Natural Disaster in India: Who needs it?

Bhaskar Majumder

Every year innocent people in India suffer from what is called natural disaster. Nature is supposedly beyond anybody’s control (including the state) and hence it recurs. The manifestations are different and the locations are different. It covers Assam to Rajasthan, Kashmir to Kerala. The areas cover coastal belt, hilly region, dry land, river belt and all that. The number of population affected by death, displacement varies depending on the gravity of the disaster and alertness of the would-be affected population. The manifestations of the disaster are drought, flood, landslide, earthquake, cyclone, tsunami and all that. The innocent people cannot but live on the would-be affected zones for most of them live in poverty-belt in India. Most of them like to live in nature.

Innocent people believe any disaster as ‘really’ natural. They also take it as fait accompli the way they become the consequence of natural disaster. They do not dare to question why the simultaneous occurrence of flood and drought in two or more regions in the same sub-continent. Who do they question for they do not know any Sarkar beyond the Gram Pradhan. They also adjust readily like in an unreserved train compartment that accommodates four times its capacity for more than 16 hour- journey. They live together and they die together – they do not question the way they live.

I have an ethical problem. Do I have the right to question their plight if they have accepted it as fait accompli? I got rid of the problem once I realized it was not only the people directly affected but also, and often more so, the people indirectly affected and the future of generations to come is going to be at stake. So once asked by a scholar, ‘Are you a stake holder when you talk about these when you are not affected’, I discovered the response of late. Of course, I learn late.

How come indirect effect? I offer a simple response outside the current theme. One smokes in a train compartment; it is medically understood he is inviting his own health risk. What is not readily opined is that the passive smokers are being affected, and probably affected more. Let me now mention on the theme. It reminds me the flood in West Bengal of 1978 that affected a large size population. Because of the prompt measures taken by the Government and voluntary organizations, there was hardly any displacement or death.

In most of the disasters the outcome is not like that of 1978 West Bengal flood. The episode of Bhopal Gas tragedy is notoriously known. The recurring drought in Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh on the border of Madhya Pradesh is well documented. Assam floods are well known. It is not that excessive rainfall leads to flood and absence of required rainfall leads to drought. The flood-drought syndrome is embedded in the very society that has accepted the recurrence of this as normal – that every year it will occur, some people will die, some will be displaced, the state government will request the centre for aid/money, money will be ultimately released some of which will be spent on temporary rehabilitation, some NGOs will work as a rescuer and some money will be siphoned off. The cycle continues. So where is the problem?

Unless it is a problem, the social scientists abstain from discussing anything. Is the problem one of rain water management? It may be naive to say either yes or no. Let us go deeper into the history. Take for example the navigability of the river Ganga. Since unrecorded past till the end of British rule in India Ganga had navigability or carrying capacity where the commercial ships had travel route from Allahabad to Calcutta (Kolkata). Of course, British had its timber interest; but it maintained the carrying capacity of the Ganga. So far in literature I could not locate areas on the banks of the river Ganga were heavily flooded to lead to dislocation or death of people pre-1947. This is not to be read as British benevolence; it reminds British capacity to keep its commercial interest intact.

So what did we do in independent India since past seven decades? Ganga has lost its navigability as its bed has come up the level of human habitations implying chance of flood any time for either rainfall or snow melting on the Himalayas. This has corollary consequences that I am not going to mention here. The precise point is, accepting the fact that India is a river-based land and that these rivers show the lifeline for the livelihood of the people, unless these have carrying capacity, the consequences will be obvious like flood. The dead rivers in most of the regions of India during summer that become deadly during monsoon prove my point. Had these rivers been rejuvenated, the canal would also have capacity to carry water for their links. One may find many of the canals in dry land lying dry in many regions in India. Hand pumps cannot be a substitute of canals and rivers.

If innocent people do not need flood-drought, then there must be somebody who needs it. Nature does not need it for being a non-beneficiary. The beneficiary must be within the man-made system. Every disaster carries with it some sort of Economics. It is benefit-money or rent-seeking. Money will be released and distributed and in distribution nobody knows when the fish in water drinks water. If there is no water, the fish does not drink. But fish is in water and does not drink it is unimaginable, with exceptions. Like Camel in desert – it drinks it own fat/blood. The exceptions are the honest money distributors in the event of natural disaster. However, money does not stop occurrence of the next disaster.

If rent-seeking is in the blood of the persons who matter, then recurrence of disaster called natural is unstoppable. But rent-led disaster is hardly natural or nature-made. It may be natural for the rent-seekers to extract affluence from disaster. While self-interest can be checked and not stopped, extraction of benefits from disaster can be minimized. This is consequential. The preventive measure is to stop recurrence of disaster. The first step is to bring back the carrying capacity of the rivers. Since most of the rivers are inter-state and some are transnational, it requires the joint efforts of the centre and the states to activate the rivers. In parallel, since canals are in state zone, it will be the responsibility of the states to activate canals. The symbiotic relationship between rivers and canals will do wonder in maintaining the lifeline of the land called India.

We need to understand how to do once we have accepted in principle what to do – the latter is that the rivers are to have carrying capacity. The example is Ganga Action Plan that pledged to clean Ganga and bring back her purity. The aspect is not only cultural but also linked with the material living conditions of the people living on the banks, people dependent on fishing/boating and all that. The Action Plan hopefully is backed by political will at the Centre and tech-manpower capacity. What is needed is administrative capability where each District Collector on both the banks of Ganga is to be assigned responsibility to implement the tasks for the identified zone by stipulated period; there has to be a coordinating agency to monitor the tasks implemented. The Plan has to be participatory.

I mentioned one example that may be emulated for other rivers in India. If dead rivers are given ‘pranpratistha’ (injecting life in dead body) like what was done in Lakhindar because of untiring efforts of Behula in India’s mythology, only then Ganga can be rejuvenated. Otherwise, it may have a fate of lupta (concealed) Saraswati (river). Rivers alive controls flood-drought; rivers dead invite flood-drought. Let there be no elasticity of imagination that rivers like Ganga with a length of 2500 k.m. die a natural death because of ageing – age of Ganga is not known, after all!

I confined my narrations to flood-drought based on the fact that they recur in regions of India adversely affecting the number of population that other occasional calamities like landslide, earthquake, tsunami do not do. Indian civilization, as may be many others, is river-based. The choice is for the state to decide its priorities and act accordingly.

 Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Aug 18, 2019

Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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