One of the oldest clichés in journalism is being in the eye of the storm. And for once,I have a guest on Walk the Talk who is a man caught in the eye of the storm,literallyMr Vijay Bahuguna,Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.
Yes,we went through a very traumatic period. But the administration,the armed forces and the paramilitary forces rose to the occasion and we have been able to mitigate the suffering of the people and to safely evacuate about 1,17,000 people in a span of two weeks.
What is it that the government could have done better?
In fact,we had never anticipated,not even in our wildest dreams,that the entire Kedarnath valley would cave in. And the moment that catastrophe happened,we found ourselves in a state of helplessness because accessibility was cut off. You couldnt go there by road,you couldnt fly because its a very narrow valley. Only choppers could land. We had two helipads which were totally washed away. So it took time for us to respond. And even the Army,till date,has not been able to reach many areas because entire mountains have caved in. And there are bodies in Rambada that they are not able to cremate. When a calamity of such a magnitude happens in a hill state… it took us time to respond. What way we could have done better will naturally be an issue that I will be answering after some months. But today,the focus has to be on the 37,000 sq km of area that was hit,right from Pithoragarh,Dharchula,Chamoli to Badrinath. And my state has a budget of Rs 25,000 crore,out of which Rs 16,000 crore is non-planned expenditure. So I did not have the strength or the manpower to face such a calamity.
Initially,for a long time,there were just a couple of civilian helicopters that were trying to…
Yes,these were choppers which were flying in the normal course,carrying pilgrims to Kedarnath. The Air Force did not have a station here,so we had to contact them. The Army and NDRF came in very fast. The ITBP was there. But it certainly took the Air Force a day or two to come. Then we had to prepare some makeshift helipads… And I think they were bravehearts. They landed their choppers at places one could never imagine.
Do you have some estimate now of the loss of life?
There were two aspects. One was the bodies we saw and could announce that they were dead. And from the very first day I have said that,from what I have been briefed by the Army and the paramilitary forces,around 500-600 bodies are visible. So we said immediately after June 18 that perhaps so many people are dead. About the missing,we couldnt find out because of debris in which they were buried or washed away by these floods. It was a tsunami. Nearly 18 feet of water came into Kedarnath and washed away the entire valley. But as I speak to you today,the number of people who are missing is 5,748. This includes 924 people from my state. How did we arrive at these figures? Thanks to all the state governments who were very cooperative.
Including Gujarat,I hope?
Yes,everybody,including Gujarat. Mr Narendra Modi was also here. A number of chief ministers came,offered whatever help they could and I accepted it.
If you look at these numbers924 from your own state and nearly 5,000 from elsewherethat means for every one Uttarakhandi who is missing,there are at least five pilgrims missing. Does that tell us a story? That there were too many pilgrims?
Thats right. We have taken a decision now that when we set up structures and build a new Uttarakhand,we will see how much load the infrastructure can take. And there has to be a road which brings you and a road from which you can be evacuated in case of an emergency,like you have in Tirupati. My economy rests on tourism. I have to ensure there is safe infrastructure. The loss of confidence has to be restored at the earliest. Now,we will go back and plan it in a very scientific manner.
Will you regulate tourism? How?
There are two ways. One is in places where there is enough accommodation,like Badrinath. But Kedarnath and Yamunotri,which are at high altitudes,we will have to plan structures that are coming up there. A new township will have to be built in Kedarnath. Then we will study how much load the infrastructure can take. I have asked the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and the Wadia Institute (of Himalayan Geology) to give me a plan,to give me a safe route. I have to chalk out a plan in which I avoid these rivers and still manage to take these pilgrims to these char dhams. The roads are maintained by the Border Roads Organisation. These roads are in a mess. I dont know why,maybe because of lack of funds or some tensions between them and the Ministry of Surface Transport.
One would have thought the Border Road Organisation would have done a better job.
We were bringing this to the notice of the Centre. When these roads are repaired and new infrastructure comes up,we have to see we avoid areas in which there are landslides,what type of road should be built,whether we should go for tunnelling,whether we should go for an alternative route…
How can you regulate tourism? Will you send them in batches? Or will you give them a medical test? A lot of people died because they were hypertensive or were diabetic. They were really in no shape to travel.
We cannot ask everybody to undergo health check-ups. But we will certainly be able to regulate the entry and exit from a particular place.
There is a health check-up for Kailash Mansarovar…
Thats because there are just 600-700 people going and its on a very high altitude. Here there is no problem of oxygen. There were many motels and dhabas on the way. It is not that people will not be able to go,but we will regulate how many will go at a particular point of time,especially to Kedarnath.
Will you register them? At least you will know who is there and who is not there.
