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India: Fuelling The Fire In Uttarakhand – OpEd

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By Sanjeev Ahluwalia*

Nothing illustrates the cost of wantonly discarding democracy and handing over the government to unelected officials than the case of Uttarakhand. To recap, the President of India (read the Union government) was pleased to take control of Uttarakhand on March 27, 2016, by invoking constitutionally vested emergency powers as the elected state government failed to discharge its constitutional mandate.

The occasion for doing so was an allegation, by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s members of the Legislative Assembly, that the Budget for 2016-17 was not approved by a majority vote in March, as required, to keep public finances running in the new year — April onwards. The Uttarakhand high court, in its order of March 28, rubbished the President’s order and this view was confirmed on April 21 by a bench of the court. The matter is now in the Supreme Court on appeal against the high court order. A ruling is expected tomorrow.

But forget the legalese. The fact is that Uttarakhand has been without an elected government to take charge and be accountable for over a month now. It is fashionable for babus to blame politicians for all the ills in the country. Unfortunately, the official machinery has failed miserably to showcase its strengths by managing the ongoing forest fire disaster. This illustrates that the “iron frame” of the bureaucracy is now so rusted that it fails to be proactive even when there are no visible political constraints on them.

The people of Uttarakhand are no strangers to forest fires. Indeed, this writer has had out of control fires in previous years licking the boundary of his home. Just like in California, where habitations co-exist with forests, lighting fires can be property and life threatening. In India, they are a low-cost, low-labour intensive practice to clear the fallen pine leaves and accumulated undergrowth so that fresh grass sprouts from underneath. Till not so very long ago jhoom (slash and burn) cultivation — regularly setting fire to land and leaving it fallow to regenerate — was common practice. It is still followed in the Northeast.

The problem arises when local fires are poorly managed and they grow out of control and ravage vulnerable people (the old, the differently abled and the very young), homes, cattle, wildlife and indeed trees, none of whom can get away quickly.

Unfortunately, this year was different in a manner which people never recognised. The lack of rain created tinder box conditions. A more proactive bureaucracy would have sounded the red alert early, launched a communications campaign to sensitise the public against the danger, set up a war room fed by daily updates via sms and Facebook and designated local champions to lead the effort and build public opinion against jhoom.

Remember how Chandi Prasad Bhatt galvanised the women of Garhwal to launch the “Chipko Movement” (literally hugging trees) in the 1970s to guard against the rampant logging? It is possible to build strong public opinion if people’s self-interest is shown to be aligned with a public cause.

A previous government programme, which could have tackled the root of the problem, aimed at buying perule (fallen pine leaves) to incentivise villagers to collect them, rather than setting them on fire, unfortunately has been long discarded. Villagers say it died because the amounts offered by the government were unattractive. Foresters say the villagers are too lazy to work and look for easy earnings and viable options for recycling perule were never developed.

But the real problem is that governments routinely underspend on preventing disasters in comparison to the potential loss. Also, the tendency is to buy new equipment to manage disasters once they happen, rather than evolve low-cost, local options to prevent them. Had Uttarakhand done so, it would not be facing the terrible social and environmental costs of doing nothing.

A more technically savvy bureaucracy could have redesigned the old perule purchase programme to make it more attractive. But none of this happened. Minus a chief minister, the bureaucracy was a leaderless army. Local administrations headed by the district magistrate became a dead letter box into which the secretariat heavies dutifully dumped warnings and advice, sans funds, for guarding against fires.

This is not to say that the Uttarakhand bureaucracy was as callous as the Supreme Court described Union government bureaucrats to be. Whilst rapping them for not bringing forward evidenced solutions to reduce air pollution levels in Delhi, the court said: “Why can’t they come up with some research and solutions? You people are just sipping coffee and doing nothing”.

But state-level bureaucracies have responded magnificently in the recent past to disasters in Gujarat, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But they all had a chief minister directing the coordinated effort that relief requires.

The key assurance an official seeks in an emergency is that his/her actions, taken in public interest, will be assessed not on the basis of how closely the regulations were followed, but on the context in which decisions were taken, and their effectiveness.

This type of reassurance can only be credibly given by a duly elected chief minister. In today’s context, it takes a politician even to make the trains run on time! The colonial model, where the officials led and politicians merely presided, is past and buried.

Sans a chief minister in Dehradun, it is Delhi which is sending money, choppers and the Army to deal with the disaster. But only elected governments at the state and the local level can engage continuously to prevent disasters and effectively manage those that occur.

The last thing to be wished for, in a disaster area, is a government led by officials with no effective political oversight. Even a bad chief minister is better than no chief minister at all. One hopes the Supreme Court will take note and end Uttarakhand’s misery.

*Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia is Advisor, Observer Research Foundation. He remains affiliated with The Energy Research Institute (TERI), New Delhi, where he worked for three years and the CUTS Centre for Infrastructure Regulation and Competition (CIRC), New Delhi in an honorary capacity.

This article originally appeared in The Asian.

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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