As Uttarakhand faces its worst natural calamity ever, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna admitted to lapses in his preparedness to deal with it. He, however, claimed the magnitude of the disaster is so "huge" that not even "the Government on India has a force to deal with the problem". Bahuguna was speaking to CNN-IBN's Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special Devil's Advocate with the embattled Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Vijay Bhauguna. Chief Minister let's start with today's front page story in The Times of India. The paper says that Uttarakhand has no disaster management worth the name despite being highly disaster prone. Is that correct?
Vijay Bhauguna: No, that is not correct at all. We have our own team but the disaster of such a magnitude and such a scale which we could never conceive of and it was never expected and it never happened in the history of this state or in any other part of the Himalayas with 37,000 square mile of area is affected by the calamity.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister I will come to the size and scale of the tragedy that you are facing in a moment's time. But let me go further with this particular line of questioning. The CAG released a report on April 23, which is just two months ago, and that report says that the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management authority, though set up in October 2007, over six years ago, has never met not even once. And then the report says, it's got no rules, no regulations, no policies, no guidelines. If that is true, it's horrific.
Vijay Bhauguna: No, you see the NDRF had visited us, we had number of conferences with them. In fact, the NDRF during my regime has decided to setup a unit at Haridwar, for which we are in discussions, our officers were getting regular training. May be that the board has not met but our police staff in personal...
Karan Thapar: Just a moment Chief Minister, you concede that the State Disaster Management Board, though set up in October 2007, has never met. You concede that?
Vijay Bhauguna: Yes that's correct. Not at the level of the Chief Minister as far as I know.
Karan Thapar: But then that is shameful because yours is a disaster prone state, you have them almost regularly and yet the State Disaster Management Authority has never met.
Vijay Bhauguna: You see the authority itself may be relevant or may not be relevant but the police force and the police personnel, they do go undergo such a training and we have officers and men who are trained for such a catastrophe. But as I told you earlier the scale and magnitude of this calamity, it is not possible for any board or any authority or any force to have prevented it. But yes, of course now we are doing our best to provide relief and rehabilitation.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister you are saying to me that in fact you have trained personnel in the police but in fact that same CAG report says that basic personnel to handle disaster management are missing. The report says 44 per cent of the posts in district emergency cells are vacant. It says you have no master trainers to train staff at district block and village level, you have no medical personnel trained in emergency hospital preparedness. So, the essentials of trained people is missing.
Vijay Bhauguna: That too to some extent it is right but as I have told you earlier that in the last few years, as far as I know, our officers and our jawans have undergone training. And last year when we had a flash flood in Uttarkashi and the NDRF team and personnel came here, our officers are getting training. It is not, it may be that the board has not actually worked in the way it ought to have been done.
Karan Thapar: But these are incredible admissions from the Chief Minister. You are accepting the board has never met despite being set up for almost six years. You are accepting that it isn't functioning as effectively as it should and you are also accepting that you may not have enough trained people. These are admissions of great magnitude.
Vijay Bhauguna: That is an aspect which I would candidly accept but as I told you from the last four five years our force has been undergoing this treatment and the SSP and the DIG and the police force which we have, they have the personnel to face a calamity but not of such a large magnitude or a catastrophe.
Karan Thapar: Its not just Chief Minister the magnitude of the calamity, the CAG report and the CAG report is a report of tremendous authority and respect.
Vijay Bhauguna: That is..that is...
Karan Thapar: Let me finish Chief Minister, that CAG report goes one step further, it says no actionable programs exist in Uttarakhand for the various types of disasters the state could face. That means that Uttarakhand does not have a disaster management plan to tackle the type of cloud burst, glacier collapse and flooded rivers that you have just experienced.
Vijay Bhauguna: Yes, it is true that we do not meet the norms or the standards which they National Disaster Relief officials or the CAG is recommending, but I doubt any state has that capacity or that capability. It is something which we are facing with and I think it is high time now that we will have to not only give more focus on this but give importance all to our own personnel that in case of any eventuality or calamity they can concentrate and work hard. But as I told you earlier.
Karan Thapar: You know Chief Minister, you say that probably no state meets the required norms of Disaster Management and that may be true but the point is that Uttarakhand, unlike many other states, is uniquely prone to disasters and uniquely prone in fact to glacier collapses, to flooded rivers, to periodic cloud bursts. Therefore in your case this is a terrible lapse.
