Shock in India: Monsoon magic turns into flash and fury


The advent of the north-west monsoon in northern India after a ruthless summer is usually not unlike a festival. There is a general air of great expectation, then the immediate day-by-day run-up, and then the sweaty weariness of ‘oh, it should have been here by now’!  And at last, one morning in July, just as little children are getting ready for a busy school day, an overcast sky announces that monsoon has arrived. The drama is repeated every year – with little variation.

This year broke the pattern in a rude reminder that nature can also play a terrible dance of death and destruction. But can we blame nature? We humans started it…  but that story is for another time.

The monsoon this year just landed up – an unannounced uncle who was not expected for at least another fortnight.

Flash floods and cloud bursts heralded the 2013 monsoon season, all flash and fury, and with disastrous outcomes in the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. At last count, the death toll in Uttarakhand was 150, and is expected to rise once water levels recede and relief work can proceed. The Kedarnath shrine is reportedly largely submerged under water, but the structure remains intact. Fifty people were killed in the vicinity of the temple complex when landslides occurred as a result of the flash floods.

People claim there was no warning and they were caught unawares. Nilabja Ghosh, an economist working on climate change and agricultural methods in Uttarakhand, said the weather office had not issued any early warnings about the heavy rains.

“If the weather office had issued an early warning then authorities would have had the time to restrict tourist movement and shift residents to safer zones,” said Ghosh who works at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.

“Temples, houses and bridges cannot be protected during flash floods but lives can be saved if early warnings are put in place.”

But even more distressing is the fact of missing pilgrims – people who were engaged in the pilgrimage to the four dhams (the four sacred sites Hindus visit to earn salvation) in and around Kedarnath.

According to official estimates, over 62,000 people are feared missing while only 10,000 have been rescued. However, the real problem is that no agency seems to have an exact fit on exactly how many people may be missing or dead. Confusion reigns as there is a lack of coordination among rescue agencies.

Officials engaged in rescue work said several areas have still not been reached and hundreds are still missing. “Rescue work is on but we haven’t reached several places because of inaccessibility… Authorities have been able to clear the route between Joshimath and Shrinagar and the route to Rishikesh will also be established by the end of the day,” said Ajay Chadha, DG ITBP, which has so far rescued close to 4,000 people.

State agencies like the army, the National Disaster Response Force, and even religious organisations are pitching in with aid, relief work and trying to locate missing people.

The numbers of dead and missing causes concern and fear. But the damage is likely more widespread and will continue to be felt for months to come. For instance, the national and state highways in the Garhwal region have been damaged with road-owning agencies reporting at least 100 stretches impacted by landslides, breaches or submergence. Several bailey bridges and steel girder bridges have also been washed away. It is estimated that it will take at least 3-4 months to rebuild the affected highways. It would take one year to restore normalcy on the road to Kedarnath, believes Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna.

With no fresh rains in the last two days, there has been no fresh casualty, and relief work gets into a higher gear, but dark clouds still loom, threatening more rain and added problem.

In Himachal Pradesh, the other state to be severely affected, rescue operations continue.
The Himachal Pradesh government  continued its operations to airlift tourists stranded for the past four days in Kinnaur district, which has been entirely cut off following landslides. The Hindustan-Tibet Road leading to the China border along Kinnaur is blocked at several locations, officials said.

Both Ganga and Yamuna rivers are at dangerous levels and while, for now, the rains appear to have left off, a sudden wakefulness has been forced upon civic administration agencies. Roads, highways and bridges, public buildings, structures that are illegally constructed closer than permitted to the river banks, power plants… can these sustain the onslaught of a ferocious season of rain?

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