Yes,we will register them. In fact,the entire country has to contribute to this rebuilding process. We will also charge some money as contribution towards development.
In fact,thats the whole point. Its one thing for you to say that your state depends on tourism but this a very low-cost economy. Because these are not tourists who are spending a lot of money,they are spending very little money. In fact,they are taking away a lot from the environment. They leave a lot of waste behind…
That is true. But what we have to do is regulate pilgrims so that we know who is where. How do we do that? We will have to find a mechanism.
For example,soon the Kanwaria season will begin. And more than a crore people come?
No,they are in lakhs.
In tens of lakhs.
But they come from all of North India…
Everybody brings something and they leave it behind?
They come for 20 days. But you see that is their religious belief and no government can afford to confront them.
Will you think of charging them something,some kind of an environmental,hygiene cess?
The class which is coming,they come on foot with just a dress on.
Rs 500,Rs 100?
Aurangzeb imposed a tax called jizya. The day I do it,they will brand me as another Aurangzeb. Taxing religious tourism would not be feasible but yes,there are classes who can do it happily. It has to be voluntary.
Its a question of how you put it,because you have to say this is Gangas environment.
We can ask for voluntary help,we cannot tax them. You cannot tax religious tourism in this country.
I know its complicated because then the Haj subsidy issue also comes up.
Yes,that is also there.
At the same time,this is such an eco-sensitive place… Some kind of a charge,like a toll?
We will have to find out ways. For the first time,a Cabinet sub-committee has been set up under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister and in which the Chief Minister is an invitee to see what the Centre can do. In fact,I have written to the Prime Minister that like the Alpine Convention,why cant we have a Himalayan authority under the Prime Minister? Let us have a Himalayan development authority and a uniform policy and concern for the Himalayan states. The environment has to be protected but you also have to see growth and development. You have to have balanced,sustainable growth. And for that,it is necessary that the Centre has a uniform policy for Kashmir,Himachal…
But look at the Alps. For example,they are so well-connected with the railways…
Thats correct. So we now have to have long-term planning and the Centre will have to come forward. Suppose I can generate money from a particular environmental resource and you ask me to stop it,then compensate. I am a border state,if there is economic backwardness,there will be migration… We share borders with China and Nepal. So for all border states,what policy should you have on power generation…
So you asked the PM to set up this authority?
Yes,under his chairmanship,and to consider a plan for the entire Himalayan region where tourism also grows,ecology is protected and power is generated. There have to be different parameters for planning,whether it is agriculture,horticulture,tourism…
So do you have a sense now what exactly happened,what caused it?
The GSI told me that there is a lake above Kedarnath. They say there was 600 mm of rain. Because of the rain and the cloudburst,the lake swelled. And about 18 feet of debris and water came down heavily from the lake…
The pictures that have stuck to everybodys mind are of those buildings coming down.
Yes,I saw that in the floods that recently hit China. It is something similar. Now,buildings which have collapsed… there were two aspects. One was structural defects. The other is when they were built,the course of the river was different. So the building which was safe at a particular point has now become unsafe. So how do we check the flow of these rivers? That can be done only by preparing embankments and allowing mining. Mining is banned because of the orders of the Supreme Court and Forest Conservation Act.
I think mining has to be explained. Its not as if somebody is digging a mine,its basically the boulders and rocks that come into the riverbed being picked up and taken out?
Yes,so that the flow of the river is at its natural place.
And because it was banned,at many places I believe the level of your riverbeds is higher than the surroundings.
And since ages,entire habitation has been along the banks of these riverswhether it is Rudraprayag,Karnaprayag,Srinagar,Haridwar. We have to save them now. The flood control measures and the preparing of these embankments will be a major task. It has to be done by experts. My state government will not be able to do it. It has to be done urgently…
Would you say your state has also become a victim of misplaced environmentalism?
Concerns will have to be addressed. I dont agree that its a man-made tragedy. You see excessive rainfall of 600 mm or 300 mm in a few hours,cloudbursts,earthquakes,tsunamis,they are not man-made. We have to go for a planned study of the Himalayas… Tomorrow it can be Himachal,it can be Jammu and Kashmir. So we have to sit down and have an in-depth study by scientists,environmentalists…
Are dams responsible for whats happened?
First,there is a myth there are 70 dams proposed.
Its a myth?
Yes. There are three dams. One is the Tehri dam.
Thats already there.
If that had not been there,with due respect to everybody,western UP would have been washed away.
You would have seen Gangajal in Delhi also then.
Yes. Dams do help us from floods. There is one in Srinagar and one is in Vishnuprayag. Earlier,my predecessor governments had submitted a proposal for 70 hydro power projects from 2 MW to 300 MW.
