North India Floods and Politics

NEW DELHI — June this year witnessed a ravaging flood in North India that led to a massive loss of lives and property. The official record shows hundreds have been killed while people are still missing in thousands. The national rescue operation however saved more than a lakh of lives. But while rescue forces selflessly battled to save people, politicians shamelessly stooped to new lows striving to use this disaster to advance their political goals.

From June 14 to 17, 2013, Indian state of Uttarakhand and adjoining areas were flooded by an unprecedented amount of rainfall about 375 per cent more than the benchmark of a normal monsoon. The excessive rainfall caused the melting of Chorabari Glacier, the mother of the Mandakini river. This led to the eruption of the river, furthering the floods near Kedarnath Dome, Rudraprayag district, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Western Nepal.

The Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are dominated by forests and snow-covered mountains, thus remaining largely inaccessible. They are home to several major Hindu and Sikh pilgrimage sites with the difficulty of the pilgrimage route increasing its religious value. Kailash Mansoravar and Hemkunt pilgrimage had to be abandoned, while more than 58,000 people were stranded at different points on the route of the Chardham — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath.

Warnings by the India Meteorological Department predicting heavy rains were not given much publicity before and the weather office had not issued any early warnings about the heavy rains.

“If the weather office had issued an early warning then authorities would have had the time to restrict tourist movement and shift residents to safer zones,” said Nilabja Ghosh, an economist working on climate change and agricultural methods in Uttarakhand.

The heavy rains led to large flash floods and massive landslides that damaged several houses and structures, killing those who were trapped. Entire villages and settlements such as Gaurikund and the market town of Ram Bada — a  transition point to Kedarnath — had been obliterated, while the market town of Sonprayag suffered heavy damage and loss of lives. National Highway 58, an important artery connecting the region, was washed away near Jyotirmath and many other places.

As more tourists come in from the month of May, the number of people impacted was substantial. For more than three days, stranded pilgrims and tourists had no rations and survived on little food. The roads were seriously damaged at more than 450 places, resulting in huge traffic jams, with the floods causing many vehicles to be washed away.

Although the Kedarnath Temple itself had not suffered a lot of damage, many hotels, rest houses and shops surrounding the temple were razed to the ground. Most of the destruction at Kedarnath was caused by a sudden rapid melting of ice and snow on the Kedarnath Mountain.

The temple was flooded with water resulting in several deaths due to drowning and panic-driven stampede. With rescue operations paying utmost attention to saving people, hundreds of dead bodies lay spread across the valley for a week, thus contaminating the water and leading to a widespread epidemic of fever, diarrhoea and vomiting among villagers who depend on spring water.

The Army, Air Force, Navy, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Border Security Force, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Public Works Department and local administrations worked together for quick rescue operations “but bad weather is proving a hindrance”, said Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna.
By 21 June 2013, the Army had deployed 10,000 soldiers and 11 helicopters, the Navy had sent 45 naval divers, and the Air force had deployed 43 aircrafts including 36 helicopters.

On June 25, a rescue helicopter returning from Badrinath, carrying 5 Air Force Officers, nine of the NDRF, and six of the ITBP crashed, killing all on board. The deceased soldiers were given a ceremonial Guard of honour by Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.

As of June 29 2013, the official death toll in Uttarakhand, based on the collected bodies of the victims, had crossed 840; although the actual number may never be known with thousands still missing. “According to the quantum of FIRs filed, the number of missing stands at 3,500-3,700 but a report prepared by a UN agency along with some NGO pegs the figure in excess of 11,000,” said National Disaster Management Authority vice chairman M Shashidhar Reddy. Brave and efficient efforts of the rescue teams led to overall evacuation and rescue of 1,08,253 people.

With India’s parliamentary polls being barely 10 months away, politicians are desperately trying to use this tragedy to score brownie points over their rivals. It began with Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On June 18 he was the first national leader to talk about the disaster, tweeting “Seeing extremely disturbing visuals of floods in Uttarakhand. We stand by the people during this hour & pray things get back to normal soon.”

The next day, Modi announced the formation of a team of five senior officers of the state government to coordinate relief and rescue operations for people from Gujarat who were stranded. Within two days, Modi ordered special flights from Dehradun – capital of the affected state – to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, with his focus clearly being on rescuing people from his state. On June 22 he went on an aerial tour of the worst hits, which was widely publicised. By this time the team of Gujarat government officials had been expanded to 15. The state government’s PR machinery put out to the media that 15,000 people from Gujarat had been rescued, although BJP has rubbished such claims.

Congress leader and Information & Broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said, “If somebody wants to become a Rambo and claims that he alone in a span of two days during a trip of disaster tourism brought out 15,000 people, I am afraid for the lack of a better word, it just reflects rank opportunism and sheer desperation to try and politicise and even milk a tragedy for political reasons.”

