Political Dimensions Of Disaster
Himachal Pradesh’s recent disaster will dominate the election discourse
The recent disaster that struck the hill state of Himachal Pradesh is gaining political connotation on expected lines. This is given the fact that the country is expected to go to the Lok Sabha polls in a little more than six months and all the developments in the public sphere are expected to assume political colour.
Since the recent disaster was an unprecedented one with massive loss to life and property across the state, it is expected to dominate the political discourse.
To begin with, the Congress that is in power and the Left that has a strong presence in small pockets have set the tone by demanding that the disaster be declared a national calamity. This has put the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is in opposition in the state and the ruling power in the centre on the defensive.
Observers say that the Congress can gain an advantage on the narrative of disaster if it manages to play its cards well as the BJP’s response in the state till now is ‘confused’. They are also pointing out that the failure on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit the disaster hit state with which he has always claimed to have a personal bond, has added to the BJP’s woes.
Even the common people can be heard commenting, “Modi would have surely come here on the first available opportunity had the BJP been in power in the state.”
For the Congress it is the senior party leader Priyanka Gandhi who sharpened the political tone during her visit to the state a few days ago. One needs to recall that it was Priyanka who had launched the Congress campaign in the state ahead of the assembly polls last year where the Congress had romped home comfortably winning 40 of the 68 assembly seats.
It is also pertinent to underline that Himachal Pradesh is of immense importance to the BJP as well given the fact that it is the home turf of the party’s national president Jagat Prakash Nadda and union minister Anurag Thakur.
During her recent visit to the state Priyanka had underlined that during such difficult times, the central government should not discriminate between the states on party lines. It becomes the duty of the union government to provide aid in such circumstances, analysing the impact of the disaster.
She said the Centre should declare such a massive catastrophe as a 'National Disaster' and should immediately come forward for the help of the affected.
This sentiment has also been echoed by the Left for quite some time. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) reiterated the demand on Wednesday at a demonstration in Shimla where it sought that apart from declaring the disaster a national calamity, the centre should come forward with a special package to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore for the state.
“We have also raised the issue of bringing about an amendment to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 to facilitate disbursement of land to the people who have lost their lands and homes. With 67% of the total area in the state being forest land where will the government get land to compensate the people.
“We are of the view that the recent amendment was done in the interest of the corporates and now the Act needs to be amended in the interest of the poor,” CPM leader Sanjay Chauhan told this reporter.
Priyanka Gandhi also said that though the state government was doing far beyond its limited resources to provide succour to the affected families, however, without the assistance of the Union government it was difficult to bring normalcy and renovation works besides providing aid to the people.
The farmers and horticulturalists of the state have also suffered enormous losses and the centre should pay heed towards their plight as well, she underlined. She also hit out at the industrial houses dealing in fruit marketing for manipulating a decrease in the price of the apple crop thereby causing losses to the horticulturalists.
At the same time she was critical of the Centre for reducing the import duty on the Washington apple which according to her would directly affect the horticulturalists of the state, thereby causing losses to them.
"I have a house in Himachal Pradesh and I consider it as my moral duty to be amongst my people during the hours of crisis," she said, adding that she is a part of the larger family of the people of the state and they should stand by each other in such circumstances, sharing grief and ensuring to do whatever can be done for the people in distress.
Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu had recently visited Delhi where he met the Prime Minister at the dinner hosted by the President Draupadi Murmu for the members of G-20 nations. Thakur informed the PM, details of the damages caused in Himachal.
“I again urged the Prime Minister to declare the calamity as a National Disaster,” Sukhu said. He added that even Union minister Nitin Gadkari had personally monitored the flood hit regions during his visit to the state.
The Chief Minister said that the state government has sent the claims of the damages to the tune of Rs. 8000 crore till August 10 and thereafter between August 10 to 14, the second spell of heavy rains also caused enormous damages taking the losses to around 12000 crore. He said that without a second thought, the Centre should voluntarily extend the financial support for the people of the state.
Interestingly, the foot soldiers of the Right Wing on the ground have been trying to give a spin to the demand being raised. The BJP leadership has been accusing the Congress of not fulfilling the promises made ahead of the assembly polls last year.
The Right Wing’s foot soldiers are now spreading the narrative that the Congress government is now trying to use the disaster as an excuse for non deliverance of promises. It is being circulated that if everything is to be done by the centre, what for is the state government in office.
The BJP did stage a walkout on the issue of the disaster during the first day of the ongoing monsoon session of the state assembly. Former CM and leader of opposition Jairam Thakur said, “Today in the monsoon session of the Assembly, we sought discussion under Rule 67 regarding the tragedy caused by natural disaster but approval was not given.
“This topic is related to the pain of the families rendered homeless and affected by the rains across the state. It is unfortunate that this important discussion of ours was stopped. For this reason the opposition has walked out of the House today.”
Sukhu has been targeting the leader of opposition saying that he should take up the matter with PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah and request for a special disaster package for Himachal, akin to that provided in the aftermath of the Kedarnath and Bhuj tragedies.
To add to the woes of Right Wing forces, there has been castigation from all corners over the controversial reported remarks attributed to Dr. Laxmidhar Behera who is Director of India Institute of Technology (IIT) Mandi wherein he had held meat consumption responsible for landslides and cloudbursts that had brought misery to the people.
“The people of the state are still overcoming the effects of this tragedy and for the head of a leading public educational institution to make such a statement on food choices is insensitive and deplorable and we condemn this unscientific promulgation,” said several civil society and youth organisations in a collective statement.
Calling the reported remarks as ‘unfortunate and concerning’ the statement said, “It is worth noting that IIT Mandi has been entrusted with the responsibility of conducting scientific and technical analyses of the underlying causes of the ongoing disaster and providing suitable mitigation solutions.
