Uttarakhand: Hidden agendas don’t have people as priority
by Biju Negi on 05 Sep 2013 8 Comments

The most tragic trait to emerge in the recent Uttarakhand disaster, clearly the worst and most widespread ever in the history of this mountain region, is an utter lack of farsightedness, awareness, seriousness, sensitivity and humility in its leadership. This lack of leadership and capacity is equally apparent in the State’s administrative machinery and the opposition parties. We cannot even give them the benefit of doubt that they are dumbstruck at the extreme scale of the tragedy – perhaps they are; but leadership today has become a cruel mask and a faux pas.


In close to two months since the disaster, most of the discussions in big and small circles, in the print, electronic or social media have underlined the need to take this tragedy as a final Himalayan warning and learn a lesson from the crisis. But this has been absent in the discussions and statements coming from the leadership. It did talk about leaving no stone unturned in its relief and restoration efforts, but not once did it humbly accept that “we too are to blame for this disaster and we will learn from it.” Not surprising really!  The leadership is a bit obstinate about being unwilling to learn.


This is amply clear from the decisions or announcements that the Uttarakhand Government has made, and which can only be termed foolish, worrying, dangerous and even cruel. These decisions relate to missing people, the opening of the roads and the commencement of the char-dham yatra / restoration of puja at Kedarnath, etc.

One, the overturning of the June 30 decision, which was that those who continue to remain missing at the end of 30 days of the tragedy will be considered or accepted as dead and their dependents would accordingly be provided compensation. The official figures then were dead 580, missing 3973. This number, however, was questioned by the Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly Speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, who only a day earlier had said that the number of dead could be well over 10,000.


But on the completion of the one month cut-off period, when the official figure of those missing was 5748 (including 924 from Uttarakhand), the State Government refused to honour its earlier decision to accept the missing as dead. Accordingly, the government said that instead of compensation, it will now give the dependent relatives financial assistance of Rs 5 lakhs. And it also attached two riders to this. One, the dependent relatives of a missing person will have to formally apply to the Government for assistance; and two, they will have to submit an affidavit declaring that should the missing person return, the financial assistance will be returned to the Government. This change at best befits the twist and turns of a television soap serial, but was a cruel joke on the families of the dead. Why is it that where a little sensitivity and forbearance would have helped, the Government tends to become progressively impatient, insensitive and cruel.


It is one thing that the Government exercise caution in giving compensation and financial assistance, but it has so soured the taste of compensation that the dependents of the missing (who are almost surely dead) can neither swallow nor spit it out.


Imagine that a missing person returns or is found after a few months, a year or two years. Undoubtedly, for the family, it will be a matter of great joy and relief yet, a family which had got shattered and which is now only beginning to find its feet again, will hardly be in a position to return the financial assistance received? Certainly not a family which make two ends meet by providing labour or ponies to carry men or material, by running a tea stall, photo shop or small kirana shop, by owning a small lodge or working in a hotel as a cook or bearer, by working its less than one acre land to grow food for some months in the year or by being employed at low or middle level in a Government or private organization!


Is the Government unaware of this?


The State Government’s decision is going to have a profound impact on the insurance concerns of the people. It is assumed that this disaster affects the four Government insurance companies alone to the extent of Rs 3 crores. These companies had reportedly got together and even taken some decision on honouring the death claims in the event of the Government declaring the missing people as dead. But now, with the Government reversing its stand on the missing, all such claims will be left hanging indefinitely or the claimants will have to run from pillar to post to get a measure of it. As always personal tragedies get so subsumed in official apathy.


If the missing person was the head of the family, and of who now there is no actual hope of being found alive, then the problems for his family become manifold. In the absence of a valid death certificate, the family is going to face immense legal hurdles relating to house, land, bank accounts and deposits succession papers, besides being deprived of many Government facilities and entitlements.


Reopening of the Char-Dham yatra


The other issue that indicates that the Government is obstinate about not learning anything - unless there is a well planned conspiracy - is its announcement that the Char-Dham Yatra, with the exception of Kedarnath, would be reopened by end September for the other three pilgrim centres of Yamunotri, Gangotri and Badrinath, and that, in fact, the puja at Kedarnath will commence on 11 September.


