Himalayan Tragedy That was Waiting to Happen : Story of Poor Leadership and Administration

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The month of June every year represents peak summer with mercury touching 40 degree and above. This year was no exception. It was summer vacation time. Many families had moved to the hills with dual purpose of getting out of oppressive heat of the plains and to acquire holy grace by visiting abodes of god. Devout Hindus believe journey through life remains incomplete without vising four holy places – char dhams, namely Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
In the second week of June, all of a sudden weather cooled a bit. Monsoon that was anticipated to hit North India by end of June, apparently came two – three weeks early. While plains experienced incessant rainfall for few days, the effect was devastating in the hills. There was flash flood that washed away men, material, houses like pack of cards. It was estimated that nearly70000 people were stranded in the hills. Most were from the plains, untrained, unprepared in the ways of surviving in the mountains. Weather was inclement, there was no food, many had accompanying elders and children. Shown below is damaged Kedarnath temple and Kedar valley.


As usual there was chaos after calamity. State administration was confused and devoid of ideas. National disaster management organization and their force were ill prepared to tackle the disaster of this magnitude. Ultimately armed forces, Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) were called in to rescue people. Rescue operation was ongoing round the clock for close to a week now. Army rescuing pilgrims stranded due to roads washed away.

When one tries to understand the cause of this disaster, many issues come to forefront. Firstly, was this a natural calamity or a man made disaster waiting to happen. There was a polarized debate between need for development and need for maintaining sanctity of the environment. Could state administrative response have been better? Being a hill state, should the administration not anticipate and stay in a state of preparedness? Was state administration working in collusion with businessmen and builders? Could death have been prevented with proper advanced warning? Could state administration not have regulated flow of tourists into different areas?

It is still not clear, why flooding happened. Is it because of unprecedented cloud burst, or the perimeter of a lake caving in or due to opening of flood gates of dam to prevent overflowing. If any one or all of these contributed to flooding and loss of lives, then is it not imperative for state government to intimate susceptible population and regulate tourist inflow? Who gave permission, if any, to open flood gates of a dam, if at all?



This disaster brings into focus debate between ecology and development. Chief minister of Uttarakhand tried to sound reasonable on television about need for a pragmatic approach between development and protection of environment. He sounded logical and emphasized the need for development for the benefit of local people. Uttrakhand has many rivers. Government is building dams to tap into hydroelectric power. However, many environmental activists complain that Uttarakhand does not have as many rivers or as much water as the number of dams its is building. Does this indicate a collusion between politicians and builders? Many people are complaining that building so many dams and restricting flow of river is irreversibly damaging ecology of Uttarakhand, especially so when electricity generated is being sold to states outside Uttarakhand.  Anti-dam protest shown in picture below.

There is no dispute India needs a lot of power. Hydroelecticity is a clean source of energy. However, to tap natural resource, should the government have transparent and tough regulation that is implemented unbiasedly?

Shown in the picture, a tunnel being dug for construction of a dam.


Chief minister, Shri Vijay Bahuguna, also stressed on importance of tourism for his state. It is important to note that most Himalayas were inaccessible to general public for a long time. People used to travel by public transport buses, which were few and far between. Only hardy and fortunate could travel into deep Himalayas. However, all these changed in last twenty years with boom in car sales. Nowdays, chartered buses and private four wheelers ferry people from the foothlls to the deep mountains. According to estimate, the hill state of Uttarakhand has a population of 10 million, while it gets a footfall of of 25 million tourists within a short span of 4 to 6 months.


Tourism brings money and well being for hill people, it also sprouts unregulated growth at the expense of the environment a to accommodate larger number of tourists. Many tourists have little sensitivity for environment, they demand comforts for their money. Business minded people want to cater to demands of tourists and expand their development work. As a result villages are become towns, towns change into cities, without any modern planning. Many places infrastructures are built on riverbed or on riverbank clearly flouting building regulations. Trees are cut to make way for resorts, without any effort to replant trees. In the best of times, most Indian cities are poorly designed and planned. There is never provision of sanitation, waste management etc. Floor after floor constructed bribing municipal officers and police. The same happened in Uttarakhand. Flash flood washed away houses and buildings like a pack of cards. This would not happen without collusion with authorities in power!

We can accept reasoning of chief minister of Uttrakhand about need for development and a balance between development and environment. It is also logical most cities of Uttarakhand were standing by rivers for centuries. However, point that is missing that most cities and towns did not experience as much footfall as it does today. So these cities are not equipped to handle pressure of accommodation, sanitation, transporation etc. Why government does not have rules of city planning and building bylaws that are implemented and violators heavily prosecuted? In disaster affected areas of Uttarakhand, a plate of rice selling for Rs. 500, and a piece of bread for Rs. 200. Rich people pulling strings to evacuate their relatives at the expense of old, infirm and sick. Where is law and order machinery? All these indicate that disaster was magnified, if not created, by man. It was waiting to happen and may happen again unless we learn from experience.

This disaster in Uttarakhand, indicates how weak and ineffective are our government machinery and their response. National Disaster Management Authority that is chaired by prime minister does not meet and remain unprepared. Only thing that really works is a disciplined work of army, airforce, ITBP and some social organisations like RSS. If these are not sign of  lack of leadership and poor governance, then what is?

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