Lessons Learnt From The Uttarakhand Disaster: Is There Any Hope For The Future?

By Nirant Kasliwal:

The Uttarakhand flash floods are not only a ‘natural’ calamity but to a great extent, a man-made disaster too. We could have saved several thousand lives but for the mistakes we made:

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1. Poor road building, illegal constructions and intensive development of hydro power have worsened the situation. Alteration of the river course only magnified the disaster.

2. Rampant construction of houses and hotels on riverfronts.

3. Traffic in the hills has grown like a virus, with the number of vehicles registered in the hills going up sharply. We must remember the hills are unstable, so it takes little to set off landslides.

We, as Indians, have faced several such calamities, what can we learn from them to prevent such mistakes in future?

1. Plan and then Execute: The Government and authorities must exercise a regulation on the number of pilgrims. Batch-wise registration and better planning, similar to the Amarnath yatra could have helped in both reducing the number of causalities as well as locating survivors.

2. Cooperate: The victims of Mumbai floods stood together and helped each other. People nearby opened their homes for complete strangers. On the contrary, dacoits in the Himalayas sold water and food for unreasonably high prices. If the tourists had come together and refused to pay such prices, the exploitation could have been avoided.

3. Educate and Empower Locals: The government must encourage every household to have an emergency kit. The local authorities can conduct mock-drills. These drills empower locals to respond and save lives in the time it takes for relief and rescue to reach them. These drills are also life-savers in events of other emergencies such as fire. In the long term, locals can be trained in disaster relief and employed.

4. As a corollary of the above, Act Yourself: Many lives were saved in Mumbai because the citizens set out to look for those in need of help. The victims themselves did not wait for relief or aid; they went out looking for it. The pilgrim survivors blamed the Government for making them walk several kilometres. We must realise that the Armed Forces are doing the best they can.

5. Prevent an Epidemic: In the immediate aftermath of 2006 floods in Surat, distribution of disease preventive masks, gloves and medicines was done at war footing. The disposal of the flood rotten wastes and restoring cleanliness should remain top priorities of civic authorities.

6. Technology Upgrade: Effective warning systems could have saved thousands of lives, especially downstream in Uttarakhand by giving a few extra moments for people to respond. The state machinery depended completely on mobile communication whereas alternatives such as satellite communication must be kept available in the event of such disasters.

7. Use Police Effectively: The local police can act as immediate agents of the Government. Armed with know-how of the local terrain and language, the police can help assist, organise and direct aid. They can also save trouble for survivors by regulating prices and preventing theft.

8. Respect the Dead: In continuation of above, the dead’s belongings are often stolen. And not just stolen or detached from the body, on rare occasions the bodies are also mutilated. This makes it impossible to identify the dead when the bodies are disfigured by decay. From the Southern Tsunami, or the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat to the floods in Bihar and North-East, these crimes have occurred repeatedly.

9. Stay Prepared: This rule applies to everyone – locals, authorities, NGOs, rescue teams and even the Armed Forces. The objectives of the preparation have been amply discussed.

What next for Uttarakhand?

In the immediate moments, revival of vital transport network to aid rescue, relief and later reconstruction is necessary. In the reconstruction of roads, we must avoid repeating the old mistakes. As a nation, we must learn from the mistakes here and apply the lessons to other states and cities. Let us not falter again!

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