Monsoon is a season associated with music, dance and romance. But this time it has spelt doom, devastation and misery in the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand with an equally harrowing impact in the plains of Punjab and Haryana.

The intervening night of Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by the happenings during the day, was something that the people of Himachal would definitely like to forget. Thunderbolts accompanied by heavy downpour sent chills down the spine of the people in districts like Shimla, Solan, Mandi, Kullu and Sirmaur. It would not be wrong to state that the majority population spent a sleepless night fearing the worst.

Throughout the day it was news of misery pouring in from various quarters. The videos that went around showed people running for their lives, people desperately screaming for help, trees falling, roads caving in, buildings collapsing and flooded roads.

This is the third round of devastation that the state has been subjected to by nature while exposing the misdeeds of mankind. With high intensity rainfall in the hills there is an obvious threat to the plains of neighbouring Punjab and Haryana as water has to be released from the dams. The people in the latter two states, particularly Punjab have been facing a tough time amid flooding of the low lying areas.

What has been happening, and what continues to happen is being reported at length. The reasons for this devastation, whether natural or man-made have been pointed out according to the perceptions of people from various walks of life whether it is a common man, expert, politician, bureaucrat or social activist.

Over the last few days there have been steps announced by the authorities and the courts while more are expected in the days to come. What is expected now by the people who continue to suffer is that the authorities responsible for executing these measures do their jobs with sincerity. They need to walk the talk.

When one tries to understand the plight of the people it goes way beyond what is visible. The trauma is writ on their faces. This reporter tried to reach out to many people to understand what they are going through and the majority have been stunned beyond their imagination to even articulate themselves.

They said that while the losses in terms of infrastructure or agricultural produce are being calculated, the impact on the mental health of the people, livelihoods of the poor and those on the margins who comprise the unorganised segments of the economy is far more.

Talking about the present state of affairs Ajay Chandel who is a resident of the devastated Shamti area of Solan said, “We understand that the restoration of roads and other buildings can only be taken up once the rains stop. As of now the focus is to keep the traffic moving on the roads.

“Things have reached a rock bottom and the scenario is such that everything will have to be started from scratch. Hence it is expected that things are initiated in the right earnest and in a manner that serves the people.

“What to talk about the transportation of horticulture produce, there is hardly any produce this time. The entire fields of the people have been washed away. There is a sense of anxiety that prevails as nobody knows what will happen next.”

Saksham, a horticulturist from Deori village near Kotkhai said, “Everyone understands that the government too has its limitations but one just expects that what is being announced must be implemented in letter and spirit.”

One of the major interventions has come from the Supreme Court while reportedly taking into account the instances of landslides and land subsidence in the state capital of Shimla and the town of Joshimath in the neighbouring state of Uttarakhand.

The Court has reportedly hinted at setting up an expert panel to assess the carrying capacity and master plans across the Indian Himalayan region across 13 states and union territories.

It has been often pointed out that the hill towns should not be burdened with excessive population and traffic flow in order to preserve their ecosystem. The Court while terming the issue ‘important’ reportedly said that it intended to ask three institutions to nominate experts for the purpose.

One of the worst hit areas during this disaster has been the locality of Krishna Nagar in Shimla. One just has to watch the video of buildings including that of a slaughterhouse crumbling down amidst screams of local residents to understand what the people must be undergoing.

“Although the residents whose houses have been vacated are being provided boarding and lodging by the administration, fear remains deeply etched in their minds. The children are not able to go out and many people are not going out to work.

“The common demand being aired is that the people be given shelter for their families at a safe spot,” Sonia Subherwal who is a resident of the locality besides being a social activist said.

She also drew attention to the plight of migrant labour coming from states like Bihar and Jharkhand who have been residing in shanties of the town.

The plea for a safe place to reside is echoing from every nook and corner of the state. This also brings into focus the fact that it is the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society who reside in the most unsafe of places and have to be moved out when such disasters strike.

“Majority of those residing in Krishna Nagar are poor people who do odd jobs to make ends meet. There are families who make paper bags, those who run roadside eating stalls, daily wage earners, tailors and the like. They are facing livelihood issues as well.

“Those living next to trees that are unsafe and can fall down anytime are the most scared. The applications by such residents to chop such trees have seen a spurt in the last few days.

“Similarly among those who have been made to vacate their houses include people who were not able to collect even a spoon from their houses. We have been appealing to the authorities to help them salvage some of their belongings with the help of personnel in the disaster relief mechanism.

“The people living in shelters provided by the administration are facing the question of till when they can live there. They are looking towards dwellings in a safe zone.

“We have been trying to coax the youngsters to go out to their schools and colleges when they are open and the elders to resume their work as it is of paramount importance that their attention gets diverted from their loss.

“There have been many instances of people reporting anxiety issues and in many cases the elderly have been sent to their relatives in safe areas,” Amit Kumar, another resident of the locality shared. He has been trying to help the community in the area when he is away from his teaching assignment in Theog.

The ward committee of Shimla Nagrik Sabha took up the problems of the residents with the Shimla Jal Prabandhan Nigam Limited where it

pointed out the issues pertaining to water and sewerage in the locality.

The drinking water and sewerage pipes have been devastated in the area and the story is similar in many other localities across the state. Drinking water supply has been hit badly in areas.

“This is a time when saving lives is a priority. There are people whose 90 % harvest has been destroyed. This year there have been rains continuing from April onwards.

“There is so much water in the hills that not only the natural water bodies have been recharged but water is sprouting out from all sorts of places. Vast tracts of land have also been destroyed. The thing that is common across every resident is fear. Even the most unexpected places have witnessed devastation,” Subhash Thakur, an aware citizen from Mandi, said.

