Joshimath sinking: Compassion, not blind law, should rule the day

It was not very long ago that we were being told that building of multi-lane highways, tunnelling and blasting fragile mountains was a matter involving national security.
Joshimath sinking: Compassion, not blind law, should rule the day

Joshimath, the gateway to Badrinath Dham, and the entry point to the once-pristine resort of Auli, is sinking, gasping for breath. Uttarakhand Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has assured us that the PMO is aware of the calamitous hazard and is observing the developments closely. Experts have been dispatched to assess the situation, presumably to suggest remedial steps. In the meantime, the civilian population is being relocated. All this appears like hoping against hope that the wrath of nature provoked by the reckless avarice of puny men can somehow be averted. 

It was not very long ago that we were being told that building of multi-lane highways, tunnelling and blasting fragile mountains was a matter involving national security. The honourable courts in their wisdom had conceded that environmental concerns couldn’t be prioritised when the enemy was lurking at the border. Can the ambitious strategic development of infrastructure being built on war-footing itself survive if the hills crumble and collapse under its weight? 

Then there is the issue of development of tourism and pilgrimage entwined with livelihood and generation of employment. Have vested interests cutting across party lines made decision-makers voluntarily myopic? Mushrooming of deluxe resorts that are owned by politicians and their protégés have only contributed to the proliferation of corruption and the virus of vice. The tragic loss of life of Ankita Bhandari in Rishikesh—whose death opened up the Pandora’s Box on illegal constructions and corruption—has sharply focused on this issue.

The ravishing of Auli by the Gupta family didn’t cause a ripple. In 2019, the wedding of South Africa-based businessmen brothers Ajay and Atul Gupta’s sons took place in Auli on a budget of `200 crore. The duo was fined `2.5 lakh by the Joshimath municipality for littering and open defecation during the event. Some enterprising men thought now Uttarakhand could vie with Udaipur, Jodhpur and Goa as 
a wedding destination. 

News reports inform us that crores of tourists visit Uttarakhand every year. Can the fragile and stressed ecosystem bear the load? The CM’s assurance that the PMO will somehow get us out of this mess is not enough to allay our fears. 

It isn’t only the evacuees from Joshimath that have been rendered homeless in the state. Last year in December, the Uttarakhand High Court had ordered the removal of squatters on Railway Land in Haldwani within a week, deciding a case filed by the government. The bulldozers were swiftly unleashed to raze shanties, schools, places of worship etc.

Between 35,000 and 50,000 persons suddenly had no shelter against bone-chilling cold. Mercifully, the Supreme Court has stayed this order, but many disturbing questions remain unanswered. How had such large number of persons been allowed to encroach on government land for so long? According to some claims, this irregular colony predates Independence. Also, a majority of those who have inhabited it belong to a religious minority. Was this wretched cluster allowed to fester because it could be 
treated like a vote bank? Did the authorities entrusted with removing illegal structures turn a blind eye because their palms were suitably and regularly greased? 

Some have sharply—and rightly—criticised the misplaced sense of entitlement that the poor squatters and minority members have in utter disregard of rule of law. Our Constitution grants everyone a fundamental right to equality. The rich and poor have the same entitlement to protection of life and liberty. The right to life includes the right to live with dignity and privacy. Most unfortunately, we have been desensitised to the plight of the poor.

The rights of the rich enjoy much better protection. This has led to a fantastically misplaced sense of entitlement among this burgeoning minority who urinate on fellow passengers in business class, routinely run over footpath dwellers—mostly a poor daily-worker and sole bread-winner—and getting away lightly to resume their wayward lives. Monetary compensation is announced according to the price put on an individual’s life. But let’s not digress.

What are the poor entitled to? Surely no one likes to live in an unauthorised settlement in perpetual insecurity surrounded by drug addicts, criminals in slums devoid of sanitation, drinking water and legal electricity connections. It is impossible not to recall Justice Bakhtavar Lentin’s compassionate judgment in the 1980s in a case when slum-dwellers in then-Bombay were being removed at the height of the monsoon and rendered roofless. We hear a lot of Indians showing the path to the rest of the world these days—vasudhaiva kutumbakam and vishva gurudom, etc. It is ironical that what echoes from distant past is the Hindi film song: Rahne ko ghar nahi hai, Sara jahan hamara (Though I don’t have a house of my own, but can proudly claim that the world belongs to me).

The abjectly poor and the minorities are surely entitled to roof over their heads, some dignity that respects their humanity and modicum of privacy. The executive and legislature can’t pass the buck to the judiciary all the time. And the courts, at all levels, have to temper enforcement of blind law with compassion. 

Pushpesh Pant

Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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