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India's Disaster Management: Is Joshimath Crisis A Case Of Lessons Not Learnt?

Even as India has fairly progressed in its disaster response, its disaster risk management has remained elusive.

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(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Joshimath's sinking crisis currently unfolding in Uttarakhand and what can be done for protection of such fragile territories. Read part 1 here.)

On 8 Jan, speaking at Joshimath the chief minister of Uttarakhand PS Dhami stressed that "saving lives is our first priority." This raises an important question: what was the Uttarakhand administration up to so far? Multiple warnings have been ignored for decades with no one held accountable as if the lives and livelihood of people have no value whatsoever.

Even as the first warning was issued back in 1976 and cautions of Joshimath sinking were raised, deeming it "unsuitable for a township", the government sanctioned a number of hydroelectric power projects around it, which led to the induction of heavy equipment, blasting, and infrastructure-building.

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In Dec 2009, the tunnelling equipment for the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project punctured an aquifer in Joshimath, leading to a massive discharge of groundwater daily. The 2010 paper by geologists MPS Bisht and Piyoosh Rautela in Current Science titled Disaster Looms Large Over Joshimath went unacknowledged.

Other Precursor To Joshimath-like tragedy 

In June 2013, Kedarnath witnessed horrendous devastation in what was India’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Experts opined that violation of basic environmental laws and deforestation were some of the reasons for the disaster. But the listed lessons were neither imbibed nor implemented.

The next major disaster was the Feb 2021 glacier outburst event leading to almost 200 people either dead or missing, which inflicted severe damage to the Rishiganga and Tapovan hydel projects, BRO bridge and other infrastructure near villages. No report recommended pausing or halting any of the ongoing projects. Even the NDMA’s detailed report on this event merely mentions, Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of every HEP and development project to be done in consideration of ecological sensitivity of the region and its future consequences."

However, these are not the only instance of environmental norms being ignored—they are quite rampant. The problem is that politicians need to get elected every few years and, in a quest to showcase that chimera of “development” as opposed to sensible, future-orientated, sustainable development, they tend to conveniently overlook what happens to their constituency in the mid-to-long term.
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In addition to this is the nexus with builders and associated greed. The people – including the ones who are affected now too are blamed for letting their aspirations overwhelm their basic sense. In many cases, such archaic “development” and disregard of environmental norms, often turns out to be a poisoned chalice. And when disaster strikes, the government conjures up a flurry of last-minute activity to showcase efficiency, a “comprehensive solution” to project that it cares.

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How India Fares In Disaster Response & Management?

It's well-documented that India, with a currently estimated population of over 1.41 billion but the 7th largest land area, is among the countries most vulnerable to disasters.

85 percent of India’s area is vulnerable to one or more type of hazards (ref: “Introduction to the Vulnerability Atlas of India, 2019”). Add to it man-induced disasters like Chemical-Industrial Emergencies, Nuclear & Radiological Emergencies, Biological & Public Health Emergencies (BPHE), fires (urban and forest), and importantly, the effect of population transfer from rural to urban areas and it’s evident to anyone that broader disaster risk management (DRM) (to include disaster risk reduction), climate adaption, and adopting sustainable lifestyles should have been political and strategic imperatives, and not just routine administrative tasks.

But the harsh reality is that while India has made tremendous progress in disaster response, the broader objectives of DRM have remained elusive on account of four main factors:

Ambiguity: Disaster management (DM) is not mentioned specifically in any of the Lists (Central, State or Concurrent) -but is merely a ‘state responsibility’ and not a ‘state subject’. The Central Government supplements the efforts of the states/UTs in five ways, (i) sustaining agencies for providing alerts/warnings (ii) nominating nodal Central Ministries with disaster-specific responsibilities for national-level coordination of the response and mobilisation of necessary resources in major disasters (iii) maintaining a National Disaster Response Force (iv) providing aid, funds, resources to the states/UTs on required basis, and (v) formulating and issuing guidelines and policies; rendering advice and technical assistance; and assisting in capacity building. Thus, while there are rules for everything, the ambiguity in the mandate and a lack of Constitutionally binding obligation on the state(s) often entails poor implementations.

Paucity of Funds: Many states do not have adequate resources to fully fund their DRM efforts but continue to rely on the Centre for most things. That’s why you find the NDRF often being called out by districts for tasks that should be handled by its own teams.

Poor Urban Planning: Most of our major cities are now emblematic of poor urban planning to start with or rules made for political benefit and/or greed ruining a once well-planned city. A classic example while developing Gurugram, could the Haryana government have drawn inspiration from where its capital is located – Chandigarh?

Trend Towards Urbanisation: There are over seven lakh villages in India, but with most being bereft of good schools, hospitals, employment, etc, rural populations are transferring to urban zones.

Some villages (near urban centres, en route trade/tourism paths, etc) are also transforming into urbanised zones but without the facilities. Projections by the UN’s Habitat World Cities Report 2022 indicate that from an urban population of 37.7 crore (31.16% of India’s population) in 2011 (Census-2011), 48.3 crore in 2020 (34.9%), India’s urban populations is expected to stand at 54.2 crore by 2025, 67.5 crore in 2035, and between 81.4 crore to 87 crore people by 2050.

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Is Urbanisation In India Posing Major Climate Risks

This trend towards urbanisation in India - the highest demographic shift among all nations – is one of the biggest challenges India faces and hence, requires urban planning of the highest order.

We need to build urban spaces that sustain in the future. The gestation period to set up a medium-sized town is 3-6 yrs, and for a city its 5-8 yrs. Just between 2020 and 2025, 5.9 crore people would have transferred to urban areas. Hence, the question: have/are we setting-up new future-ready, climate-adapted, disaster-resilient towns/cities? Or are we letting populations just drift into existing ones and build/encroach wherever they can?
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The UN IPCC Special report (AR6), with a focus on impacts in and around the Indian subcontinent, specifically highlights that India, with its geography and geology, a coastline of over 7000 km, hot tropical climate, deep dependence of agriculture on stable monsoons, heavy pollution, unplanned development /urbanisation, deforestation, and levels of poverty, will be one of the most severely hit countries from climate change.

It forecasts that India will be subject to heavy rainfall, heatwaves, topsoil aridity, and groundwater depletion. It further notes that glaciers in the Himalayas “feed ten of the world’s most important river systems and are critical water sources for nearly two billion people” – but that they are “projected to experience volume losses of approximately 30 to 100% by 2100 depending on global emissions scenarios”.

These changes, along with floods and landslides, could damage infrastructure, displace local people, erode food security and create new poverty traps. A 2021 report by McKinsey Global Institute opines that climate impacts could reduce the GDP of South Asian countries by up to 13 percent by 2050.
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It is, therefore, imperative that instead of political, religious and economic considerations, utmost priority be accorded to, and attention focused on reducing infrastructure development in ecologically sensitive areas, and where absolutely necessary, then building sustainable, climate-change-adapted, disaster-resilient housing and infrastructure that specifically recognises environmental concerns.

Failing this, the costs inflicted by disaster damage and imposed by relocation, re-settlement of displaced persons, restoration of the socio-cultural, livelihood and economic aspects of their lives, and of the damaged infrastructure will far strip the advantages or benefits that accrue from any of the projects, with much of the additional GDP generated being recycled back into DM.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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