Uttarakhand - The Dance of Death!
When news first started pouring in, no one must have ever thought of the magnitude the disaster that struck Uttarakhand would eventually reach. The very first news piece that I saw on TV was of Hrishikesh where continuous broadcast was being shown of the giant statue of Lord Shiva encircled by rising waters of River Ganga. I had initially thought that this was just a routine piece about the rains that had started in various parts of the country. Never did I, like all others, imagined what was slotted was to follow.
The images of destruction and calamity on such an enormous scale that we are now seeing continuously for the last 15 days are simply mind numbing. The houses that were destroyed and crashed down like a pack of cards number in 1000s. Thousands of tonnes of loose soil was washed away by the rivers Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Pushpavati, Songnadi, Dhawalganga who also took with them large chunks of roads, trees, wild and domestic animals, people and all that stood in their way. All these rivers are tributaries of the great River Ganga or Ganges who is sacred to our country and culture. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way each year to Uttarakhand to pay their tributes to the sacred Ganga and Lord Shiva in this 'Land of Gods'. So what happened that enraged them both so much that thousands had to die in their dance of destruction? The numbers of actual victims are still not confirmed but the numbers of death are believed to be in thousands with many more now rendered homeless and penniless, having lost all to the wrath of the Himalayas and the Ganga.
Development or Endangering Lives and Nature?
The entire Himalayan range is extremely sensitive in nature geographically and also climatically, it also falls in the zone of high seismic activity. This region is very much prone to earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides, floods etc which cause destruction to lives and property every year. The soil in these mountains is quite loose and brittle causing major landslides. There are more more than 500 dams being proposed to be built in this region as a part of more than 200 hydroelectric power projects. The Char Dham area which was most affected in these floods alone has about 70 dams. Such large number of dams mean increase in number of roads thus exposing even more lives to the mercy of the elements. Add to that the increasing number of pilgrims who visit this region. In the last eight years, it is estimated that the traffic to this area has increased by a whopping 1000%! In the name of development, the activities of contruction of roads, various dam projects, tourist centres etc. has lead to cutting down of trees, gouging out whole mountain sides, boring tunnels, using explosives for these purposes are all done on a magnitude that can be equalled to war-time efforts. In spite of knowing how delicate and dangerous the geographical conditions of this region is, such so-called development is being carried out unabetted. Any kind of reports that are against these kind of activities submitted by various environmentalists are disregarded and thrown in the trash can.
For the last 10 years, the real estate rates have skyrocketed in Uttarakhand thereby giving birth to the breed of scores of land mafias who had ample support by politicos. Hundreds of rules and laws might have been broken and illegal buildings, residential as well commercial were built INSIDE the flood line of the rivers. Religious pilgrimage or teerthyatra has now become a major industry here and everyone wants their share of the booty, no one wants to be left behind. Hence in the last few years, indiscriminate construction is seen here since day the new state was born. The large-scale deforestation of trees on the Himalayan mountain slopes is further endangering these ranges which are already prone to landslides. Because of deforestation, the amount of rainfall that is absorbed decreases considerably causing flash floods in low-lying areas. Compared to the other mountain ranges in India, Himalayan ranges are much younger in age and hence more vulnerable to seismic activities and such deliberate onslaughts, making this entire region an easy prey to earthquakes and other multitude of natural disasters. The buildings that suffered maximum damage were the ones that encroached upon the natural river beds.
Sunderlal Bahuguna and Other Activists
My first thought opon seeing the news and the various images of this massive disaster was, was it all because of natural causes or are we equally to be blamed? I think the answer is both, but the trigger is more a result of our own mistakes that caused such enormous devastation. The dangers of exactly such type of disasters was prophesied by noted eco-activist and environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna 40 years ago when he led the movement against the building of Tehri dam. His quote was "We in Himalaya are facing a crisis of survival due to the suicidal activities being carried out in the name of development... The monstrous Tehri dam is a symbol of this... There is need for a new and long-term policy to protect the dying Himalaya. I do not want to see the death of the most sacred river of the world – the Ganga – for short-term economic gains." But it was unheeded and the government went ahead with the construction of the dam. He had said that construction of such an enormous dam will lead to disastrous changes in the river's natural course. Also such type of projects will mean destruction of rare and indigenous biodiversity with adverse effects on the local climate, flood conditions, the livelihood of the local people etc. Inspired by his Gandhian philosophy, the world saw the Chipko movement become successful in 1974 when a group of women led by Chandiprasad Bhat and Gauradevi, in Chamoli, Uttarakhand (then Uttaranchal) embraced trees to prevent their cutting down in the name of development.