The argument that the stoppage of the Yatra in the aftermath of the disaster in June has badly affected the livelihood of thousands of people and economy of the region is legitimate, and road-opening needs priority attention. And of course, a vast body of local population is also dependent to those roads and will benefit from their becoming functional as soon as possible – but that is not the stated aim of the Government. At least it does not appear to be so.


On the yatra front too, there are major issues to look into.


We are barely two-thirds through the monsoon season, and every other day there is news of cloud bursts, landslides from some part of the State or the other. We all know, the month of Bhadon (mid-August to mid-September) sees the heaviest downpours and maximum disasters. In such a situation, the already precarious roads to Yamunotri, Gangotri and Badrinath will be repaired and opened for regular traffic by end-September  is either a blatant boast that provides false hope to the local people dependent of tourism or was just a statement issued to suppress the opposition voices.


Moreover, by end September, the temperature in the higher hills begins to fall rapidly and even in normal years, the number of pilgrims coming in that period is rather scanty. The arrivals pick up a bit during Dussehra and Puja holidays, but that is about all. However, this is no ordinary or normal year and so it is anybody’s guess how many people would actually be visiting Uttarakhand Char-Dham. Moreover, as studies from across the world have shown, tourist arrivals is the most fickle (or sensitive) phenomenon or figure whose graph shows an instant downslide in the event of any disaster or disturbance in the region, and it requires quite an effort and time to retrieve the situation.


This year, Deepavali falls on 3 November and Bhaiya Duj on 5 November, around which time, the Char-Dham temples close for the winters. So, it is only for barely a little over a month that the government wants to have the yatra routes helter-skelter repaired.


In any case, even the most optimist supporter – with the possible exception of contractors and sub-contractors - will take the Government’s announcement with a fair pinch of salt. However, there is a more serious point of concern that needs to be voiced, should the Government actually rush to act on its announcement. Right across the State and the yatra routes, there are innumerable points and stretches where the roads have actually to be cut and aligned anew. So, will the concerned department, agencies and contractors then employ the same methods of road construction which have come in for grave criticism and are considered a major cause of landslides and devastations year in and out!  


Questions and criticisms of the Government’s entire tourism vision and policy, which often get suppressed by the issues of local economy and employment, are beginning to emerge  more clearly now. In the Uttarakhand Government’s vision of tourism, it appears, mountains and tourist places are a milch cow and that it is entirely valid and legitimate to inject the cow with BST hormones to extract the last drop of milk from it. We are all aware of what becomes the state of the cow following such injection.


Tourism in the state has grown to take a terrible form where human and vehicle carrying capacity and ecological concerns are scandalously brushed aside, together with an equally worrying utter lack of proper services and facilities, with the operators at all levels given a sort of free licence to loot visitors. Almost every year, ministers and departmental officials go on foreign jaunts under the pretext of observing and learning from tourism operations there, and even the Chief Minister, his wife and several officials were slated to go to Switzerland in end-June. But learning the practices, promotion and management of tourism in Switzerland, Austria or the European Alps cannot be at the cost of mountain area sensitivity, conservation and preservation; the Himalaya is a very unstable and still-growing mountain chain.


Tragic though the premise is, the Uttarakhand disaster allows us a moment to pause and reflect, and provides us an opportunity to turn it into a positive outcome. That is, of course, if we are willing to pause and reflect and learn. Following the disaster, we need to debate the pilgrimage vs. luxury tourism paradigm, or how the cocktail of the two has been a heady mix that is driving us down the hill.


We need to investigate and underline widespread social, environment and ecological problems and concerns as a result of the current tourism ideology and practices. We need to do a serious look-in on issues and questions such as benefits and harms of tourism, local people-oriented and people-benefitting initiatives versus the high-end tourism. We need to accept the need to overhaul the present dominant tourism concepts and scenarios.


So, the major question is - why is the government in such haste? What is happening behind the scenes? Who are the participants influencing such backroom decisions? Your guess is as good as mine.


But secret discussions and hidden agendas don’t keep people as their priority, and decisions taken therein reflect neither farsightedness nor sensitivity and humility. This is even more so when people’s trust of the Government is at its lowest and the leadership holds the reins not to provide the society a positive direction, but to seek to overawe the people, have one’s own way and for personal aggrandizement.


The author is a renowned environmentalist

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