Vijay Bhauguna: That is an aspect which has to be looked into and certainly now the time has come that we will have to pull up our socks and to do something in this regard. But right now you see with the calamity...
Karan Thapar: Can I make one further point Chief Minister because the impression that The Times of India article created this morning and remember it was a banner front page story. And the impression that you are now endorsing by your honesty this evening is that in fact Uttarakhand is only now hastily putting together a disaster management response after the disaster has struck and you didn't have an adequate plan before the disaster happened and that shakes people's confidence.
Vijay Bhauguna: Mr Thapar, with great respect to you and all those people who are writing articles, no even the government on India can not and does not have a force to deal with such a magnitude and with such a problem which we are facing. It is not a disaster you see, it is not a disaster for small scale. 38,000 square miles of area is affected and no human being, no force, even the Army. The entire generals are here, they have never seen such a thing in their entire lives.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely
Vijay Bhauguna: I have talked to Lt General Anil Chait, so now you see blaming this entire thing on the fact that the board had not met or the police persons are not trained in an area of 38,000 square miles. My dear good friend, no agency or no authority would have done anything.
Karan Thapar: That I accept Chief Minister, the size of the disaster is incredible.
Vijay Bhauguna:With due respect to all those who are showing their love and affection, who are showing their concern to the state. They must understand that disaster of such a scale, it is like what happened in a tsunami, it is an Himalayan tsunami.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely
Vijay Bhauguna: And a disaster force would consist of 100, 200, 400, 500, 1000 people. How many people we are going to train? It is one aspect that you are highlighting only to rub Uttarakhand, you are not putting balm on the wounds of people of Uttarakhand. You are trying to say that had this force been there, this disaster would not have taken place. You see a cloud burst over Kedarnath, which swept the entire town of Kedarnath right up to Gaurikund, we could have saved.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister let me interrupt, I am raising issues
Vijay Bhauguna:No, I am sorry Mr Thapar. What crisis we are facing, the situation we are faced with, the type of rehabilitation and rescue work is going on in the state, this trivial issue, I would say, is not relevant or predominant for me to answer at this stage.
Karan Thapar: Except Mr Chief Minister that these are issues...
Vijay Bhauguna: It is an academic question which we can address after we are through with this rehabilitation and rescue work.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister give me chance. Let me bring up another issue that has been in the news and that has affected people's judgment because it's concerned them. The meteorological office has repeatedly said that in fact advance warnings of heavy rains were given some 48 hours in advance.
Vijay Bhauguna: Mr Thapar you have lived in Dehradun.
Karan Thapar: Can I finish?
Vijay Bhauguna: I know what you are asking. You have lived in Dehradun and we have got weather forecast given the heavy rains, did you leave the Dehradun when you were six years in the academy and there were forecasts of heavy rains. Over 1 lakh of tourists was present in Uttarakhand and when I tell them vacate Uttarakhand, leave Uttarakhand because heavy rains are predicted; do you think anyone would adhere to it? It was not area specific; we were not informed whether could bursts or whether flash floods are going to take place. These reports do come to us but then in such a big state where lakhs of tourists come in a particular season, I don't know from where to evacuate.
Karan Thapar: Can I
Vijay Bhauguna: Even if I say leave Uttarakhand, rains are coming, will people take it seriously?
Karan Thapar: Can I make a point? Are you suggesting that although the meteorological office gave warnings 48 hours in advance of heavy rains, these were not specific and they were not clear enough? Should they have been more clear?
Vijay Bhauguna: Yes, that's correct. How can you say you are going to have heavy rainfall? Everyday we read heavy rainfall expected in Himachal, snowfall expected in Himachal then what, do you vacate people? You say Europe is going to face acute cold winter, do people stop going to Europe? You see, we have to have more advanced technology, information being area specific. And nobody in the wildest dreams, even the environmentalists and ecologists could say that there is a cloud burst over the Kedarnath.
Karan Thapar: Give me a moment, you talk about the need for more advanced technology. Experts are now saying quite more openly in television studios as well as in the newspapers that you have Doppler radars and a network of Doppler radars could have put together for as little as 15 or 20 crore and had it been done so, you would have got three to four hours advance notice of cloud bursts which would have permitted emergency evacuation. Why were those not put in place?
