Deluge of Rhetoric Drowns Accountability
The clichéd maxim about governance in India states anything that could go wrong can/will go wrong.
Every few months the national capital gets an idea, a vignette of perennial problems faced by Indians in rural and urban areas. This week, as water from the swollen Yamuna swirled through the city, as much of Delhi resembled Minto Road on a rainy day, the city of Very Important People got a ring-side view of how systemic apathy can conspire with wrath of nature to convert an event into a disaster.
It is true that Delhi witnessed its highest rainfall in a day and the level of water in the Yamuna reached the highest in four decades. It is equally true that not all blame could be laid at the doors of nature. Did the authorities do all that could be done? The question haunting citizens of a nation capable of launching missions to the Moon is why must it come to this pass? What was done wrong and what was not done right! Predictably the Delhi disaster saw political meteorologists take to the floor unleashing a deluge of decibels drowning fundamental questions and accountability.
The slugfest of whataboutery follows most disasters. Misery is worsened by miserly attention to facts. Beaming live alongside visuals of every disaster is political opportunism scaffolded by the flotsam of fermented fiction. The clichéd maxim about governance in India states anything that could go wrong can/will go wrong. Characteristically in the Indian context the discourse which follows is less about the cause and more about who can be blamed for the consequences.
The costs are colossal and accumulating. A report by Asian Development Bank states “India experienced 278 floods during 1980–2017 that affected more than 750 million people and caused about $58.7 billion in losses.” As per NCRB records between 2011 and 2021, disasters accounted for the death of 145,514 persons –that is, roughly 36 persons lost their lives every day in the period in what the government terms as deaths “caused by nature”. If it wasn’t for the dedication of those in uniform – from the armed forces and the NDRF – the toll would be decidedly higher.
Systemic confusion impedes disaster response. The state of glaciers is critical to understand risks. India hosts 34,919 glaciers and 6921 glacial lakes in the Himalayan Region. How are they managed? From inventory to research to forecasting there are nine departments and ministries involved. The recommendation to bring them under one agency - given the acceleration in global warming and risks – is pending. Meanwhile the annual rate of retreat of glaciers is estimated between 5 and 20 metres. The Himalayan-Karakoram region is warming at a faster rate than the global mean by 0.5 degree C. This will impact local changes in hydrology, in terms of rainfall, snowfall patterns and increased melting from glaciers trigger a rise in extreme events leading to disasters.
Images of devastation from northern states illustrates that flood plains are most vulnerable. Yet as the Standing Committee of Parliament on Water Resources reveals only three states have adopted draft legislation for flood plains zoning while the states most at risk have ignored recommendations. Soil erosion worsens weather events but states such as Assam, home to the mighty Brahmaputra, have made no effort to tackle it. Worse allocations for flood management have been slashed to a third from Rs 14,500 crore.
It has been repeatedly claimed that India has better early warning systems. As per a 2021 study released by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water 27 of 35 states and union territories are vulnerable to extreme hydro-met disasters and the compounding impact. How widely are the early warning systems deployed? A CEEW Study shows that approximately two of three persons or 66 per cent of the population in India is exposed to extreme flood events but only 33 per cent of the exposed populace is covered by flood early warning systems. Critically India lacks multi-hazard warning systems. The Met Department which forecasts heavy rainfall and cloudbursts does not have early warning systems for glacial lake outburst, floods, landslides, avalanches etc
It has been argued that matters have improved. For sure India’s preparedness to deal with cyclones has improved. It would be instructive to know if policy design, particularly land use and zoning, is being informed by lessons of the past disasters -- whether it is the 2005 Mumbai floods, the havoc wreaked by nature aggravated by man-made blunders in Kedarnath in 2013, the 2015 floods in Gujarat, the deluge which drowned much of Kerala in 2018, the devastation of Chamoli in 2021. The evidence flowing from ecologically sensitive states – for instance from Joshimath – and the sequence of disasters are far from assuring.
Indeed, in November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, mooted a ten point agenda for risk resilience. The ninth point merits attention. While advising that opportunity to learn from a disaster must not be wasted Modi observed, “After every disaster there are papers on lessons that are rarely applied.”
There is no disputing that climate change makes India vulnerable to extreme events. It is equally true that climate change has been frequently adopted as a convenient alibi to drown systemic ineptitude. This must change. It is useful to remember that the price of inaction is always greater than the cost of action.