More than a month after a deadly cocktail of unprecedented rain combined with human greed (what else?) led to a disaster of epic proportions, brunt of which was borne by the state of Uttarakhand, the dead are still being counted. There are slight differences in numbers reported by different agencies, ranging from “a few” of the state government to “tens of thousands” of independent observers and agencies. The disaster has cruelly exposed the fragility of this beautiful, yet ecologically vulnerable region, nestling in the lower reaches of the mighty Himalayas.
But what has happened has happened. It cannot be un-happened. What of the future? Is there anything we have learnt from this tragedy that will be of use?
Of course we have. We are a thinking, sensitive, caring people. Always hungry to learn.
We have learned that water flows downhill. In case of heavy rain more water flows downhill more rapidly.
We have learned that flowing water is unable to move out of the way of buildings that have been illegally constructed in its path. It is believed the same rule applies to legally constructed buildings, but since there were no leaglly constructed buildings in the path of the raging torrent, it has not been established as a learning in this instance.
We have learned that use of explosives for construction in ecologically sensitive areas makes them, well, more ecologically sensitive.
We have learned that dumping muck and debris on river courses in sufficiently large quantities can force the river to seek alternate paths.
We have learned that flowing water is unable to recognise the brand or engine capacity of a car, the nationality or religion of a human being, or even whether the building in its way is a brothel or a temple.
We have learned that the state government is an efficient body and uses resources judiciously. As recently as February 2013, the Uttarakhand high court had passed an order asking the state government to demolish structures that had come up within 200 metres of the river banks. But the administration did not act. When the floods came, many of those illegal structures got demolished anyway. Weaker governments may have capitulated and spent effort and resources on removing the identified structures.
We have learned that bribes don’t reach nature.
We have learned that Nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable (some engineers have contested this learning).
We have learned that even people on a religious quest are subject to physical laws of nature.
We have learned that there is a high level of preparedness amongst responsible agencies, to handle a disaster that might strike, immediately after disaster strikes.
We have learned that a natural event like a cloudburst can be converted into a national tragedy through some simple human actions.
What now? What do we do with all this learning?
Politicians are busy comparing notes and showing off their new-found knowledge. Even though it may jeopardise their political careers, some are openly wondering if they can finally get a High School clearance certificate with this new knowledge. Who knows, the next disaster might even enable them to complete graduation.
As an eager, learning people, we eagerly await the next disaster.