Nothing ever changes

I cut my milk teeth as a journalist on disaster coverage – cyclones, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, plane crashes and, of course, riots.

If there is one thing I have learnt in all those years, it is that there is nothing you can do in the event of a natural disaster. All that you can hope for is to run for your life and try to win that race against nature’s fury.

Man-made ones can always be prevented but now I am no longer sure if the kind of devastation we are seeing in Uttarakhand may be a natural but also helped along by man’s greed and need for more than nature might have had to give.

I was very impressed when I saw the Uttarakhand chief minister avow on television that neither the Congress nor the BJP was responsible for what the river has done to his state – settlements came up on river banks centuries ago and, if it suddenly changed its course, there was no way that anyone could have done anything about it. Except perhaps run — though that is my interjection.

But I am disappointed to learn that this was the same man who had had a bitter fight with union minister for environment Jayanti Natarajan some months ago over her strictness about not allowing development in an eco-sensitive zone.

It is obvious that even if the river did change its course in Uttarakhand this year, there seems to have been enough violation of environmental regulations that have compounded this natural disaster with a man-made dimension of its own.

I was merely a student with the NSS when I was dispatched with a lot of other students to work in the cyclone affected areas of Andhra Pradesh and I can say that at that point of time in the late 1970s one could not have accused governments of violating any environmental norms.

Decades later the tsunami came as a similar unavoidable phenomenon and the devastation in southern India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands reminded me of Andhra Pradesh when whole temples had submerged in the water, only tree tops were visible and rescuers later had had to climb up those trees to retrieve many bodies, both dead and alive of humans as well as animals after the waters receded.

My grandmother called it pralaya and was sure the world was about to end but I have since seen so many of such disasters – and the world seems to go on without learning even a single lesson from past experiences.

I guess the desire to build and build indiscriminately comes from an exploding population and its varied needs but I haven’t yet forgotten the 26/7 cloud burst in Bombay in 2005 when the outpouring came without warning and most homes and offices of my friends built on and around the Mithi river were submerged in water almost two stories deep the first day.

My friend and her mother had to perch themselves on their cupboards, all their furniture was destroyed, they could not move back into their old home for months — even Amitabh Bachchan’s cars were submerged in water in his basement and another friend who had offices closer to the sea had to climb up to the high-rise building and huddle with her colleagues just one floor below the terrace the whole night when it looked as though the river would come right up (it was already in).

Bal Thackeray had to be evacuated from his home in a boat that came right up to his door to fetch him away and even I had to turn back after a long night in office and spend the morning in my car on a safer patch – with the water already creeping up almost to the seats.

I was never more frightened in my life than to see the Mithi River which had been reclaimed to build the airport and high-rises seek her revenge and this was no violation of development rules in an environment friendly zone. It was simply just violation.

Messing with nature showed the consequences eventually would be terrible to pay and while I grew up welcoming the rains every season, I must admit now every time the monsoon arrives, I am a little wry and sympathize with the fears of people who wish to stay home rather than venture out in the wet weather.

The stories I see and hear people recount in Uttarakhand today sound much the same to me as the cries of people in Andhra Pradesh three decades ago; forget the Bombay and Kosi disasters of more recent years. Nothing seems to have changed and I begin to believe nothing ever will, We are condemned to nature’s fury. Mothers can sometimes be very unforgiving.

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