Vijay Bhauguna: We were in continuous correspondence with the central government in the land had been identified, there were certain procedures we tried to be followed, certain formalities which had to be completed and the state government had done it and we were very close to putting up a Doppler radar. It is unfortunate that this tragedy has struck us.
Karan Thapar: Are you suggesting that in fact bureaucrat procedures and red tape delayed the setting up of Doppler radar and that this
Vijay Bhauguna: No, no you see, there are certain concerns of ministries concerned - the Home Ministry, the Defense Ministry, so many, we have to take permissions and we had ourselves got forward with this proposal. And the proposal has been accepted, land had been identified near Mussoorie.
Karan Thapar: But how long has these procedure been going on for? I get this impression from you that it's been going on for several months if not years.
Vijay Bhauguna: No, it was in the pipeline and I was pursuing it. In fact, we had a meeting also with the minister concerned and we had finalised the land, everything. It was just a bad luck or misfortune that before the radars could be put up this deluge has taken place in Uttarakhand.
Karan Thapar: Alright. Let's then come Chief Minister to a concern that would have occurred to the audience, the audience will say listening to you that in fact cloud bursts are not uncommon in Uttarakhand, they happen fairly often and frequently they lead to flash floods, surely these Doppler radars, the land where they should have been installed, the bureaucratic procedure for clearing them should have been done not six months ago but four, five, six, seven years ago. In fact, it should have happened almost when you set up the state Disaster Management Authority. Do you believe that your predecessors, and I am not blaming you by any means personally but do you believe Uttarakhand governments are responsible for delay and dragging their feet?
Vijay Bhauguna: That is a way of looking at it but yes it could have been installed much earlier, so many thing could have been done earlier in time. But as I am talking to you today, you see, my entire attention and focus is on rescue and rehabilitation of a magnitude which the Indian Army officials say they have not seen in their lifetime. We are faced with a very stupendous work of saving lives, of providing rehabilitation. Havoc we are facing.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to that, I want to ask you about the size and
Vijay Bhauguna: I will sit with you and do a postmortem of what could have been and what could not have been done but today I will appreciate if the media is more concerned about the rescue and the rehabilitation works that we have to do.
Karan Thapar: Let's come in fact to the enormous task you have faced. The size and scale of this tragedy is awesome, your Principle Secretary Rakesh Sharma has gone on record to say that the death count could be shockingly huge. Are we talking about hundreds, are we talking about thousands, god forbid, are we talking about tens of thousands?
Vijay Bhauguna: You see, there is no speculation in this. In a bulletin which has been issued right two hours before we have said that 556 bodies have been noticed. You see bodies have flown in the river, they are buried deep in the slush and the Army is trying to reach to the areas with the walk between Gaurikund to Kedarnath, the 18 mile stretch, Rambada all is finished. So far, Kedarnath is coming, you have seen the visuals, there is so much of slush and debris. We do not know how many bodies are buried, unless and until the complete feedback from the military, from the ITBP, from my revenue officers, from those who have lost their dear ones, then only we will be able to arrive at a figure. But yes, I told the Prime Minister that the causality may be in hundreds
Karan Thapar: Is it possible it can go up into thousands because after all because so many bodies have got.
Vijay Bhauguna: It may be, it may not be, I am keeping my fingers crossed. But yes, the disaster and the calamity has taken many precious lives.
Karan Thapar: One other quick question on that, because so many of the bodies have gone washed down flooded rivers, because so many may be buried under silt and under rocks, will we ever know the accurate final death count or will it always be an estimate?
Vijay Bhauguna: We will know because the travel agents, the tourists, the families who have lost their dear ones, the relatives, they are coming forward and asking about their whereabouts. So, ultimately when people will not reach home, naturally their dear ones will make queries and we will be able to then identify and come to a figure. But many many people have lost their lives, it is very tragic, very very pathetic and my heart goes out to them. And the entire people of my state or the country are grief stricken at this hour.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister what about the thousands that are stranded in the higher reaches of the Uttarakhand. The Hindustan Times estimates that more than 50,000 people are still awaiting rescue. What is your figure?
