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?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014