Most of them are minor?
They are minor but they are not on dam technology. They are run-of-the-river projects. The Prime Minister had set up a committee,the Ganga Basin Authority,and it was referred to the Planning Commission. Mr B K Chaturvedi headed that committee and then he had the views of IIT-Roorkee and other scientific studies and the study of the environmental impact assessment of these projects. Now,I am not a rigid person. Please tell me where you think it is safe. You approve it,but once you approve it,the decision should not be reversed.
You have a built-up dam that has been written off now,Lohari-Nagpala. What exactly happened there?
There the river was diverted into a tunnel for some kilometres where there was no habitation. So they said the river should not dry up and the government took a decision and the decision cost us Rs 2,000 crore. Now,whenever any project is cleared,it is cleared by experts,the Ministry of Environment,Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Power.
The dam is sitting there and doing nothing.
There is no dam. They had only done the tunnelling. There has to be a study to see if it is safe to let these open tunnels remain. When a decision is taken after application of mind and due deliberations,with approval from everybody,then after seven-eight years,when it is on the verge of completion,then somebody raises an issue…
There are only three dams right now,plus this Lohari-Nagpala dam which is now abandoned.
Yes,abandoned. Suppose a dam is required,then what should be the height of the dam? What should be the flow of the river? There too I have no issue. Alright,if you say so many cusecs of water should be discharged,we will agree. I agree that the rivers should never dry up,but once I commit that,this flow will be maintained. Now,suppose in a lean month I cannot discharge so much water,I will stop generation. But instead of 600 MW,I will generate 200 MW. The very concept of not having any hydro energy in Uttarakhand…You have it in Himachal Pradesh,you have it in other states.
In fact,in Himachal that might be responsible for saving the state from some of these floods?
That is also a way of looking at it. But we should not have any rigid views. We should be open to reason. And reason not on our own belief but what experts and scientists…
So was Lohari-Nagpala written off on environmental grounds or religious grounds?
I would say a mixture of both.
If somebody was sitting on a fast?
They are sitting on a fast,thats true. He could not sit in Uttarkashi,he had to sit in Delhi.
There is opposition from local people. Suppose a project is sanctioned at a particular point. People of that area take it as an opportunity for economic development. They take loans from banks to construct guesthouses,to buy vehicles which would be on contract with the project. Now when they have taken the loan,they have built houses,taken vehicles,they are getting incidental ancillary jobs and contracts… When you shelve it,there is resentment. They feel the opportunity is lost. When a particular project was being set up,why wasnt it opposed then?
Only after it got built…
Yes,after it got built and it can generate electricity in four-six months. So the timing of this agitation is not in national interest or state interest. Now we are doing the environmental impact study of all valleys,not project wise. And after an environmental impact study of all the regions and the valleys,we will propose to the Centre,with the approval of the Ministry of Planning and Planning Commission,as to how much energy you are going to generate and what size of projects you are going to approve. I can generate up to 27,000 MW of hydro energy. Alright,today I am on 3,500. Tell me how much I can generate. And if there is a loss to the state because you are not asking me to generate energy,then compensate. I maintain 70 per cent of the forests for the country,for the environment. Its my duty but then…
You should get carbon credits?
How challenging is it to be a chief minister?
You are supposed to maintain your cool. Whatever you do in life you should be a confident person.
A chief minister of the Congress has different problems because you deal with your opposition here and you deal with your opposition in your own party.
That is a phenomenon that every leader has to live with. There is no party in the country which does not have dissension. I must thank the Central leadership,including the Congress president,that a very strong message was sent to the cadre and the leaders to unite and to face this challenge and help the people… In politics,one should have an ambition,there should be no obsession.
So are you happy to have become the Chief Minister? Would you rather have been a cabinet minister in Delhi?
The profile of a chief minister is different from that of a cabinet minister. The cabinet minister is running a department but to run a state you have to have a vision. My legal background helps me in studying regulations and bylaws. I told my bureaucrats on Day 1,Look,regulations,rules and laws are to benefit mankind. If you feel they are obstructing,then amend them. Dont tell me that this is an obstruction. So my legal background helps me a lot in at least controlling the bureaucracy. If the Constitution can be amended a hundred times or more,why cant we change laws to facilitate the people?
The good thing is you are still managing to smile. I know you got upset when somebody put up a smiling picture of yours in one of those reels.
When you are giving out a message during the tragedy,how can you have a smiling face? In fact,I dont know if I will be able to smile again. If you go to these areas,see women cry… its very painful,traumatic.
Life in the Himalayas is tough and you have to bring the smiles back.
Transcribed by Sonam Chauhan