By Kriti Rathi
It was in June 2013 that a multi-day cloudburst caused devastating floods and landslides in the state of Uttarakhand. The Indian Air Force, the Indian Army, and paramilitary troops evacuated more than 1,10,000 people from the flood-ravaged area.
Policy action undertaken after 2013 floods
In the year 2016, Uttarakhand High Court issued mandatory directives to the State, based on the petition by ecological scientist Ajay Gautam, to deal with such tragedies in the future and also to maintain the ecological balance of the area.
In keeping with these guidelines, the court directed the State to form five separate teams comprising of officers drawn from the National Disaster Relief Force, police force, paramilitary forces and local police to trace the dead still behind the rubble, and also prepare their DNA profile. The State was to perform the last rites as per the religious inclinations of the deceased.
The State was to prepare master plans for the areas falling en route to Char Dham—including Devprayag, Sonprayag, Rishikesh, Badrinath, Rudraprayag, and Gopeshwar—in order to check for unauthorised and haphazard construction in these areas.
The government was also asked to prepare a National Code of Tourism and Pilgrims on lines similar to the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra and also maintain biometric data of all visitors.
Municipal councils of areas of mass tourism were ordered to ensure the scientific disposal of municipal wastes and that no untreated sewage is discharged in the rivers that lie on the way to Char Dham as well as Hemkund Sahib.
The court ordered that advanced warning systems be installed in the Char Dham areas, including Doppler weather radar, automatic weather station, radiosonde, and also that all the roads leading to Char Dham should be metalled.
A more involved strategy since 2017
In December 2017, four years after the Kedarnath tragedy, Uttarakhand High Court issued a few more directives for the state like declaring all national parks—including tiger reserve, elephant reserve, Jim Corbett and Rajaji National Park—to be plastic-free zones while banning dumping of garbage around rivers and its tributaries. The HC also recommended that the state government provide insurance cover to all pilgrims visiting the Char Dhams at a reasonable premium.
With the dwindling tiger and elephant population, this order comes at a good time, ensuring that at least consumption of plastic and other toxic substances would not be the reason for their untimely death. These non-biodegradables also deplete the soil quality of the area, causing loss of vegetation. For the fulfilment of this directive, it has been decided that no visitor shall be permitted to carry out plastic carry bags except two water bottles each. Empty water bottles shall be handed over to the staff at the exit points. The court directed the state government to constitute a special cadre of Tiger/Elephant Protection Force in Corbett National Park as well as Rajaji National Park to protect the tigers and elephants from poaching within a period of three months.
The court also paid special attention to the fact that most forest officers did not have the artillery to match the poachers. It has been decided that the rifles of officers shall be at least replaced by semi-automatic weapons, which shall happen as soon as the Central government grants the necessary permission for a weapon upgrade.
It has been made clear that the revenue generated by all the National Parks shall exclusively be used for the upkeep and maintenance of national parks and shall not be diverted by the state government for any other purpose.
Securing journeys of tourists and pilgrims
With the aim of protecting future lives in the valley during natural hazards, the court has asked the government to provide insurance covers to all pilgrims going towards Char Dham at reasonable rates by tying up with Life Insurance Company or any other government-owned life insurance company. The corpus generated shall be used to improve and protect the fragile valleys of the state.
The district magistrates throughout the state of Uttarakhand have been ordered by the bench of Justice Alok Singh and Justice Rajiv Sharma to identify the premises, hotels, industries, commercial establishments, Ashrams, Deras which are letting untreated sewage into the major rivers and their tributaries and all the drains emptying untreated sewage into the major rivers and their tributaries, which shall be sealed.
The bench said, “There shall be no dumping of garbage on both sides of major rivers as well as their tributaries within a radius of one kilometre from the edges of the banks, as the crow flies, within one week.”
The court also recognised the right of residents of hilly areas to connectivity, as promised by the Article 21 of the Constitution. It ordered that all roads be metalled and well connected so that people can move easily and rescue operation is easy during any calamity like the one in 2013.
With these directives, not only would the state benefit by efficient management of ecology and pilgrims but also during difficult situations by faster evacuation, maintaining a proper count of pilgrims, and accessible monetary resources.
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