India’s Flood Tragedy: Man-made Disaster? Leadership in Crisis

Asian News correspondent reports that the ongoing crisis in Uttarakhand, the northern Indian state that bore the brunt of the recent monsoon tragedy, has been overdeveloped and under-planned. He asks, “Natural disaster, or man-made tragedy?” Read his article here.

His summary of the crisis:

“Newspapers and magazines have been packed with reports and opinions that pin the blame on several human practices, including unbridled construction along the banks of the Himayalan rivers which in any case are known to sustain fragile ecosystems in one of the youngest mountain ranges.

In the conflict of opinions, even the union environment minister has stepped into the controversy saying a proposal to declare a large area in the Himalayas as an eco-sensitive zone was in place. She has also demanded that her ministry be given more teeth when it comes to clearing development projects in the Himalayan region.

India Floods

The Flooded Ganges in Uttarakhand, AP

A major controversy has also emerged over whether the Indian Meteorological Department had given any warning of the impending disaster and, if so, whether the warnings were given in time for the civil administration to alert people and take steps to minimise the damage.”

India is not alone in leading poorly in the face of  “natural” disasters caused by mismanagement of fragile ecosystems, overdevelopment and confusing procedures that limit effective action.

We need only to look at our own reaction to Katrina in the American South to see that human overgrowth and under-response is an epidemic. It’s as if we are allowing random leadership or electing leaders ill equipped to envision practical solutions.

In India, the leadership vision must balance the needs of development and growth with the maintenance of an ecosystem to prevent disasters such as this summer’s flood. As in all these crisis situations, planning what to do when disaster strikes is necessary, but preventing future disasters by good planning is essential.

Mukhopadhyay puts the blame on “chaotic development” from his own experience living there — interestingly, partly from tourism and partly from overdevelopment since the region has become a state.

New Shiva Statue washed away, Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features

New Shiva Statue washed away, Indian Photo Agency/Rex Features

The problem stems particularly from pilgrimage tourism and the infrastructure the region has created to support it, including more hotels, vehicles, roads, electricity and other development.  Unbridled construction without disaster planning also came along with the region being named a new state:

“In the past decade there has also been a rush to propose, clear and construct large and small hydroelectric power plants. These projects have resulted in reckless felling of trees, blasting of river beds and mountain slopes, changing the course of rivers which have raised the spectre of the gold rush. In a report India’s official and constitutionally designated auditor warned that the state “had no disaster management plan worth its name despite the region being highly disaster prone.”

This is a good example of how chaotic innovation and rushed economic development has been carried out with too little practical, grounded leadership, resulting in terrible tragedy and thousands of deaths and tens of thousands displaced.

Let’s hope that Union minister of state for environment Jayanthi Natarajan’s support for an eco-sensitive zone is not too little or too late.  It may be there is not enough undeveloped acreage to save in the area to prevent future floods, so other, less politically easy solutions must be proposed, for example, limiting tourists and future development long after the flood waters have receded.

As for rebuilding, signs are not good. According to Kavita Rao, Guardian blogger, “A report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General in April 2013 revealed that the State Disaster Management Authority has never met, has received no funds, and has framed no plan to cope with disaster, despite a series of deadly landslides over the past few years.” It seems this tragedy may have been preventable, and might have been eased by leadership that looked farther than the economic bottom line. Read her article here.

The leadership bottom line: boom times are great, but without leaders who can build a vision for longterm, sustainable development, economic growth can be a disaster.

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