During the period of 1981 to 1983 Sunderlal Bahuguna journeyed 5000 kilometres in Himalayas on foot trying to educate and create awareness regarding the threat to the Himalayas and to stop the devastation carried out against it. He lead an extensive movement opposing the construction of Tehri in the Himalayas from 1980 to 2004. He carried out numerous satyagrahas, fasts during this period. In 1995, the then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao promised to appoint a committee to study the adverse effects of the project, which was never fulfiled, by him or by his successor Devegouda. Finally, in 2004 when the dam started filling with water, Bahuguna tried to immerse himself in the rising waters, but he was arrested by the government and his movements restricted. The project was completed and a number of other similar projects now started in the ranges. Similar series of hydroelectric projects were also started in the Brahmaputra and Teesta river valleys in the northeast unheeding all reports and warnings given by scores of environmentalists and eco-activists.
Since 2008, noted environmentalist G.D.Agarwal, an octogenarian has also undertaken many fasts to draw public and government attention to the plight of Ganga. Another equally noted environmentalist Dr. Rajinder Singh, who also happens to be a member of the Ministerial Group for the Upper Ganga Basin projects was banned by Uttarakhand last year from entering the state because he opposed the construction of dams. It is not just the case with Himalayas, in the recent times, a similar dismissive treatment is being meted out to an extensive report written by noted environmentalist Dr. Madhav Gadgil related to the conservation of the Western Ghats region. The people I have mentioned above and many more others' have been similarly disregarded and dismissed by the government on multiple occasions. The consequences of their irresponsible actions are now seen time and again in the form of flash floods, dying river basins, change in climatic conditions etc.
There needs to be a drastic change in the attitude of the policy makers towards these people. They are not fools, neither are they against development, but attention needs to be paid to what they are really asking for. Development without destroying nature is the only way forward and is the only thing that is sustainable in the long run. Indiscriminate constructions of dams, roads, townships by extensive deforestation and general havoc to the nature will bring nothing but misery in future. Why do all politicians believe that the only way development can be achieved is by building more and more dams and constructing more buildings? Development is very much possible without threatening the environment and without destroying our natural wealth. But they simply do not believe it or it is because development without destruction is most probably quite unprofitable for the ones in the power and their multiple cohorts. But what is happening now in Uttarakhand is only the beginning and a chance to wake up from this wealth-induced slumber. All the outrages that are being carried out in the name of development need to be stopped at once. Only then there is any chance for recovery. The loss of lives, livestock, home and heaths is unreplaceable but whatever is remaining, can be rebuilt and reclaimed. But if what happened until now continues even after this, the disasters that are to follow will probably not give a similar chance once again.
Therefore it is high time now that we Indians start taking responsibility of our actions and start paying heed to words of Bahuguna, Agarwal, Gadgil etc. It is time that they are treated with more respect and their words taken seriously
Lack of Definite Disaster Plans
Once again we were caught in a situation where there was no proactive action, only defense and salvage. In spite of the region being vulnerable geographically, no disaster plan ever existed. An official State Disaster Management Authority does exists that was formed in 2007 but they have never met to outline any kind of prevention plan or any action plan to be taken in case such an eventuality arose. Seeing so much apathy on the part of the bureacrats responsible, it therefore comes as no big surprise that people living in these affected areas themselves were unprepared for the floods and were completely clueless as to what actions they should take. It is high time that the bureaucrats woke up to reality and prepared a proper disaster plan and ensure its implementation and enforcement. Just like in other countries, a strict plan must be ensured and mock drills carried out at regular intervals with authorities ensuring 100% attendance and particpation from the local residents. Only then can major destruction be prevented in future.
Venue for Rescue or a Circus Arena?
It is often said that during trying times, the best of the human nature comes to display and it proved true yet again, but only in case of the scores of volunteers from various governmental and non-governmental organisations which include the military, the ITBP, RSS workers and many others. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the media or the politicians. The media seems to be intent on projecting more the fact as to who got there first, each channel claiming that they were the first ones in Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gaurikund and so on. I am not belittling their efforts, they are doing their best in trying conditions, going where others dare not go, to show the nation what kind of tragedy has struck, showing the rescue operations that are being carried on. But all of that are accompanied by their constant clamour to score more TRP points in the week.