Vijay Bhauguna: No, that is rubbish. I don't know why the media is trying to blow things out of proportion.
Karan Thapar: So what is the accurate figure?
Vijay Bhauguna: Today what I can say, about 30,000 people have been evacuated and they have left Uttarakhand. Yes, there are people who are there stranded but at safe havens. They are in Badrinath, there is no threat to life, they are in Joshimath, there is no threat to life, they are in Gaurikund, no threat to life. Now these places, some are in Darchula, these people who are now, say about 15 to 20 thousand people, they are safe. But the difficulty is I can not move them out because the road connectivity has been washed off.
Karan Thapar: How long will it take to bring them all out?
Vijay Bhauguna: The bridges have been washed out. So, I have to pull them out only through alternate routes, by making new roads or by bringing them through choppers.
Karan Thapar: How long will that take Chief Minister?
Vijay Bhauguna: You know that the weather is very cloudy, 36 choppers..... Evacuation is in progress, everyday we are removing 1000-1500 people, airlifting them. Some roads have open, the Uttarkashi road has open, the Ghansali road has open. I can send you the entire details. People are moving out also by road, I think it will take me another 15 days to complete the evacuation of all tourists. But then my task will start of rebuilding, of compensating my own people who are.
Karan Thapar: Let me stop you there , you are saying it will take 15 days to evacuate all the tourists who are stranded in the upper reaches and yet the meteorological department is saying that you will have rainfall again starting on the June 24 and some estimate are that once again it could be heavy rainfall. Will you find that your problem gets worse when the rains begin on Monday?
Vijay Bhauguna: I am keeping my fingers crossed, the Army is here, the ITBP is here, the NDRF team is here, my officials are here and now at least we have identified the people where they are staying, we know their numbers. We are giving them food, we are trying to provide medicine to them. Some are in the high ridges where the chopper have not been able to go.
Karan Thapar: But Chief Minister my question is will the return of rain on Monday, because that is what is predicted and it is predicted that it will be heavy rain as well, will that set you back?
Vijay Bhauguna: You know, we don't have continuous rains in hills, the rain comes and then the clouds are clear.
Karan Thapar: But when you have heavy rains again, will that set you back?
Vijay Bhauguna: Whenever the weather is clear we will definitely move forward and there are people who are safe there is no threat, only some inconvenience to them that they are stranded but we are providing all facilities. And I am sure that the Army and the ITBP and the paramilitary forces will be able to bring them to a place from where I can give them transport by land.
Karan Thapar: My last question Chief Minister, it's not just tourists, its not just pilgrims who have suffered huge losses. Your own state has suffered a major tragedy.
Vijay Bhauguna: I am saying so.
Karan Thapar: You have lost roads, you have lost houses, most importantly people have lost their livelihood. How long will it take you to rebuild Uttarakhand?
Vijay Bhauguna: Mr Thapar, there are so many remote villages of which we have no information and there is hilly terrain people have not been able to reach there, my telephone lines are off, there is no electricity because a number of poles have been damaged, there is drinking water problem. How do I take supplies of food to these remote villages, how do I take kerosene, gas? So many problems which I know we will face and my own people are also suffering. Whether it is my people or others, it is all Indian who are suffering and as the state government, the Center has given me assistance of 1,000 crore, the Home Minister is coming tomorrow.
Karan Thapar: Chief Minister let me put this to you, it's my last question, you have a major monumental perhaps a challenge of a magnitude that no Chief Minister has faced in recent times, how long will it take you to put Uttarakhand back on its feet, to build the roads, to build the bridges, to build the building and to rebuild people's lives.
Vijay Bhauguna: It will take months and months and months. And so far the shrine of Kedarnath is concerned; I don't think we will be able to open it to the pilgrims for at least one and a half to two years.
Karan Thapar: Alright Chief Minister on behalf of everyone we wish you the best of luck. You have a Herculean task and all of us pray that the rains hold out on Monday and that you are able to put your best effort into saving lives and rebuilding the state.
Vijay Bhauguna: And the suggestions and the points which you have highlighted have been taken home and I will act on it.
Karan Thapar: I am grateful for that Chief Minister, thank you very much for taking time and talking to Devil's Advocate. That was the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand in an exclusive interview to Devil's Advocate, being extremely honest about the state of disaster management in Uttarakhand.