Having returned from a visit to the flood-hit areas in Uttarakhand, the state's former Chief Minister B C Khanduri tells Shishir Prashant that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi's visit to the state in the light of restrictions made earlier by the home ministry on VIP movements in the affected areas, was a 'totally childish activity'
You have just returned from a visit to some of the worst affected areas in Uttarakhand. How grave is the situation?
Has Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna been able to handle the situation effectively?
I don't want to get into the blame game at this point of time. Yes, there was criticism against the government because it did not pay heed to the meteorological department's warnings of heavy rainfall. What steps were taken in response to the warnings issued for June 14-16? The government should not have allowed pilgrims to go beyond Srinagar (the midpoint, en route the Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines).
But the chief minister said the government did not receive any warning about cloudbursts?
I cannot say much; it's a technical issue. But I think there was a warning about heavy rainfall. Anyway, it is a matter of grave concern that the latest technologies are not being used (by the meteorological department). In 1970, I was posted at Joshimath in Chamoli district. There was a cloudburst, and a lake had breached its banks, owing to which there was a Himalayan Tsunami. Even then, a lot of damage was caused in Srinagar. It is surprising that nothing has changed in all these years. But, yes, there should be an early warning system. The central government should take up this issue seriously and come out with a concrete plan.
Many cyclones and hurricanes strike the US. But the country makes use of the early warning system effectively, helping in the evacuation process. Hence, the casualty is very less.
People died owing to a delay in the rescue and relief operations, including shortage of food and drinking water, especially in the first two to three days of the tragedy?
When people come to our pilgrim shrines in large numbers, a stock of ration and other essential items should be always ready. I can understand that a large area in the Kedarnath region was washed away, but in Badrinath, the situation was different, and food could have been stored and provided to the stranded people afterwards. Certainly, the management was not proper.
Rahul Gandhi was allowed to visit the affected areas despite restrictions imposed by Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on VIP movement in the state. What do you have to say?
The rescue and relief operations are hampered owing to VIP movements during such calamities. When VIPs visit these areas, the helipad is reserved for that particular person for at least 20 to 25 minutes for the landing and take-off process. Thus, one full hour is wasted and the helicopters used for relief and rescue operations keep waiting for their turn.
Narendra Modi was not allowed to land, and we did not protest. I wanted to visit some of the affected places and assess the situation. But I was not allowed. However, within 24 hours of the imposition of restrictions, Gandhi visited the affected areas. This is a totally childish activity.
In the last 13 years, the state saw rapid urbanisation after it was carved out of Uttar Pradesh. Do you think urbanisation is the reason for this catastrophe?
This calamity has brought back the debate of development versus environment. There are several factors, and this particular question requires a long debate, involving several aspects. A balance needs to be maintained between environment and development. In 2008 [when I was the state chief minister], I passed an order banning all new construction activities in the Chardham area [pilgrimage to the four shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri]. But there was a lot of protest in these areas, and I faced a lot of opposition.
In 2008, I brought a hill development industrial policy to check the scourge of rapid migration from hills. I don't know the fate of these two policies. Similarly, Kanwarias [devotees of Lord Shiva in saffron robes] used to travel to Gomukh [the origin of Bhagirathi] in large numbers and used to leave a lot of waste in such a highly sensitive zone. I passed an order restricting their entry to 50 a day. But I again don't know what happened to the order.
What steps should be taken to address such issues?
The issues related to the Himalayas are not solely related to Uttarakhand and other hills only. This is a central issue, and should be handled by the central government. There should a separate ministry at the Centre that can be called the "Himalayan Region Development and Environment Protection Ministry". And it should draft a policy focusing on the Himalayas and enforce it. Also, the ministry should be asked for clearance on any new construction in the hills. This is necessary because the policies of the state government are based on appeasements and vote banks.
The state government has refused help from Modi. Should there be any politics on such calamities?
I don't want to comment as the issue concerns two state governments. But there is nothing wrong in receiving such relief aids, and we should accept them for the larger cause. At best, the government can devise modalities on receiving such helps.
The Centre proposed to declare 100-km-long eco-sensitive zone in Uttarkashi district, which was opposed by both the current Congress government and the earlier Bharatiya Janata Party regime. The main aim was to protect the environment. In light of this calamity, do you think the opposition to the project was a mistake?
I still maintain that there should be a balance between environment and development. The scourge of migration is severe in the hills. We cannot deprive people of basic amenities.
What steps did you take when you were the chief minister of the state?
During my tenure, I had set up a natural disaster management board. I was the first person to set up such a body. I brought a policy on small hydel projects that had a capacity of less than 25 Mw.
In your view, should the chief minister resign in the wake of stinging criticism?
I don't want to comment. The Congress should decide.