As to the politicians, the less one says, the better. The entire venue seems to have turned into a big circus of some kind where all political parties seem to be claiming credits for taking the most efforts than other parties. The rescue operations in Uttarakhand, are no doubt, dictated by the parliamentary polls which are barely 10 months away. More than any kind of management or conduct, the prime concern seems to be the projection of those efforts than anything else. After the disaster struck, there was no official word from even a single national leader, barring Narendra Modi who first tweeted his concerns. Within minutes of his tweet, congress officials who handle the PM's twitter account stirred from their slumber and were quick to post information about government's action in the affected region. Gradually all have now jumped in the circus and most of them seem to be focusing their attentions on slamming Modi's efforts, his conduct, his statements etc. like it is all about Modi and not about the actual disaster. To top it all, our esteemed Union Home Minister admitted that there was utter lack of coordination and lack of efficient management amongst the rescue parties. This, coming from the Home Minister says it all. Looking at all this farcical and dark comedy that is now ongoing, it makes one feel disgusted. In spite of 65 years post-independence, there is still a remarkable lack of maturity and dignified conduct during such trying times. This is not just one instance, we have seen it again and again, in Mumbai after the 26/11 terrorist attacks, the recent rape of a hapless girl in New Delhi. The circus is unending. There is no dignity or maturity whatsoever in the conduct of these politicians whose only concern is the projection of their own party and leaders, and the votes they are looking to amassing 10 months down the line. Somehow, they have managed to yet again turn this enormous disaster into another Great Indian Tamasha!
Salute to the Men in Uniform
Once again the men in uniform have proved their mettle. Where no one dares to go, it is these illustrious men from the various battalions and groups of the military who rushed to rescue the victims. These men are working tirelessly for days, evacuating thousands of people from extremely difficult and unsafe places. The men on ground who carry out various rescue and combing operations, the men who pilot the various number of helicopters lifting the victims to safer places are faced by extremely difficult land and weather conditions, yet they are working tirelessly, expecting no thank-yous or accolades, just doing what they are trained to do. Many of these valient men have even canceled their leaves, some have given up their personal priorities to be a part of the massive effort to save more lives. I salute these men with all my heart!
Disturbing Stories of Extreme Greed and Lowly Human Conduct
There are no doubt many stories of unmatchable valour and examples of shining human kindness that we hear. But marring them all are also the horrifying and mind-numbing accounts of human greed that has crossed all boundaries of sanity and human sensitivity. There have been first-hand accounts by victims who had to pay with all their money, belongings, ornaments etc. for morsels of food and water. Some local hotel owners, car drivers et al are reportedly showing that their greed for money triumphs over everything else. A single chapati costs Rs. 100-200, a small bowl of rice is costing about the same amount. A seat on any one of the privately-owned and operated helicopters cost about Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 200,000. Even the cab drivers are charging thousands of rupees. Those who are able to pay can get those things, those who cannot are left behind. And we Indians keep on hammering about our culture and tradition where a guest is equalled to a god - Atithi Devo Bhava! Such hypocrites! In times of such diffculties, where the urge to help our fellow countrymen should overrule everything else, here it is exactly the opposite. The Char Dham is supposed to be the Land of Gods, and here in these very lands, it is money and greed that is shining over every other basic human emotion or finer feelings of any kind. Many were caught by the Army stealing ornaments from the dead bodies. What is the most disgusting conduct in my opinion is that, these people who came here to wash off their sins, did not even leave the sacred temple premises maligned by their conduct. After the waters receded and the entrance cleared, it has been found that the donation boxes were all broken open, money stolen and the boxes strewn around. The most moving account I read was of a family whose 15-year-old son was trapped in a landslide. Some guy offered to rescue him in exchange for Rs. 100,000. The family all pooled their resources and gave him the money, which he took and disappeared in a flash. The boy died of hunger and thirst in front his parents' eyes. I wonder if they will ever feel normal again. If God lever ived here, I am sure he has now changed his address.
The Dance of Death
Kedarnath is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas and home to Lord Shiva, a Yogi and a Destroyer or Transformer - one among the Trimurti - the Hindu trinity of the divine. He is an ultimate Yogi, a Bairagi who cares neither for wealth nor for worldly goods. What distinguishes him among all other aspects is the presence of a Third Eye - the Trilochan, which it is believed, he opens when he is enraged and he feels it is time for destruction. When he destroys everything else, his destruction is not just for the sake of death, but for creation of new. When he becomes the Destroyer, he performs his Dance of Death - the Tandava, an extremely violent manifestation that swallows everything and everyone around him, turning everything to ashes.
I have no doubts that this is what happened in Uttarakhand, my belief further reinforced by a yogi from Kedarnath who said that 'all this happened because human greed had crossed all legitimate boundaries. Everything from human show of faith in God, greed and lust for more and more money, the clamouring to get more shares of the loot at the cost of cutting others' throats, had all multiplied manifold; and Baba Bholenath was disgusted with all this. Therefore, he danced his dance of death in the valley' A very apt description and a perfect summary of all places of pilgrimage. Perhaps it is time that we did some serious introspection and revised our ideas of faith and God.
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