“A reported sum of Rs 3.5 crore has also been allocated to the institute for ongoing scientific research on disaster management.
In their joint statement, the current Himalayan disasters are attributed to rapid changes in land use, driven by large-scale projects and indiscriminate construction in the region. Additionally, they underscore the region's vulnerability to disasters due to the climate crisis.
“The organisations contend that only policy adjustments and governance measures can effectively address such crises.”
They added that a combination of scientific rigour and local community knowledge, especially concerning the characteristics and diverse ecosystems of each watershed, is essential for substantive analysis and the establishment of a robust disaster management system for the future.
“They maintained that ‘such statements as given by the IIT Director are bound to create alienation and mistrust amongst common people in a state where meat eating is part of cultural practice. We believe that we need to teach our students to respect diverse ethnicities and food choices”.
Civil society organisations too are taking the issue of the disaster further among the people highlighting the causes and the failures of successive governments to address them while also raising serious questions regarding the development models needed in the state.
A few days ago activists including Guman Singh, Sandeep Minhas, Joginder Walia, B.R. Kaundal and Narendra Saini who are affiliated to Himalayan Niti Abhiyan, Fourlane Prabhavit Sangathan and Bhoomi Adhigrahan Prabhavit Manch demanded that all the political parties in the state make the aftermath of the disaster and compensation for the people a common agenda.
“Extreme events such as flash floods, cloud bursts, landslides, land subsidence and collapse of populated hill slopes have devastated lives and property across the state. Current estimates suggest that 404 people lost their lives in various incidents that occurred across the state, 38 people are still missing and 377 people are injured.
“Apart from this huge loss of life, 10140 livestock have died and 5644 cowsheds have been destroyed. Many buildings have been heavily damaged, in which 2546 residential houses and 317 shops have been completely damaged, while 10853 residential houses have been partially damaged. This has compelled a large population to look for alternative places to live,” they said in a statement.
Reiterating the demand for declaring the calamity as a National Disaster, they said that those who have become homeless and whose livelihoods have been seriously affected should be given land on priority and action should be initiated at both the state and central levels.
“The issue of appropriate land status for each type of land-use should be made an important agenda of future action plans of the state on scientific basis. All political parties should also include it as a common draft in their political agenda.
“Laws on large infrastructure projects, dams and hydropower projects, four-lane and other roads, multi-storey building construction should be strictly followed and their impacts should be formulated on the basis of scientific study. Active community management of forests based on the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, amendment in the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 to give land rights to evicted people, traditional livelihood occupations and sustainable tourism programs should be considered,” they stated.
They further sought that widespread scientific awareness and sensitisation should be promoted on a sustained basis among policy makers and communities and actual losses should be compensated for reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement of the region.
They pointed out that the state witnessed extreme events spread over three periods wherein there were 163 identified landslides and 72 flash flood events that accounted for the majority of the impact of the disaster in which Kullu, Mandi, Shimla, Sirmaur, Solan and Chamba districts have been the most affected.
Coming back to the political dimensions of the disaster, Sukhu has till now emerged as a popular leader given his presence on the ground during the rescue and relief operations. He has been touring the disaster hit areas extensively.
The recent decision by him and his wife Kamlesh Thakur to donate their personal savings of Rs 51 lakh to help those in distress has earned him appreciation from all corners. He has also been saying that the state government has taken a decision to pay for the rented accommodation for those who were staying in relief camps so as to lessen their sufferings.
At the same time there are voices calling for action against those whose acts have added to the woes of the common people. These include the builders, land grabbers, contractors and others who have played havoc with the fragile ecosystem of the hill state. Illegal construction, violation of civic by-laws, scant respect for carrying capacity of the hills and violating norms for quick profits have simply added to the impact of the calamity that was partially natural and largely manmade.
The common perception on the ground is that Sukhu needs to set an example by taking such elements to task. At the same time there is scepticism given the past experience with the politicians and various compulsions of the political forces in the given state of affairs.
There have been right noises being made from within the government as well following the disaster. Chief Secretary Prabodh Saxena had recently after preliminary assessment for the disaster in Shimla that the reasons behind immense damage were disposal of debris along the fragile slopes, unplanned drainage system and unscientific excavation of the hills.
He said to reduce the risks related to disasters, special attention should be paid to well-planned construction with proper drainage systems as unplanned buildings and diversion of waterways due to choked drains did the maximum damage. He said that emphasis should be laid on proper drainage systems and safely disposing of the muck excavated during the construction.
He called for a thorough assessment of disaster sensitive areas of the state and said that emphasis should also be laid on adopting and strictly implementing the Model Building Rules in all the urban and rural areas.
There is talk on finding a permanent scientific solution for flood protection, landslides, earthquakes and other vulnerabilities. Along with the need for earthquake retrofitting of selective critical infrastructures, government schools and community health centres by launching a pilot project in some districts.
But at the same time there have been shortcomings that continue to be exposed. For example there was a move to chop down trees that were posing a threat to human life and property in Shimla. Though well intentioned, this is learnt to have led to some rampant cutting of other trees as well raising questions.
The authorities then reportedly announced a tree committee under the Mayor that would follow a due process before any tree is chopped. By September 3, the Shimla Municipal Corporation had reportedly received 800 applications for chopping of ‘dangerous’ trees.
Otherwise the Sub Divisional Magistrate has powers under Section 133 of Code of Criminal Procedure to allow cutting of ‘dangerous’ trees during an emergency situation.
There is a sentiment that those who resorted to illegal felling of safe trees out of greed need to be imprisoned in accordance with the law instead of being let off after paying a monetary fine. There is a lot of anger over unnecessary tree felling that was carried out in the capital.