The Kedarnath tragedy made 2013 an utterly disastrous year for Uttarakhand, not just causing enormous loss of human life, but dealing a severe blow to the economy, in particular, Tourism. The disaster also served to emphasise that the state’s so called ‘rapid’ development had mostly been unregulated and headed in the wrong direction at the grassroots level. It became obvious that macro level management was sorely lacking, because of which administrative shortcomings and irregularities magnified the consequences of the cloudburst and flash flood.
One obvious lesson is that the carrying capacity of the hills is limited in terms of human population. This is particularly so when the per capita consumption levels have gone up, much beyond that dictated by the traditional subsistence economy. The hill folk cannot transition into a new lifestyle – the entire spectrum requires a paradigm shift. Some would like it to go ‘backwards’ into a mythical pastoral world, while others suggest the use of the most advanced science and technology to insulate people from the vagaries of weather and exigencies of survival. Uttarakhand cannot afford either. As a result, people are voting with their feet and making their way as soon as possible to safer areas in the state and beyond. The vision of the planners is nowhere keeping up.
In this backdrop, what can be expected in 2014? The government will continue to try and shore up the existing system, which basically means the draining away of resources in largely hopeless endeavours. As mentioned earlier in this column, there is a flourishing ‘disaster industry’ in the state that claims to have ‘reconstructed’ infrastructure only to have it ‘swept away’ in the next monsoon. All that remain are records of expenditure allegedly carried out, to be paid from the state exchequer in a never ending but profitable (for some) cycle. So, the New Year can be little different from the past in terms of sustainable solutions.
If there is hope, it is in the adaptability of humans. While some, as stated earlier, are quitting the scene and looking for a better life elsewhere, those that remain will have to work on developing specific alternatives to their particular conditions. To that extent, a catch-all policy determined by government will not serve. Certainly not one based on schemes formulated by a distant bureaucracy sitting in Delhi. The NGOs have had a free run but the delivery is in inverse proportion to their vast numbers. The answer, perhaps, lies in empowerment of the panchayati institutions functioning with better qualified representatives. Like the ‘Jan Sabhas’ conceived by AAP for Delhi, these could work out their solutions in consultation with experts. The decision would finally be theirs and not dictated by the requirements of a ‘scheme’ or ‘yojana’.
Clearly such a situation would evolve from compulsion and is not going to happen by diktat, for neither the politicians nor the bureaucrats are willing to hand over the mandated powers to the panchayat bodies. Fortunately, in that sense, the elections to the three tier panchayats are due early in 2014 and this could become a matter for debate during the campaign. The voters too could do themselves a favour by voting on the basis of these issues instead of remaining bounden to political parties.
Solutions will come from the grassroots up. It will require intelligence on the part of government to interpret the message in a positive and beneficial way. As such, perhaps, one can only hope for good sense among the leaders in the year to come.