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Encroaching Senior Citizens’ Space

The 17th June calamity in Uttarakhand has been widely covered in the media. Its enormity was grossly underestimated in the first instance in typical bureaucratic manner to first downplay the damage. The Prime Minister made an aerial survey of some areas and announced a financial assistance package of just Rs. 1,000 crores! However the visuals on television screens were showing unprecedented damage to roads, bridges, hotels, houses and almost all assets in vast areas of Kedarnath, Gaurikund and several other areas. The loss of life and property looked to be of the order of lakhs of crores of rupees. My own assessment was that it would require no less than Rs. 50,000 crores to rebuild all the infrastructure and private properties. I posted my views on a few newspapers, magazines and TV channels online immediately after the announcement of the paltry package of financial assistance of Rs. 1,000 crores. It’s not the money which was important, but it betrayed such criminal ignorance of the magnitude of the disaster and the required quick response. Had the disaster management been in the hands of trained professional, many lives could have been saved, although the properties would have suffered losses in any case. I have seen the creation of the Disaster Management Wing in the Home Ministry of the Government of India, and was quite aware of its level of preparations to meet any disaster of even the Bhopal Gas industrial disaster, not to talk of the Uttarakhand kind catastrophe. The reason for public agitation against the operation of the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu owed it to the public perception of the government agencies not being qualified, prepared or equipped to meet any eventuality of a nuclear plant accident. I had posted my views again suggesting not wasting time in fault finding but devoting our energies in devising sound plans for disaster management and quick but effective response. I wrote that it would require re-calibration of the organization entrusted with the responsibility of disaster management. Essentially what is required is to professionalize the disaster management wing after freeing it from bureaucratic stranglehold completely. Bureaucrats are undoubtedly very erudite and capable people, but disaster management is a field for advanced professional with high grade training. After all, the mess created by the failed civil administration had to be handed over to the professionals of the Army, Air Force, ITBP, SSB and others of the same kind to provide relief and rescue operations on war footing. The public mood was so much wrathful that the government ‘s delayed response came for deploying the professional defense forces  to do what the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and its mirror images in the states, in cooperation with the NDRF (National Disaster Relief Force) should have initiated even before the government came to the decision to issue orders. All it had done so far was formulating guidelines for disaster management and circulate them to the states to act upon, as disaster management was a state subject under the Constitution of India!  Such jurisdictional excuses offend the public very badly. The need of the hour is to constitute a constitutional Authority for disaster management, manned totally by professional of high caliber. Such status is given to several less important organizations, whereas it is still governed in a typical bureaucratic and political manner.

There will be a well informed debate on the man-made aspects of the tragedy, response of the state government and our preparedness for an effective and timely response without entrusting the responsibility to the armed forces to clear the mess created by failed administrative machinery on the civil side.

Even as such postmortem goes on, one very significant aspect ought to be considered with due respect to the senior citizens of this country. The Badrinath-Kedarnath Dhams are a sort of reserved space for the elderly citizens. The problems of the aged, which the Western world has been combating through several institutions for the aged like homes for the elderly or other social support systems, was recognized and addressed by the Indian social scientists centuries ago. Pilgrimages to these Dhaams or religious shrines were one such institutionalized arrangement. Viewed in the right perspective, the 4th stage in the 4 four stages cycle of a life span of 100 years encouraged people to proceed on a journey towards Sanyaas or exploration of all that fell beyond worldly pleasures, something akin to renunciation. One acquires adequate maturity at that age to pursue such higher thoughts. Such pursuits needed the serene, quiet, calm, salubrious surroundings provided only by the hills. It was visited and inhabited by such enlightened and evolved souls as Himalayas ideally provided. People went to these areas for “peace”, “happiness” and “God experience”. That was a kind of “reserved area” for the senior citizens. The difficult terrain and inaccessibility of the hills, coupled with months of tracking that these shrines demanded, ensured a safe and secure environment for the elderly. If they performed the pilgrimage and returned to their homes, well and good; but if they failed to survive the harsh terrain or weather, it was also welcome since the pilgrimage was undertaken at the end of the life cycle. Alas! It is no more so. All that stands encroached and violated by the rich and powerful for whom a visit to the Himalayas is a pleasure trip, a tour, a honeymoon.

The hills cannot take this load. Even if the infrastructure is developed to meet the demand of the “tourism & hospitality” industry, the hills cannot accommodate such huge influx of tourists. It is not a tourist spot but a pilgrimage spot. Can our greed allow us to keep it as a pilgrim spot only? Modernity will not allow it. What was reserved for the mature citizens only has been appropriated by young and even babies in arms! The Indian society is afflicted by the sudden boom of the problems of the elderly. The Government of India and State Governments are devising schemes to provide for the care of the elderly. Laws are in place to compel children to give care to their aged parents. But newspapers are full of neglect and violence against aged parents by their sons and daughters, something that made an average Indian shudder only 50 years ago. Sons beating or killing their father or throwing him out of the house is a new phenomenon in the Indian society. Where do the old people go now? Earlier they could go on pilgrimages, which were affordable and long, giving the young son and his wife enough peace and space for a month or two. With ghettoes of concrete structures in upcoming towns shrinking all space even for a nuclear family in cities, the problem is simply unmanageable. It is worse for the widowed mother, who is cruelly abandoned in Vrindavan or other holy town to be cared by the merciful citizens of the society. Next in this series is the foreign tour of aged parents with visa expiring before their return to the home country and who suffer great adversity being language challenged. The senior citizens are robbed of their privilege of going to the Himalayas to spend some time “undisturbed”. The nation may have to ponder on the wisdom of our ancestors, who devised the pilgrimages, identified serene locations, protected them from pollution by assigning them the status of holy places, minimized the presence of government, encouraged social interaction of the like-minded, provided mutual social and emotional support systems for the elderly and provided an opportunity to everyone without discrimination to move from the mundane life to sublimity of the wonders of the creation-the multiverses.

Only if the Himalayas are spared for the pilgrims alone!

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  1. #1 by jack on June 28, 2013 - 6:23 pm

    Nice Post. Its really a very good article. I noticed all your important points. Thanks”

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