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Natural disasters in India worsened by inefficient officials

Corruption and inept management by the political class is a deadly affliction for the people of India.

Nobody knows how many people perished in the floods that deluged the mountainous state of Uttarakhand in northern India in mid-June.

Rivers engorged by early monsoon rains - the heaviest in 80 years - swept away whole villages at the peak of the tourist season. Hillsides collapsed like sand castles.

One river, swollen to more than a kilometre wide, sent a 10-metre-high surge roaring through villages and towns. Melting hillsides destroyed property, made a great many people homeless, damaged 4,000 villages, washed away hundreds of kilometres of roads and demolished decades worth of Uttarakhand's infrastructure.

One senior local official put the death toll at 10,000, although the local government denies that the figure was that high. At least 3,000 people are still missing, the state's chief minister said this week.

The monsoon was certainly earlier than expected and bigger. But as with so many disasters in India, the greed of many political leaders made this catastrophe much worse than it had to be.

The inability of Indian politicians to perform their fundamental duty - to protect citizens' lives - has been demonstrated once again. Sadly, this happens all too often. In terrorist attacks and natural disasters, Indians die because of the incompetence, criminality and corruption of the Indian political class.

Many elected leaders are so busy enriching themselves that the measures essential to public safety - preparedness, contingency plans, respect for the law, attention to duty by civil servants and bureaucrats - are routinely ignored.

In Uttarakhand, hotels, shops and houses have mushroomed on the hillsides in recent years, without legal sanction. Thousands of hectares of forests have been cut down by a "timber mafia" with the connivance of politicians. Deforested and overbuilt, many hillsides had been made into landslides waiting to happen.

The over-development catered to, and increased, a flood of tourists and pilgrims into the area in recent years. The two main towns, Badrinath and Kedarnath, have witnessed a fourfold increase in tourists in a decade. Their ramshackle infrastructure could not cope and environmental problems followed. But the pilgrims were allowed in because civil servants and politicians wanted to make hay.

The rivers began to swell on June 16. In the few days before, the India Meteorological Department had issued a series of warnings of "very heavy rains" and urged that people should be moved to safer ground. The Uttarakhand government ignored these alarms.

A day before the tragedy, when heavy rainfall had begun, the Uttarakhand cabinet met but no one even mentioned rain or the warnings.

The venality of the Indian political class is not just undermining democracy; it is killing people. A direct chain leads from all the little things that were not done - or were allowed to be done, illegally - to the bodies of the dead and the miseries of the survivors.

Once it was clear that this was a major disaster, the politicians began their one-upmanship over who could do the most to "help the survivors" - preferably with cameras rolling.

The chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, arrived for a two-day stay to supervise as aircraft and vehicles from his state removed Gujarati pilgrims - but only Gujaratis - to safety.

His supporters bragged that his "Rambo-like" mission got 15,000 people home, but the figure is ludicrous - at the time, even the army was able to extract no more than 500 people a day.

In what other country would you see a regional leader rushing to a scene of calamitous human suffering to rescue only people from his own state?

At Uttarakhand airport, politicians from rival parties scuffled and shouted. Each one wanted to herd survivors from his state onto his plane in the hope of winning approval back home.

India's political class, surrounded by flunkies and replete with privileges, never seems to learn. The response to the 2008 Mumbai terror attack was so badly botched that Indians raged for months. Commando troops needed 10 hours to reach Mumbai from Delhi; the plane that should have been at their disposal for precisely such a purpose had been sent off on someone's errand.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 18,000 Indians and displaced 650,000 should also have been a wake-up call for leaders. After that calamity, a National Disaster Management Authority was set up to respond more effectively in future crises.

But that body held no meetings at all between 2008 and 2012 and was of no use in Uttarakhand. The Times of India called the agency a "great man-made tragedy". Indian leaders do this all too often - they announce the creation of a grandiose new organisation, but without substance.

Effective leadership is possible only when leaders want to solve problems.

In India, this essential pact between voters and their representatives has been destroyed. Too often, politicians aspire only to loot India. Democracy is frequently merely a vehicle for quick enrichment.

The world loves to talk of the world's largest democracy but in many important respects, Indian democracy is a sham.

If corruption destroys the ability of the political class to protect the lives and property of the people, what chance do Indians have of prosperity or happiness?

 

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi

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