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Disaster Dimensions

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Already hit hard by the two Covid-19 waves, as well as the associated loss to its economy, Uttarakhand is poised to suffer the impact of what seems from early heavy rains to be a pretty vigorous monsoon season. Water levels have risen in the rivers to danger levels, over 250 roads have been blocked due to landslides, homes and land holdings are already being destroyed. The disaster response teams are bound to be overwhelmed, as is evident from important areas being cut off for more than a week. Bridges are being washed away, and even recently built expressways are experiencing collapse of load bearing structures.

If the heavy rains continue, the state administration will need to function at its optimum, even as financial constraints create added difficulties. It will pose an unprecedented challenge for Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat. Any major failures will weigh heavy as elections are not too far away.

This vulnerability to natural disaster is the result of not having learned the right lessons over the past twenty years and more. It was necessary for the people of the state to have altered their lifestyles and development models to become less susceptible to the forces of nature. A lot of lip service has been paid to learning from the traditional ways, but the actual practice has been to move away from safe locations and live in places that provide easier access to modern amenities. Many, particularly from among marginalised and migrant communities, are anyway forced by circumstances to live dangerously close to rivers and even on riverbeds. Government regulators have failed to prevent this for a number of reasons.

The answers may seem obvious but are difficult to implement. The cheapest and most effective way to ensure better practices would be to educate people on the many aspects of safety. They need to be told where and how to construct dwellings and why. Community action on environmentally safe practices has to be encouraged. Natural drainage has to be protected from encroachment. The mere widening of roads does not make them ‘all weather’. In fact, it has been noticed that these have become more prone to landslides, indicating that the required engineering principles and technology are not being utilised. These and other contradictions have to be overcome if any level of protection is to be achieved. Two or three weak monsoons should not create a false sense of security among the planners, whose job it is to prepare for the worst. Even as events are responded to, a long term approach has to be adopted and implemented for any real solutions.