in denial.  Asserted Environment Minister Javadekar, “The climate in various parts of the world is changing, but it would be wrong and unscientific to attribute the current flood situation to climate change.” Environmentalists have cautioned against massive road and tunnel-building projects in Himachal and Uttarakhand.

Shockingly, in a nation natured on short cuts and quick-fix solutions, none is willing to learn the ABC of disaster management or finding lasting solutions.  It’s not that they have to look far. If there are trees, plants and open areas around, rain water will be absorbed by the Earth, but if we continue to build concrete jungles, flooding should not surprise one.

Consequently, in a milieu of criminal casualness by the Government the time has come for a course correction. But first the Government must recognise the problem, implement basic suggestions and developing long-term responses. Robust Central and State coordination and cooperation both pre-and post-disaster, along-with a better disaster management policy, is essential to mitigate disaster fatalities across States.

Two, need for higher public expenditure towards disaster resilient infrastructure: construction of dams and drainages and for protection of river embankment and canals. Three, installation of advanced disaster warning systems, particularly in low lying areas, that are accurate in predicting rainfall in coastal areas.

Four, prioritise buffers, flexibility and adaptability. This includes reviewing safety criteria of dams and canals, re-building these with higher safety factors, creating new intermediate storages, and introducing dynamic reservoir management. Finally, we must reduce the vulnerability of the poor who pay a disproportionately higher cost in calamities.

In the ultimate, our leaders need to pull up their socks and put an end to their reckless drift. There are no short-cuts possible. It is high time no-nonsense Modi ensures his Administration lives up to expectations. Unless our netas shed their inertia and focus on long-term rather than short-term planning to change the way development is carried out, the damage from extreme weather events will only be magnified.

How long will people stand mute testimony to a callous and selfish polity and administration bereft of cure and consolation. And how long will they pray to Lord Indra that disaster doesn’t strike in their region. Remember, life is not about collating numbers, but flesh and blood with beating hearts. Neither is the aam aadmi is not a sterile statistic to be manipulated at will.

 

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