On September 18 the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu made an announcement in the State Legislative Assembly that his government will be announcing a special aid package for all people who have suffered serious harm in the recent spate of landslides, floods and excessive rain. He said that the state had not yet received the expected help from the central government for this.
As a large number of people have suffered a lot and need rehabilitation which can be more expensive in hills, it will be very useful if the central government can announce some badly needed help very soon. This will enable the state government to provide a better relief package beyond its limited resources. As it is, the state government already has quite a huge loan burden.
It appeared from the Assembly discussion that there is considerable difference in the perceptions of the ruling Congress party and the main opposition party BJP regarding how much the Central government has already contributed for the relief and rehabilitation effort and this in turn could be due to different interpretation of which central transfers can be regarded to be additional funds meant for relief and rehabilitation. However too much of controversy on this issue should be avoided at this stage and both the state government and the opposition should agree to jointly voice the demand for additional significant funds from the central government keeping in view the interests of the calamity affected people.
Another factor which can be mentioned to justify the demand for additional support is that central agencies in-charge of highways and hydro-electricity projects have contributed much to the harm from landslides, floods and flash floods, although this as well as the previous state government as well as private builders and contractors too have are responsible for this.
As per the latest available estimates, over 400 people have perished in floods and landslides, as also over 10,000 livestock. Nearly 400 people have been injured. In terms of economic loss, the latest government estimates put the loss to be around INR 12,000 crore( one crore=10 million). Several important buildings including government ones too have suffered damage. Over 2500 houses, 300 shops and 5000 cowsheds have been destroyed, while nearly 11,000 houses have been partially damaged. It is more expensive in hilly areas to carry out repairs. Damage has been heavier in Mandi, Manali, Kullu and parts of Shimla and Kangra.
Roads and highways have been heavily damaged, particularly Parwanoo-Solan and Mandi-Manali stretches of four-lane highways. The overemphasis of the NHAI or the National Highways Authority of India on four-lane highways involving massive cutting of trees has faced a lot of criticism, while the repeated demand of the present CM for more tunnels is also widely seen to be faulty.
Over 80 houses were swept away in Sainj valley of Kullu and this as well as some other devastation ( in Mandi and Kangra, for example) has been blamed on excessive release of water from dams without prior warning. Hydro-power project construction has also been blamed for following careless practices in several respects including disposal of debris, despite warnings regarding very adverse impacts. Indiscriminate mining practices have also been widely blamed for the excessive harm.
Will there be learning from these costly mistakes for future? Experts have pointed out that after flash floods claimed about 400 lives in 1997 in Jubbal block, Upper Shimla, dangerous projects were still taken up in this area.
Several activists have therefore called for wider changes such an ecologically protectively policy for the entire Himalayan region. However Suresh Bhai, an activist from Uttarakhand who has been pleading for this for a long time has stated recently that he has been distressed by the discouraging response from the government side.
This year the 50th anniversary of the Chipko movement is being observed but it appears that the authorities are far from embracing the spirit of this movement. Perhaps more determined mobilization of people is needed before the government agrees to Himalayan policy based on giving top priority to environment protection and sustainable livelihoods. Meanwhile, the central government can make at least some amends by sending a more generous relief and rehabilitation package for all those people of Himalayan states and union territories who have been harmed by floods and landslides in recent months.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.