Fix responsibility for calamities

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ach time a disaster strikes, we blame it on nature or fate. The tendency is to identify the immediate cause, and barely scratch the surface to determine what exactly led to those causes. This is as much true with natural disasters as it is with dam bursts, building and bridge collapses and even road accidents. There is invariably a human angle. Disaster analysis results have shown time and again that human failures are more responsible for the high casualties and property losses than geophysical causes and cyclical climatic variations, which we often blame for the calamities.

We are merrily building settlements in flood plains and high-risk zones and then blaming nature for all the trouble. When disaster strikes, the administration at best slaps man-slaughter charges on the contractors, but no questions are asked to the politicians and the bureaucrats who sanctioned such projects. There is virtually no accountability for those who are really responsible. So we have cases where boat and bus tragedies claiming death tolls that are double the number of the capacity of the carriers and building collapses where the number of apartments are disproportionate to the size of the plot.

The most glaring example of human failure is provided by the devastating floods in Kerala, which is now being described as entirely man-made. The tragedy was, in fact, predicted to almost its last detail, seven years ago by a team headed by Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, which studied the ecologically sensitive areas of the state’s Western Ghats region. The committee had observed that it was a disaster waiting to happen as the state allowed ecologically destructive activities such as mining and quarrying, use of land for non-forest purposes and construction of high rises in the area. The state government outrightly rejected the report and even appointed another committee to come up with more pliable recommendations.

It now transpires that there was total mismanagement by the dam authorities in handling the flood and there is increasing demand from various quarters to fix responsibility for the unprecedented devastation caused by the simultaneous release of water from almost all the dams in the state. Instead of releasing the water in stages as the reservoirs got filled up to their full capacities, the dam authorities and the officials responsible for handling the situation kept postponing the opening of the spillways until things suddenly went out of control. Also, the dams were opened without giving proper warning to the populations that lived downstream, which caught them unprepared to face the rushing waters. The authorities are now resorting to technicalities to save their skin. But some heads must roll if such grave mistakes are not to be repeated.