Hailstorm, Malgovernance, and Indifferent State – How Safe Are We?

Writes Shailendra M Pradhan for TheDC

March 31st, 2016 , will go down in the collective memory for two, or possibly three, reasons: hailstorm in Darjeeling, the tragedy in Kolkata caused by the collapse of under-construction bridge, and, of not lesser interest to a cricketing nation like ours, the defeat of India in T20 World Cup to Windies, despite Virat’s heroics. Of the previous two, the tragedy in Kolkata claimed more than 30 lives, while many were fear trapped under the rubble of under-construction overpass for hours and, even, days.

The hailstorm in Darjeeling, however, evoked two contradictory responses. First, it came and was received as a pleasant surprise by both the locals and tourists who, denied of the snow in the winters since 2008, were quick to relish in the blanket of almost 6-7 inches of hailstorm. Second, given the timing of the hailstorm, many, especially the farmers and agriculturists in rural Darjeeling, and the planters in tea gardens, feared a loss to their output and productivity, which, as a matter of investigation, deserve more time and research. In both the cases of hailstorm and bridge collapse, the failure of the administration to respond and rescue the people has, however, become more apparent.

Hailstorm, Malgovernance, and Indifferent State – How Safe Are We?

Perhaps, in case of the tragedy in Kolkata, April Fool’s Day came a day before to the state administration, and much before the assembly elections to the Trinamul Congress-govt which has come under scathing criticisms from the opposition, but more importantly, from the people because of its decisions to push through the completion of the bridge in a haphazard manner, much ahead of its scheduled deadline in November this year. Whether or not the tragedy will involve any political cost for the ruling dispensation under TMC is best left to scrutiny once the election results are out.

For now, it would be pertinent to introspect on the administrative response to the plight and hardship of the people caused in the wake of hailstorm.

Disasters and Administration in Darjeeling: An Uneasy Relationship?

Darjeeling, famous for its 3 Ts – tea, tourism, and toy-train, is also equally notorious for its disasters. The landslides in Mirik and Kalimpong in July last year resulted in the death of more than 40 lives. Similarly, the cyclone Aila in 2009 created havoc in different pockets of Darjeeling hills, and disrupted normal life for days together. Given its location in Lesser Himalaya, Darjeeling is prone to landslides, earthquakes, and various other natural hazards. The response of the govt. to these disasters has, however, remained disappointing, and of little help and assistance to the people.

The hailstorm in Darjeeling only deepened our fear of insensible and ill-prepared administration when it was caught completely off-guard to deal with such emergencies. While the thunder-shower and hailstorm lasted for a little more than half an hour, the immediate hardship experienced by the people will remain with them for times to come – the traffic was thrown out of gear for large part of the day; the people, travelling to and from Darjeeling, could not reach their destination on time; and, the students made home – with a starving stomach with nothing to eat for hours – from their schools very late in the night due to unmoving traffic. In the absence of Civil Defence personnel, who are mostly responsible for rescue and relief operations in any hazard situations, the people themselves had to negotiate and make their way through layers and layers of hailstorm.

In fact, the inability of both the district administration and Darjeeling Municipality to deploy even the basic snow-removal equipments and tools such as snowplow, wovel, and blower to clear off the roads highlight the insensitivity of the govt. to the plights of the people in disaster-situations. Unsurprisingly, the people took on themselves to help each other from lending a hand to push the vehicles trapped in hail-covered road to offering teas and biscuits to the starving travelers by the locals. And, while the tourists and locals displayed strong camaraderie in this hour of hardship, the administration remained ignorant of its own shortcomings.

Smart-Phones – But Not-So-Smart Administration!

Better communications can warn the people of the impending disasters, and help them to better prepare and mitigate during their occurrences. The timely evacuation of millions of people in the face of approaching Phailin, known to be the fiercest cyclone to hit coastal Andhra and Odisha in recent times, is perhaps the most glaring example of how information and communication can help avert any major disaster. The boom in the Information and Technology industry (IT, hereafter), and the promptness at which the information can be collected and made available at the touch of one’s phone-screen can improve our preparedness level in disaster mitigation. One of the biggest failures of the successive govts in West Bengal has been its inability to fine-tune its administration and personnel to the prospects available in IT sector – in other words, the coming of smart-phones in the markets in Bengal has not been accompanied by equally smart and technology-oriented local administration. As a result, the people remain deprived of the information on weather-forecasts and impending risks, which if timely relayed as text-messages or calls, can save them from many hardships.

The inability of the state disaster management authority, which is replete with time-consuming bureaucratic process and corruption, and district administration to communicate and warn the people of the impending disasters pierce the very idea of smart-cities which are disaster and risk resilient. In case of hailstorm in Darjeeling, the district administration not only failed to make use of the information available with the metrological department for its own preparedness, but also showed laxity in relaying them to the people. It is a sad fact that the district administration has not been able to capitalize on the smart-phones available with the people in Darjeeling, let alone set-up and strengthen its communication technologies for early-warning of any disaster or weather-related information.

Safety and Social Responsibility: The Missing Link?

When the news of hailstorm in Darjeeling made to social network sites such as Facebook on TheDC, Darjeeling Times, and other local news pages, the people were busy “liking”, responding, or sharing their feelings on possibly every news and photographs related to the event. To the tourists in the town, but also to the locals, Darjeeling, had, perhaps lived up to its expectation as the indisputable “Queen of Hill Stations” in India. Of the many stories on hailstorm that made it to national newspapers and online news portals the following morning, one small bit related to the damages in one of the most prestigious schools in Darjeeling, the Loreto Convent – the roof of its basketball court had apparently collapsed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The incident, however, puts a big question mark on the safety and reliability of our infrastructures in various schools and institutions: how safe are our infrastructures to withstand hazards like earthquakes and hailstorms? Do we have enough regulatory institutions to ensure that safety-norms and laws are abided and observed? Are we sensitive to our environment and our safety?

Darjeeling can, perhaps, take pride in being the oldest municipality in India, built way back in 1853, with British concerned about the nitty-gritty of building a safe and habitable place on the lines of its own towns in London: building bye-laws, adequate drainage system, and strong road and railway lines. Most of these have either been modified or replaced by new laws and norms, and infrastructures that are apparently better suited to deal with various challenges of our times such as population growth and urbanisation. The safety and the well-being of the people, however, have been compromised in the process, and Darjeeling, as it is today, remains one of the most neglected and vulnerable hill towns in India.

In our collective capacity, we should remind ourselves of the disasters that are in making, largely because of our own insensitivity to the environment and nature – the dumping of our waste almost anywhere and everywhere, building of our houses and other infrastructures almost anywhere and everywhere, even in the most vulnerable and hazard-prone areas, and little or no concern for public property and goods.

The recent hailstorm, despite being largely harmless, should serve as a warning to our representatives, policy-makers, builders, and, above all, to ourselves on the need to introspect on the pace and pattern of our development.

Via TheDC

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