Face to Face: Harish Rawat, Chief Minister Uttarakhand
If tomorrow Modiji decides to offer us 5,000 MW of power free of cost, I will be the first man to call off all the dams’
Sadiq Naqvi Dehradun
At the Bijapur Guest house where Chief Minister Harish Rawat is holding a press conference, cell phones continued to ring as local journalists saddled him with question after question. Appealing for a sensible discourse and asking the media to not sensationalise any reports emerging from Uttarakhand, Rawat appeared to hold his ground better than his predecessor. Hardnews caught up with him on the sidelines of the press meet in Dehradun. Excerpts...
A lot of people have alleged that they still haven’t received the promised compensation from the government.
The question of compensation is always problematic. In my 45 years’ experience, the mass scale on which these catastrophes have taken place could bring about differences in the government records and individual cases. For instance, the loss of small- scale crop produce or minor destruction of property may not qualify for compensation by the government although they are individual losses. Nevertheless, we have increased the earlier compensation, say, for the loss of a doli (palanquin), from `500 to `8,000. We have increased the entire compensations almost two or threefold, while trying to bring in all sorts of people within the ambit of compensation. If we haven’t been able to build houses for the affected people yet, we have given them `300 per month as rent money. We have also included the daily wagers and workers in the group. Not just the owners who lost their cars, but also the drivers and cleaners. Basically helping out everyone whose livelihood was associated with the pilgrimage centres. Still, I don’t make the claim that we have managed to fix the problem a hundred percent, especially taking into account the enormous size of the catastrophe, which has affected five districts. Only next year, when the reports are out, can we make any claims about the effectiveness of our outreach.
With the monsoon around the corner, what kinds of disaster management arrangements have you made?
We have already arranged and established two State Disaster Relief Management (SDRM) battalions and are in the process of setting up a third. We have also established NDRM units at four locations. We have warned the administration to stay alert. I was myself supposed to go to Uttarkashi today, in order to discuss the various arrangements we are making for the monsoon season.
You also need to reassure people so that they do not fear visiting the area anymore.
We are doing that but I believe the media can also play a significant role in that. I would request them to look at things objectively and abstain from jumping to conclusions. For instance, when we recovered one dead body, some news channels distorted the claims and started showing many dead bodies. This type of negative publicity affects the common man deeply. You can criticise the Congress government and Harish Rawat but if something is against the common good of the people of Uttarakhand, I would request you to abstain from making such hasty comments. We have made no claims at any point that all the bodies have been fished out. If you know the area, you’ll realise we have accessibility only for three months. The topography consists of trenches and mountains where even animals cannot reach. It is difficult to recover bodies from rubble, and we also have to consider the security of the temple.
There are also major issues pertaining to loss of livelihood, especially in places like Auli.
Yes, it is a big issue and a major challenge before my government — how to restore the livelihood of the affected people.
Aren’t there provisions for alternative livelihood opportunities for the locals? The yatra is one thing but it
is also increasing pressure on the fragile ecosystem.
Well, you see, this is the dwelling place of the gods; you can’t stop people from coming here by invoking fragile ecology. These are matters of faith. We would never encourage people to go beyond Gangotri, but they do visit Gaumukh. Even if I do not support it, you can’t stop them from going there to collect holy water.
But one can still restrict the areas. For instance, Kailash Mansarovar is restricted to access.
That is another country, Tibet (controlled by China). But in our country, whenever kawaryatras begin, there is a huge number of people coming to Haridwar and no one likes such a big crowd. It puts pressure on our civic amenities. It is a gigantic task to tackle lakhs of people every day. But we need to carry it out because it is a matter of faith for the people. If we feel proud that we have the Ganga, then we have to accommodate the faith of the people.
Do you agree that there was a lot of illegal encroachment on the river bank?
This is a fact that’s true of many states, not just Uttarakhand. In fact, there was a model legislation circulated by the Government of India, when I was the water resources minister, to all the state governments. Except the Rajasthan government, no one reacted positively to the legislation.
