The scenes seem apocalyptic. Darkened skies and torrential rains lashing across the north of India, especially in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, have brought in their wake death and destruction. So far, more than 120 people are feared dead and over 60,000 people are reported to be stranded without food and other basic facilities. Videos of large buildings toppling into rivers are the stuff of nightmares.
However, the present tragedy was waiting to happen. For one, the environment safety norms were repeatedly flouted.
The May 20 order of the National Green Tribunal for demolishing all illegal constructions on the flood plains and river beds of Yamuna and Hindon in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi is proof of this.
Massive deforestation, thanks to uncontrolled urbanisation in these ecologically fragile areas, has led to landslides.
That environmental concerns have been ignored points to the fact that the Doctrine of Public Trust when it comes to safeguarding natural resources, in this case rivers, has not been a very viable judicial tool.
The question that needs to be asked is what are the lessons learnt and what will be done to minimise, if not prevent, such catastrophic occurrences in future.
The rains over the last few days were two weeks ahead of schedule, but this is no excuse of the government not to have been prepared for this eventuality.
While the armed forces pressed into rescue missions have been doing a commendable job, the government’s lack of technological expertise in forecasting such climatic variations has been exposed.
The Rs. 15-crore doppler radar system, meant to predict thunderstorms, acquired by the India Meteorological Department, has not proved the game-changer it was meant to be.
While there have been efforts by the department to upgrade technology, the S-band doppler radar replaced the S-band cyclone detection radars, it does not seem to be on top of the game when it comes to weather forecasting.
There are lessons that India can take from Bangladesh in shoring up its early warning systems. Dhaka has set up advanced long-lead flood forecasting systems.
Such systems can help us to be prepared to meet the challenges such seasonal vagrancies throw up.
Another area the authorities concerned need to focus on is the dissemination of information to the people in flood-prone areas.
The foothills of the Himalayas are great natural attractions and the state governments earn a sizeable part of their revenue through tourism.
However, keeping in mind the infrastructural limitations, the flow of tourists and pilgrims to these places needs to be regulated.
For the government to invest in the state-of-art technology is also an economically prudent move as studies have shown that for every rupee invested in early warning systems the return in the form of less fatalities and minimal damage to property is immense.