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  Rush Aid … Slowly!

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By Gautam Kaul      

The latest earthquake in Afghanistan has recorded casualties of over 1000 dead. The toll is rising.

Kashmir is a vast one lake of water after three days of incessant rains and cloud bursts.  Assam is in floods. Bihar will now follow. One need not wait for disaster news. This is India’s season for disasters. We celebrate this season with just waiting for it to happen.

Presently, for the government, the disaster that is happening is the fall of the state government in Maharashtra. Talk of all help is to bring back or buy back all the MLAs that have decamped from Mumbai. Assam, Bihar and even Afghanistan can wait. We shall rush aid in due course.

Qatar, Iran have already rushed aid on a massive scale. Pakistan is sending tentage to three affected areas. The NGOs worldwide are less shy. ‘Doctors Without Borders’ would have descended on the affected parts of Afghanistan to open field hospitals. UN aid organisations should have sent out their own groups for helping the injured still under debris. In India, we have simply said “…all help will be provided to the people”.

The Union Cabinet normally flies over the flooded areas but this time in Kashmir valley, no flights have been reported. The same is the case in Assam. I presume this time such flights will start when there is time after opposition governments have fallen and there would be need to celebrate the events. Help will come … in due course.

I am amazed that after each year in Assam, Bihar and Uttarakhand and, of course in Uttar Pradesh, we have our annual disaster season, and we are still unable to plan a permanent solution to our flood problem. I had read that in the opening of the last century, a similar problem existed in Los Angeles in California. The State Government decided on a permanent solution. They simply designed first a failsafe solution and started to lay a system of very wide canals through the city and its suburbs to drain out the flood waters and take it all to the nearby desert. And they did that by demolishing all the old houses and establishments that came in the way of these canals. It was reminiscent of the way a corridor was created between Vishwanath Temple and the ghats in Banaras.  The result was that after the system was commissioned, the city of Los Angeles never suffered a single flood. The saving in terms of economy, loss of man hours, etc., was in billions of dollars.

In Bihar, Rivers Kosi Ganga and Ghaghra are the most indisciplined riverine systems, changing their river beds according to the amount of rain that falls in their catchment areas. In Bengal, it is the river Teesta; in UP it is river Ramganga, Ghagghar, occasionally Chambal, Sai and the Gomti.

The least flood affected states in India are in the South where most of the rivers have been dammed and rain water is caught, stored and allowed to flow out in a controlled manner. One will rarely hear of Tungbhadra, Krishna, Kaveri, Godaveri, etc., ever in flood. Yes, Chennai has its floods each year, but then the fault lies in using low lying lands which were once wetlands adjacent to the original city now as new townships without creating the canals to clear away the water. The same is the case of Mumbai and now Hyderabad. All low lying areas are being gobbled up to create new unplanned townships. We welcome disasters and create national mourning as festivals and seek God’s help.

The simple schemes of disaster management have been ignored. In Bihar, if each Panchayat was given two flat bottomed boats with capacity to carry 30 persons, each, then village rescue in floods could be minimised. In Assam, besides the boats, the architecture of village homes now needs to be modified and they need to be raised on bamboo stilts above local flood levels. The idea is now being used in Kaziranga Sanctuary for animal rescue, but for villages, that seems to be a distant dream. There is no dearth of population there! In Tripura, people have started using bamboo as stilts for their raised homes and saved themselves a lot of monsoon pain.

We need to learn from the experience of others.  For instance, flood and landslides bring local area disasters, disruption in traffic and aid, and prove costly. In China, where the mountains are of slate and moraine, the problem has been taken care of by creating new concrete roads on stilts and girders running in thousands of kilometres. The China corridor to Pakistan through the Hindukush Range is a superb piece of road engineering overcoming physical obstructions and problems of being landlocked. It does not happen here in Uttarakhand, Kashmir, or in Himachal. Landslides in particular isolate important economic areas and we wait for the JCBs to come and clear the road of these landslides. We also do not road shoulder the landslide prone roads along the national highways.  Right now, Kashmir is cut off because River Jhelum has created landslides and washed away the bridges. All this was preventable, but then how will the PWD survive for their own annual festival for contractors?

The national policy for road management does not exist. Lately, a new sense of urgency has been injected as Union Minister Gadkari has been teaching his staff how to create good roads. It’s his passion which is not really shared by his staff in the CPWD, and NHAI. In a land where a whole iron bridge can be swallowed due to corruption, it’s a bit asking for too much that the work culture change overnight. But the sad fact remains, we welcome disaster as it leads to many ministers starting their tours of the wetlands and being photographed.

We also need to now take an inward look at our state police who seem now only useful in crowd control and not undertaking work to help the people in flood rescue. Very few units in the State Police have inflatable rubber boats, outboard motors, field tents and training in rescue operations. All wait for the arrival of the small rescue teams of the NDRF. This is one more area where we need to create a new culture in disaster management.

In the Himalayas, the men of the ITBP and SSB have already created a name for their reliability and rescue operations. Why cannot the State Police units also imitate their good practices?

We need to realise that with the changes in weather cycles, there will be more distress calls for uniformed forces to come to civil rescue. Civil Defence and Home Guards now need to be upgraded to support other agencies, or the time is not too far away when all rescue operations will start with ministerial rush to aid… and we shall see this in slow motion.

(Gautam Kaul is former DGP, ITBP)