back to issue

MUCH water has flown down the Ganges since the ‘unexpected’ cloudburst, consequent floods and landslides ravaged Uttarakhand in mid-June. Yet, despite the flurry of activity and pronouncements of relief, both the disaster and the tragedy continue unabated. As a state and society, we can be legitimately proud of the heroism of both our armed forces and the thousands of unnamed volunteers who rose to the occasion, helping rescue vast numbers of those trapped move to a safer environment and eventually return home. Nevertheless, the fact that even weeks later we are still debating the number of those who lost their lives and remain more interested in whom we can blame, reflects poorly on our learning ability. Worse, there is little confidence that if another similar disaster strikes, we will be better prepared to handle the aftermath.

In a disturbing piece, Shiv Visvanathan traces the gloomy path from a disaster to a tragedy. ‘At the level of events there are disasters everywhere. But in India, places do not return to "normal" after a disaster; they cascade into other disasters.’ Reminding us of the now near forgotten Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, he argues that the tragedy was not merely the fact that in violation of all norms, we permitted a company producing pesticides with defunct technology using dangerous chemicals come up in the midst of a crowded settlement. Nor that despite numerous warnings following leaks from the plant, the authorities failed to act – so much for oversight.

The real tragedy lay in the nature of our response – the ham-handed efforts at a cover-up, the failure to arrest and prosecute those culpable, the ‘shameful’ settlement struck in the Supreme Court guaranteeing immunity from future prosecution, all for a measly settlement; the sloth and the scandals associated with medical treatment and the distribution of relief and compensation; the vengeful attitude towards the survivors and those who protested; and, above all, the wilful construction of amnesia. ‘Bhopal is not a story of how a society defends its victims, but of how an efficient, corrupt "soft" state consumes its victims through pomposity, sloth and silence. The true hero of the disaster is the survivor and s/he is dismissed with contempt.’

In reminding us of Bhopal, or the super cyclone that hit Orissa and handled equally ineptly, is Shiv Visvanathan hinting at the future of Uttarakhand? Here too the trajectory of events and actions is eerily similar. The cloudburst and the heavy unseasonal rain may well not have been anticipated, though the Met department insists that warnings had been issued in time. But what of the many warnings by experts that permitting an unchecked construction of roads and buildings, without adequate concern for location, design and safety in an ecologically fragile region known for frequent landslides was courting disaster? What are we to make of the plan, partially executed, of building dozens of hydel projects, despite expert advice against the step. Or the rampant encouragement to the growth of pilgrimage tourism without concern for carrying capacity. And how should we read the absence of a disaster management plan or that the state level disaster management authority failed to meet even once in the many years of its existence.

In a recent piece, environmental historian Ram Guha points out how the state government persistently refused to even consult the foremost resident expert on Himalayan geology, K.S. Vaidya, when drawing up development plans. Evidently our political class and officialdom prefer one of their own, usually from the IAS rather than experts, in positions that demand technical expertise. What then are the chances that even after experiencing such a colossal loss of life and property, appropriate corrective measures will be initiated?

What we are currently witnessing – the familiar blame game, demands for the resignation of the state government, disaster tourism and competitive one-upmanship as to who and which group/party has announced greater relief – seems reflective of a vested interest in disasters, with the elite as bureaucracy, volunteer groups, politicians and contractors vying with each other to acquire control over the money channelized for post-disaster reconstruction. The haste with which road repair and rebuilding has been announced, as also schemes to increase pilgrimage footfalls, promoted as revenue generation, raises apprehensions that once again we may be forced to relive the past. More than a serious attempt to understand why the disaster became more tragic than it needed to be, the effort is to construct a narrative foregrounding human helplessness in the face of nature’s fury, to put those dark days behind us and get on with rebuilding the shattered economy. More than the loss of human life and infrastructure, it is our collective inability to learn from the past that is the real tragedy.

Harsh Sethi