It is a known fact that quality of governance indicates the capacity to be resilient against disasters. The hurricane Katrina of USA that caused over 2000 deaths and US$ 125 billion in damage in late August 2005 exposed the pathetic governance of Louisiana. People had bad health, houses were weak, a high rate of drug addiction, unsterilized city animals, uninsured citizens, unemployed youth, and all this because of a highly corrupt leadership and unresponsive state administration. Uttarakhand’s unstoppable exposure to some of the most heart-rending disasters every year from floods to earthquakes to glacial lake outbursts and to landslides bring provoking questions about its governance. As data reveals decisions have been taken in defiance of limits that nature sets in the form of carrying capacity of any terrain. As causes of disasters, Corruption comes first and climate change later.
Uttarakhand region had never been well-governed. Till 2000 it was part of Uttar Pradesh where the predatory leadership sucked its wealth and labor. After being carved as a separate state it was expected to progress and many things improved such as schools, colleges, universities, technical institutions, roads, and hospitals. The villagers basked in the newfound Panchayat power after the 73rd Amendment in 1992 which brought many silent communities into focus as repositories of power. It brought power but not the right to govern.
From Sundarlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt the early Gandhian environmentalists till late Prof. G.D.Agarwal and woman seer of Haridwar Padmavati the Ganga crusaders have only asked for a share in governance. While the memory of Uttarakhand’s disaster victims begging for food and clothes in big cities of Uttar Pradesh like Lucknow and Bareilly still remains, it is not yet a thing of the past. Local village communities are still seen begging with unattended medical conditions and little hope for sustainable livelihood. As per the Census of India (2011), Uttarakhand has a population of 101 million with a pathetic sex ratio of 886 women per thousand men and a much higher infant mortality rate (IMR) at 38 in 2020 which is higher than the Indian average IMR of 29.07. With female literacy at 70 and male literacy at 88, the state has nothing to rejoice about. What ails Uttarakhand’s governance?
The Uttarakhand government could rarely defend itself after the Dhauliganga disaster that washed away the Rishi Ganga hydropower project at Raini village after a glacier broke off in Joshimath. The massive floods caused by the glacial outbursts in the Dhauli Ganga river in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand washed away houses and many people. The village Panchayats of this area had been an alert group against environmental injuries as the legendary Gaura Devi, leader of Chipko Movement hails from here and had kickstarted action in March 1973 from this village. These villagers had filed public interest litigation (PIL) in the Uttarakhand High Court in summer 2019 which issued directions to the state government to check what was going on in Raini village of Chamoli concerning the construction of the hydel project.
The government was not concerned till the dam broke off. Similarly, Naveen Chandra Pant and many other residents of village Ganwa Sirmoli, District Bageshwar raised voice through a PIL against illegal mining in village Panchayats of Ganwa Sirmoli, Tehsil Kanda in District Bageshwar, the court issued directives to the state government but instead of introspecting to protect mountain topography for the survival of people’s habitat, many decisions were taken in contravention of the judicial directives. Some of them are discussed here.
In Feb 2020, the district magistrate was authorized to issue permits for commercial mining on private land and permission for River Bed Mineral (RBM) Mining. This brought havoc to the terrain as gravels, boulders, and sand excavation for construction work started at full speed. In a Cabinet meeting headed by the Chief Minister in the same year, more than 10 such projects were approved which not only deepened mining into river beds but also changed the boundaries of eco-sensitive zones around national parks. To deepen this process of mining the Uttarakhand Minor Mineral Concession Rules 2001 were changed to allow digging as deep as 3 meters. The Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change only participated to facilitate this process. None of the political executives found anything wrong with it despite the Judicial warnings from the Nainital Court and the National Green Tribunal.
The same year, the state government brought in a new Stone crushing policy that endangered a large part of pristine national reserves. If this was not enough, the state government also attempted to remove Radio Frequency Identification Chips (RFID) on vehicles engaged in regulated mining as per court orders so that this could become free for any vehicle coming to the mining area. The brutal breaking down of hills which balance each other and the felling of trees that are water recharge-shed for land has already disturbed the equilibrium beyond repair. The greed for land and minerals has devastated the rivers of Uttarakhand and made them flood-prone. The increasing temperatures are related to the activities being promoted by the government over the hills.
Is the state government prepared for managing disasters? The Policy and the Plan for disaster management have not been updated since 2016. The Policy and the Plan document repeatedly refer to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the need for an evacuation plan, the organizational structure of disaster management(only posts not names), hazards and vulnerabilities of India and the state per se but nothing, in particular, to offer to an administrator who has to look back and take action in a calamitous situation.
Interestingly, these documents look like a student’s examination answer sheet where he fills up as many sheets writing the same irrelevant answers with the hope that more pages would earn him better marks. The key points that enable pre-emptive action for an administrator, key collaborators, and friends or partners in need and with the rural population being thrice the urban there is an intensive need to identify trained and willing panchayats to come on call for disaster prevention. Uttarakhand loses roughly 20 thousand crores to disasters every year. Does it invest this amount in development that gets washed away due to disasters? Therefore the argument of refining the quality of governance led by educated and sensitive people who are grassroots connected and speak the language of their land, is the only alternative to the current chaos and sorrow.
The article first appeared in TheDailyGuardian titled What ails Uttarakhand’s governance? dated October 21, 2021.
Read another piece by Amita Singh titled Uttarakhand Floods: Easy to Point Finger at Climate Change, But Humanity is Equally to Blame in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece by Amita Singh titled It’s Turn for Google’s Climate Ethics in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece by Amita Singh titled The Gospel of South Asia in IMPRI Insights
About the Author
The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.