Editorial: Bill versus Draft
But the Uttarakhand government looks singularly inept given its leaden-footed response to the floods. How well will it handle the more onerous and decidedly less glamorous task of rehabilitating people? These are its own citizens who have lost farmland, houses, animals, loved ones, been maimed…. Providing relief is an immediate measure, rehabilitation is a long haul. Is there a plan? From all the reports so far, the short answer is no.
The easy way out is to monetize the loss and pay people a few lakhs for their loss. This merely buys an immediate high but as anybody who has dealt with government rehabilitation programmes knows, getting this compensation is a long, heart wrenching process. It is also a convenient fig leaf for the government’s incompetence in providing material rehabilitation. The real danger in this approach are the real estate hawks will swoop in and rebuild houses using compensation money in a slip-shod way – remember Uttarakhand is also prone to earthquakes. Apart from oiling the real estate mafia’s wheels, people unaccustomed to sudden wealth may end up squandering it on consumer goods. In fact, this seems to be one of the main outcomes of the rehabilitation after the Uttarkashi (1991) and Chamoli (2004) earthquakes.
India has a few examples where rehabilitation work has been systematic and sustained. Following the Tsunami of 2004 and the Bhuj earthquake of 2002, several agencies including the state governments undertook rehabilitation programmes that saw affected populations back on their feet. Can Uttarakhand use lessons from both in its admittedly unique situation? What are these lessons?
One is that reconstruction is not a piecemeal activity. It means getting the different government to work together to provide housing, water supply, sanitation, power, credit, roads, animal husbandry, health and education. In this laundry list of activities, there are immediate, medium and long-term priorities. Immediate priorities are housing, water, food, sanitation, health and power. Medium-term needs are education, animal husbandry, roads and credit while long-term needs include health-related aspects such as counselling, and rebuilding livelihoods.
After the Tsunami, the Tamil Nadu Government and the World Bank started a project (that concluded last year) to build multi-hazard resistant housing, restore farm land, strengthen animal husbandry infrastructure, restore and strengthen public infrastructure like roads,water supply, bridges, schools, health centres, etc., and conduct scientific studies to understand coastal ecology.
The last kind of study to understand Himalayan ecology is significant since the already-fragile Himalayan ecosystem has been subject to enormous stresses of dam building, hotel and housing construction and road building. This is on top of more than a century of systematically replacing natural forests with commercial ones comprised mostly of pine species, a process that has made the brittle slopes even more so. The cumulative impact of these activities has not been assessed. Religious tourism added a human dimension to the incident.
After the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake, building codes were changed so people made safer houses. This year’s incident shows they flattered to deceive as raging torrents washed away these ‘safer’ houses as they were situated along the rivers, or in some cases on stilts made on the river. If there are zoning regulations in Uttarakhand, they are observed only in the breach. Reconstruction has to follow recommendations of the River Regulation Zone and other guidelines developed after the earthquake.
There are established protocols for providing water and sanitation in the aftermath of a natural disaster to prevent outbreaks of disease. The State Government needs to follow these in the short and medium terms while rebuilding water supply systems and installing sanitation. In a sense this is an opportunity to start afresh and provide affected villages better facilities.
In all flood prone areas, there are designated safe buildings; these are usually schools that are stocked with emergency supplies. Uttarakhand has plenty of schools but the buildings need to be upgraded so they are flood and landslide resistant. For the latter, the only solution is siting the building out of the way of landslides and developing a natural forest on fragile slopes to reduce their likelihood. Emergency drills can familiarise villagers with the location of the safe building, the shortest route to it and the supplies available. This has also to fit into the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase.
Medical attention is another immediate and medium-term imperative. Physical injuries need immediate attention while mental trauma will require medium or even long-term attention; unfortunately our disaster rehabilitation programmes pay little attention to this aspect.
Rebuilding Uttarakhand needs to take a different path from that promoted by the headlong religious tourism mayhem of road and building construction. Now that the downside of ‘development’ such as the multitude of dams is evident the State Government needs to revisit its promotion of these and other projects that magnified the natural disaster. Its approach to immediate relief gives one little confidence of its ability to do so, but ignoring the message from this incident will only magnify future ones. In the meantime, Uttarakhand must start rehabilitation work in earnest before the monsoon slows it down.