On July 1, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeted, “Apart from rescuing pilgrims from MP, our rescue teams have rescued 1810 pilgrims from various states without any discrimination.”

Rahul Gandhi, Vice President of the Congress, was celebrating his birthday somewhere in Europe when the floods hit. After Modi’s aerial survey, on June 23 he cut short his party and visited the flood-hit state. Samajwadi Party leader Naresh Aggarwal said, “The Congress is taking everything lightly and the required foodstuff could not be catered to the victims as Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi did not give the green signal to do so as he returned to work after a week.”

“The two major parties in the country are trying to politicise the issue. First the BJP sent Narendra Modi and then Rahul Gandhi from the Congress reached there,” Samajwadi Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav said. “So many people have died, bodies are lying unattended, the locals have been completely destroyed and these people are indulging in politics over the natural disaster,” he said urging VIPs to refrain from visiting the hill state to allow relief and rescue work to continue in full swing.

On June 26, Andhra Pradesh Members of Parliament – Hanumantha Rao of Congress, and Ramesh Rathod and K Narayana of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – came to fisticuffs in public view at the Jolly Grant airport over who would ferry the flood survivors to Andhra Pradesh as both parties had arranged flights.

“There is already a flight arranged by the government which is waiting for the pilgrims. TDP leaders stopped them from boarding the flight saying that they have already arranged another flight to take them to Delhi,” Hanumantha Rao told media persons.

“The Congress government (in Andhra Pradesh) totally failed to help the pilgrims. They did nothing. They woke up only after we took initiatives like bringing pilgrims out of the flood area and sending them by flight to Hyderabad. They are only sabotaging our efforts. We are doing this on humanitarian grounds. We have also arranged medical aid for victims. This is no time for politics,” said TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu.

On June 29 in Goa, Congress spokesperson Sudip Tamhankar said people should not contribute to a donation drive started by the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party to collect money for the rehabilitation of flood victims. “The government is just making a big show about how magnanimous it is by announcing the donation drive to collect Rs. 1 crore. Instead, the government should spend money on buying books and raincoats for children who have been deprived of such facilities this year,” Tamhankar said.

On July 1, a war of words broke out on Twitter when Congress leader and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari asked a question on Twitter regarding the absence of Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley from Uttarakhand. Swaraj and Jaitley are leaders of opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively, both belonging to BJP. “H’onble LOPs (leaders of opposition) have mindspace to critique government on CBI autonomy that are yet to be placed before SC (Supreme Court) but no time to visit Uttarakhand,” Tewari tweeted. “Did anyone see LOPs in both houses express sympathy/visit disaster hit Uttarakhand. This from a party that criticizes visits of Congress leaders,” he said.

“I am sorry to say that the government in Uttarakhand has not been able to rise to the occasion. They ought to be dismissed for being inept and incompetent,” Swaraj tweeted. “The government in Delhi has also failed to provide the requisite leadership,” she added. “We did not go to Uttarakhand because home minister (Sushilkumar Shinde) made a public statement that our visit will hamper the rescue effort,” she said. “He went to the extent of saying that nobody, including himself, was allowed to land anywhere,” she said.

Tewari shot back, “If LOP follows the advice of HM (home minister), how come it does not apply to the BJP president and poll panel chief? Different strokes!” BJP president Rajnath Singh and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has been recently appointed as the BJP’s poll campaign committee chief, visited the state despite Shinde’s advisory.

“The truth is that I woke you (Congress government) up about the scale of tragedy when I spoke to home minister on 18th June and tweeted about this,” Swaraj tweeted. “When we enforce accountability, you call it politics. We will not allow you this escape route to hide your failures,” she said.

A general secretary of Congress, Ajay Maken joined the debate on Twitter. “Instead of helping in relief works in Uttarakhand, don’t try to use this calamity as a political opportunity! #NoPoliticsOverCalamity,” Maken tweeted. He added, “Pyre of many victims of this natural calamity still warm. First BJP tried to take credit of evacuating 15,000 in a day!”

Environmentalists blamed the haphazard development in the area for the calamity. Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security said, “The hills have been shorn of the forest cover, there’s extensive mining taking place in this region and on top of that the roads that are being constructed are haphazard. And the hydro projects coming are phenomenal – 70 hydro projects back to back. Obviously there are tunnels being built, hills being blasted and everything goes topsy-turvy.” No one in India is paying attention to the World Bank Group report this year warning about a rise in average world temperatures that would lead to excessive floods and droughts in South Asia and it is already starting to show.

Suryatapa MukherjeeCorrespondent (Politics)

Originally published on The Global Panorama:


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