Coming to the remedial steps being announced by the authorities, the state government has decided to immediately stop the operations of all stone crushers on both perennial and non-perennial rivulets of the Beas river basin and its tributaries till further orders.

According to Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu the decision has been taken considering the alarming transformation of the ecosystem during the current monsoons, wreaking havoc downstream in the Beas river basin and its tributaries in Kullu, Mandi Kangra and Hamirpur districts besides Chakki rivulet in district Kangra.

The decision has been taken to ensure the safety of human settlements and infrastructure, to preserve the fragile ecology and environment of the state. However, the lease of legal mining has not been cancelled.

Sukhu added that the existing captive and temporary stone crushers shall not come under the purview of this order. He said that directions have been given to the Department of Environment, Science and Technology & Climate Change to convene a high level expert consultation meeting inviting experts from IITs, NITs, R&D Institutions, and Universities to identify the factors which formed such a disastrous position.

The department will also conduct a comprehensive scientific study by constituting a multi sectoral expert committee to evaluate the cumulative impact of unscientific and illegal mining activities. It will also assess and redefine distance limits based on the findings

This will allow a more effective regulation and management of such operations to preserve the environment in the River system and to avoid any such anthropogenic induced disasters in the state.

A few days ago Sukhu had announced that a proper drainage and cross-drainage system would be made mandatory along all the roads in the state for which a high-level committee and monitoring teams would be constituted.

He pointed out that the main cause of water seepage and cracks appearing in the roads causing huge damage to them is the lack of proper drainage and cross drainage systems. “Henceforth, the new road constructions which sans proper drainage systems will not be approved or passed," Sukhu said, adding, that this could only be ensured by quality work at the time of construction.

He further claimed that scientific management would be ensured to prevent soil erosion and landslides on the river banks in Kullu district. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and the Public Works Department (PWD) have been asked to take long term measures in this regard.

A positive aspect is the candid acceptance of causes for the disaster. Chief Secretary Prabodh Saxena while chairing a recent meeting on safety issues regarding discharge of water from dams said though a part of devastation was natural but responsibility must also be fixed for the failure of the dam authorities for non-compliance of the Dam Safety Act-2021 (DSA) and the Central Water Commission guidelines issued in 2015, with regards to the release of water from the dam and strengthening early warning system post 2014 incident in which 24 students from Andhra Pradesh were washed away.

He said that the Act provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance of all specified reservoirs. However, many dam authorities have failed in fulfilling their duties that have resulted in damages to the public and private property, agricultural produce, besides hampering the road networks significantly.

He told the officials that the time for persuasion and dialogues was over and they should not shy away from taking stringent action against the defaulters.

It's time to send notices and not any letters or reminders, said the Chief Secretary while directing the concerned officers and officials to prepare a detailed report on damages caused due to the negligence of the dam authorities and take legal action against them.

He further stated that the recent crisis in the state downstream areas can be attributed towards the failure of the dam safety check, which was either neglected or was not done as per the standard guidelines of the DSA.

The Chief Secretary added that there are relevant provisions under the DSA, like setting up of early warning systems, water release guidelines, setting up of control rooms, reservoir maintenance, emergency action plan and better communication between dam sites and power houses etc. He said that risk assessment of the dams must be done on a regular basis and ensure that dam safety units are functional round-the-clock.

Meanwhile, voices are being raised that the disaster in Himachal be declared a national calamity. The government has asked the centre to treat it at par with the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013 and the Bhuj earthquake of 2001.

The demand was raised by Sukhu in an interaction with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national president Jagat Prakash Nadda and union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Singh Thakur. Both of them are from Himachal Pradesh.

Underscoring the severity of the situation Sukhu said that substantial landslides, widespread destruction of homes, and extensive damage to public and private property have been caused. He pointed out that the current relief manual of the Union government’s financial provisions are inadequate to compensate for the losses of Himachal Pradesh.

Sukhu called for a specially tailored relief package considering the state's geographical conditions and the severity of the disaster.

Nadda expressed the centre’s commitment to offering substantial assistance to the state and emphasised Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pledge of unwavering support to the state during these challenging times.

Various states too have been reaching out to the hill state in the time of distress. On August 21 Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin said in a tweet, “Tamil Nadu stands with Himachal Pradesh during these challenging times of devastation caused by heavy rains and landslides. In the spirit of unity and humanity, we are contributing 10 crore INR towards relief efforts to aid the recovery. Together, we can rebuild and overcome,” Stalin said.

His counterpart from neighbouring Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan was among the first to express solidarity with the state. Recently the Rajasthan government provided Rs. 15 crore towards disaster relief funds to deal with the situation caused by heavy rains, floods and landslides.

Seeking that the Centre declare the disaster in Himachal a national calamity and provide effective relief, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) stated, “The scale of difficulties can be imagined in the wake of the massive destruction of highways, bridges, electricity, water supply, agriculture, horticulture etc. In addition to the massive damage to crops, the farmers are not able to take the produce like fruits, vegetables, flowers etc. that could be retrieved to the market.”

According to estimates more than 330 persons have lost their lives, 16,000 heads of cattle washed away, and the total loss has amounted to over Rs 10,000 crores during the past two months.

The AIKS has also raised serious questions over the ‘bankrupt developmental trajectory adopted for exclusively benefiting the corporate sector and big companies’, throwing to winds all environmental norms, resulting in dumping the debris into rivers and hills. “The companies responsible for their culpability in the recurring disasters must be made accountable,” it said.

It will take a long time for this progressive state to get back on its feet again. The people are resilient and confident of taking the state forward.

All that they expect is the political leadership and the administration to be earnest in implementing what is being announced at this hour. The people are citing the example of the state’s first Chief Minister Yashwant Singh Parmar in overcoming the hurdles on the path of development.