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Uttarakhand: Nature’s Fury, Man-Made Agony

The devastating flooding that has wreaked havoc in North India has been particularly painful for me. 

I have witnessed the destruction of large areas of Uttarakhand from London and watching the ruination of the Garhwal Hills region – a particularly beautiful  part of India – from a distance has been a cause of immense grief for me, especially given the fact that this is a part of India where I have spent the finest years of the 78 I have been blessed to be on God’s good earth. 

My grief has been exacerbated by the knowledge that the flooding and landslides that has resulted in innumerable deaths and untold destruction is the culmination of man’s callous treatment of his environment.

The calamities brought to my mind the words of Wordsworth in his famous 1798 tribute to nature, “What Man Has Made of Man”, in which he alluded not only to nature’s boundless beauty but also man’s attempt to dominate it.

I was born in 1935 and have lived through India’s birth and its’ self-destructive infancy and childhood.  I have glimpsed how constitutional governance has been wilfully reigned in post the British Raj; replaced with a policy not of ‘Mismanagement’ but ‘NO-Management, driven by an increasingly destructive ‘Devil May Care’ attitude towards everything. 

A well established rule of law stretching back centuries has been slowly but surely destroyed by a general policy of lawlessness.  Bureaucratic anarchy has combined with dynastic rule by an insensate political class who routinely gloss over the woes of the citizenry.

Discussions and debates have abounded post the disaster in Uttarakhand, with intense analysis of the causes of the destruction.  Innumerable “experts” – from environmentalists to politicians – have attempted to assert what they have done to safeguard nature with the huge funds that are poured in, apparently for the benefit of the environment.  No one however, including such “luminaries” as Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, have failed to appreciate the fact that this disaster is the result of the ecological imbalance created by man and man’s insensitivity towards the fragile relationship between the natural environment and people in their habitats, and account for the rare flora and fauna that have now become extinct.

Whilst stating publicly that one of the major causes of the disaster has been unfettered and uncontrolled deforestation, “experts” of Dr Pachauri’s ilk have failed, in numerous debates, to explain why they have failed to arrest such devastation of natural areas.

My childhood memories of Uttarakhand – then called Uttar Pradesh – are of lush thickets of forests replete with hordes of wild animals, including hordes of elephants, tigers and even Asiatic Lions. 

Those forests now stand denuded, grabbed and ruthlessly plundered or unscrupulously developed by invading outsiders on prime hill land and the extensions of successive governments.  As a youngster I distinctly recall  the strict adherence to the rule of law in the wake of India gaining freedom; despite the confusion, the hunger, the illiteracy and the poverty, there was a pervading sense that people in general were afraid and respectful of the law.

Today the law, it seems, is afraid of mere men.  What a contrast!

There was also the sense that the rule of law was being overwhelmed by power politics which easily shifted in the hands of those who, until Independence, had been part of the common hue began to lay claim to the freedom that India had achieved; stating that it was their exclusive achievement.

Stalwarts and determined patriots such as Lokmanya Tilak, Gopal s9kna Gokhle, Lala Lajpat Rai, Deshbandu Chitranjan Das Gupta and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose – the one man who, I believe, paved the way for India’s freedom from colonial rule – were banished from thought, with freedom and all that that entails left at the door of a single dynasty, thereby aberrating contemporary history of the freedom movement.

When such manipulated power finally rests with a select group of motivated individuals,  what hope then for the rule of law? 

Corruption became commonplace with the country’s first Prime Minister stating publicly: “What is corruption, the country’s money is inside the country!”

My first experience with the deterioration of governance in India came in 1963 whilst I was pursuing an MA in Economics in Dehradun.  In May of that year I happened to visit my home in Ranikhet.  One of the first things that I noticed was the illicit tapping of resin from the abundance of pine trees in the area; for use in a number of industries.  This illegal activity was sponsored and overseen by local politicians, leading to the destruction of ancient forests. 

I decided to bring this matter to the notice of the Assistant Commissioner of the district, Mr T S R Subramaniam, who later went on to become India’s Cabinet Secretary.  Despite informing him of the situation, I feared that he would be put under political pressure to not act.  Mr Subramaniam reassured me that he would not buckle under any manner of pressure and promised firm action the unregulated plunder of nature. 

My action however, elicited a strong reproach from my father who lambasted me for becoming involved in a local controversy and expecting too much from independent India’s disjointed administrative structure.  I was soon away concentrating on my studies, only to return in November of that same year, determined to see what steps Mr Subramaniam had taken. 

Mr Subramaniam, ignoring the main issue, went on to provide a convoluted explanation about the Chief Minister visiting the area and the costs incurred and completely avoided the issue and what action he would take.  It was a shocking lesson in how Indian bureaucracy worked.

Since that time nearly half century ago, the plunder of natural resources in the area and unlicensed development has continued unabated on an almost biblical scale.  It has been perpetrated with the assistance at all levels of the administrative structure.  Even the honour-bound military got involved with plunderers inside cantonments assisting in the decimation of vast areas of forests; the rare and priceless Himalayan Cedar trees a favoured business proposition for military personnel of all ranks.

Hailing from the region and despite commitments elsewhere in India, I have strived for the best part of 50 years to mitigate this plunder alongside the likes of one-time Chief Conservator of Forests Mr D P Joshi and later with the then Government Secretary of forests and conservation, Mr Mahesh Prasad.

All to no avail. 

In India, corruption and official, coupled with judicial, rigmarole have become sacrosanct in every matter of governance.  I recall a dear friend, Dr Brijesh Mathur, then a Canadian minister in the early 1980’s told me how impossible it would be in that country to fell forests indiscriminately, construct roads haphazardly and a slew of other factors that have now become directly responsible for the untold destruction that has been caused by the flooding in North India. 

From the United Nations to scores of governmental and non-governmental organizations have for decades, warned of the dangers of leaving India’s Himalayan belt bereft of forests.  Today, millions of innocents – including deities – are suffering due to the lack of oversight.  The hills of India which were once abundant with natural resources, particularly fresh water and rare flora and fauna, is no more.  Myriad schemes for the provision of fresh water door to door in the hills of UP have remained “goals” since 1952.

In November 1994 I made a fervent plea to the government through an editorial on a daily national newspaper to declare the eight hill districts of UP as a Union Territory to ensure that these ancient hills would not be exploited and development would take place in at least a partially controlled manner.  Alas! political ambitions have since prevailed over what was genuinely sensible in the public interest.

Today, instead of the public interest prevailing, Uttarakhand is governed by an individual who was forced to relinquish his high judicial position on grounds of moral turpitude.

Surely, with such a senseless situation prevailing, and vested interests ruling the roost, even the gods cannot prevent devastation of this scale.

– Kailash Chandra Joshi

An MA in Economics from Agra University (1964) and visionary, Mr Joshi hails from Radha Orchards, Ranikhet, and himself a victim of corrupt government apathy variously.

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