Was the government in a hurry to open these routes, and in a way compromise safety? If you go to Lambagarh and see that stretch, it is quite risky. Was it simply to open up the Char Dham route?
No, that is not the case. The route via Lambagarh is perfectly alright. Lambagarh has been a restricted area for the past 12 years. It is not the first time it’s happening. This time, in fact, the Lambagarh stretch is in better shape than last year. But we are cautious enough, and have set up a police force there, besides alternative arrangements for the rainy season. We’ve also constructed a new tank there. But the fact remains that yatras are always risk-oriented; there’s always an element of risk in trekking. Any trekker will confirm that. Mountain expedition is a risky job but people do take that risk. Bhagwan has settled in such places so his bhakts will definitely go to these places and no storm can stop them. According to our ability, we have provided the best possible roads for them.
For some villages, like Devli where around 57 people died and it’s reduced to a village of widows, do you have any rehabilitation schemes for women? They have received compensation, but there’s nothing else they can do.
We do have a rehabilitation plan for them. In fact, when we attempted to teach them some business activities, they were a bit reluctant. They said, ‘No, give government jobs to our sons.’ People prefer and demand government jobs and this is an old practice, but the High Court recently struck down that practice. But our Cabinet has proposed it again and we are formulating it in a different way. We are trying our best to take care of these things. I have instructed the Chief Secretary to provide them `2 lakh this year, over and above the compensation they have already received.
Places like the Hubum valley still don’t have connectivity, even after a year. Government officials couldn’t even reach there and they were getting help from NGOs. Likewise, many other villagers claimed they didn’t receive any visits from government officials.
No, but we have restored the connectivity everywhere. That’s why you could go to these places. Areas with old roads have been restored, though new roads are going to take some time and there are laws with respect to it.
What about reaching the interior regions with aid? There are people who have not yet been visited.
I’m quite sure there is not a single village in Uttarakhand where we have not provided relief and food and compensation. The villages have been restored to normalcy. That task is complete.
But there are areas where the hydroelectric companies have distributed compensation.
Yes, they are compensating on their behalf and so are the NGOs. Many different kinds of people are trying to help in their own way. We have been regulating it properly.
But the SDM of Joshimath wasn’t aware that Jaypee (which runs a hydroelectric power plant in) was distributing compensation and relief.
That is possible. Even I didn’t know that Jaypee was distributing compensation. It is possible that the villages directly affected had private negotiations with them, or they doled out compenstion to the villagers working for the company.
Some 700-odd hydel plants are coming up all around the state. Won’t it exert unnecessary pressure on the ecosystem, if you stem the natural flow of the river?
I understand that. But it is inevitable. You and I stop the flow of air; when many of us are in the same room, we pollute that air. But this is how life goes on. River water is the only resource that we have available other than the forest. Forests we can’t cut.
Water you don’t want us to use. Then what exactly are you suggesting? The nation and the environmentalists should also let us know. Do you want us to settle down in other cities? We will
willingly go there. Can you provide us land and livelihood there? But if we have to live here, we will live with nature and use what we have for our livelihood. Can I or my government or my people survive without electricity? If tomorrow Modiji decides to offer us 5,000 MW of power free of cost, I will be the first man to call off the dams. Everybody is telling us don’t do this, Don’t do that. But nobody is telling us what to do instead.
Of course, there is a need to be cautious. We are also emphasising waste management and disposal so that we can minimise the ecological loss. However, to stop it completely and not go for these projects for electricity is impossible and not in the interest of my people. Moreover, why are people putting this question to Uttarakhand only? Why not Himachal, Jammu & Kashmir, Arunachal or Meghalaya?
How much does power generation contribute to Uttarakhand’s economy?
None, because we’re not selling power. We require more than 2,000 MW to cater to our need. We want to produce it for domestic consumption. Let us produce enough so that we can survive.