Man behind the disaster, before and after

The total toll of death and destruction in Kashmir’s worst ever floods and the unending cycle of landslides triggered in the Shivalik belt may be beyond anyone’s imagination. But once the waters recede, buildings begin to crack and fall down like a pack of cards, the count of missing and dead begins and the survivors begin to pick up threads of their life, many from scratch, there will be far more horrifying story to narrate. There will also be crucial questions, which we may choose to ignore or grapple with in-depth. Could we have avoided the disaster, at least a disaster of this enormous proportion? Could we have done better to minimise its devastating impact in a multitude ways – bringing down the scale of casualties, saving people from starvation and thirst, stall the road of epidemics that would soon unfold? 

Nature’s fury is said to be an equaliser, it can devour anybody – from the common minion on the road to the very influential and affluent elite. But how much of this fury is a contribution of the human being? A great extent! Ecological experts for long have pointed out correlation between changing modernistic lifestyles, reckless denudation of forest cover, polluting water bodies, melting glaciers and natural disasters. The Himalayan belt has been of particular concern with many ecologists ringing alarm bells which have fallen on deaf ears. The powers that be remain blissfully unmindful, the public perception does not exist and there has never been any opinionbuilding on the issue, everybody thinking that it is somebody else’s job to think about it or act. Across the political spectrum, environmental concerns have never been part of the mainstream discourse, nor weaved into electoral politics, leaving nature to be vandalised and degraded in a free for all situation. 

Excessive focus on tourism, without factoring environmental sustainability into its promotion, has been a major reason that the Himalayan belt today is threatened. Pilgrimage tourism and trekkers have contributed generously to plastic waste – plastic bottles, wrappers and plastic coversmarking the trail of the upper regions in the Himalayas and there has been no check even as geological experts and environmentalists, describing them as generators of "water bombs", have warned of dangers of floods, cloud bursts and earth quakes, even as last year’s Kedarnath tragedy shook the entire nation. Everybody conveniently forgot about it, once the survivors were rescued and dead were counted. 

The scenario in Jammu and Kashmir has been the worst, exacerbated by excessive politicization of pilgrimage tourism and its phenomenal increase as well as excessive militarization of the region. Experts have warned of impending environmental dangers of militarised Siachen glacier as well. It would also be difficult to ignore the massive contribution of the corruption and complacency riddled local government and the greedy insensitive population of the state leading to ill-planned cities with populations close to catchment areas of water bodies, poor drainage system, a phenomenal and shocking conversion of green spaces into monstrous concrete ghettos as well as a culture of generating plastic waste into the water bodies. Not to forget are the much celebrated Power Projects that have failed to ameliorate Jammu and Kashmir’s power situation but only helped add more disasters including last years quakes in Chenab Valley. We may today be paying a collective price for our collective follies, in varying degrees. It shocks us but shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

The man made blunders further add to the tragedy. The Kashmir floods, unprecedented in many ways – in terms of its scale, the huge population impacted and also for having completely devastated a sitting capital of the state. It needs a response exceptional and that may be difficult when a government has been swept off its feet literally so. Infrastructure and manpower has taken a beating but what is salvaged is still not being made effective. A twiddle dee and twiddle dee dee chief minister just chips in his bit by spending some extra fuel for a chopper ride to distribute bananas and talk to a television crew. Does he have any other plan of action for combating the likelihood of food wars and loot in such a situation or will he happily continue to blame incidents of lawlessness on provocation by separatists and his political opponents? Does he have no clue of how to get his existing machinery into active mode, assessing things and reaching out to the public by giving orders so that distress call for rescue, aid and help can be heeded? Whatever government infrastructure is salvaged is a treasure today that need not only be preserved but used with application of mind, the stored food grains and other supplies including gas, petrol and diesel for instance. All it needs is application of mind and effective administrative control, so what if he had to begin from six men, as he maintains. 

Added to this direct inaction is the apathy that percolates from top to bottom due to ugly political connotations that Kashmir assumes in the seat of power in New Delhi, in its puppet media and through the celebratory mode of the hate mongers, stalling efforts of funding and aid in a big way and shifting focus from addressing crucial questions of rescue and relief, in the short term, and the causes of the natural disaster, to frivolous questions that are misplaced and exaggerated with the dangerous potential of allowing ideologies and prejudices to prevail over humanity. 

Whatever be the final toll, it will be an alarming picture we shudder from even imagining the extent of. A natural disaster, and not man made, it will be always called and if ever things get back to normal, everybody would perhaps go about their ways, forgetting how it was all partially man made. Monstrous constructions would spiral upwards, drainage system will continue to be same, if not worse, excessive focus on tourism, pilgrimages and militarization will be the norm without a scant care of how this would continue to contribute more and more to impending disasters. We’ll perhaps forget the human blunders that contributed to the disaster and also conveniently forget that it were human blunders that exacerbated its impact. Or, will this indeed be the wake up call. We have the key to the future in our hands today. It will be all up to us.