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The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

Bharat ke Mangal ki Yatra (India’s Mars Journey)

On the morning of September 24, 2014 (India time), the Mangalyaan-1 space probe entered into orbit of Mars. Mangalyaan-1 was designed and built in India, financed by Indian taxpayers, and launched on an Indian PSLV rocket from Shriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Over the course of a month, the probe orbited the Earth, progressively climbing to higher orbits before using Earth’s gravity to slingshot it toward Mars. When Mangalyaan finally reached Mars almost eleven months later, it became the first probe built in Asia to reach the Red Planet. This was also the first time that any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on their first attempt.

The Indian media was abuzz over this distinctive national accomplishment. Commentators praised the engineers and scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for reaching Mars cheaply and efficiently, but still flawlessly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed the goings-on at mission control in Bangalore, and then delivered a televised speech to a crowd of ISRO engineers. His speech, delivered partly in English and partly in Hindi, represents the rhetoric surrounding Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars (sorry, no subtitles):

PM Modi emphasized that the probe was built “indigenously and upon Indian effort, spreading from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar, and Faridabad to Rajkot”—for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie. The rhetoric of indigeneity and technological self-reliance is more than fifty years old. It was first articulated in the Third Five-Year Plan (issued in 1961), which stated that “India’s economy must not only expand rapidly, but must, at the same time, become self-reliant and self-generating.”

This proved to be an elusive goal. Certain industries became fully indigenous, but other remained out of India’s grasp. India’s military-industrial complex has so far failed to satisfy the nation’s needs, and India became, and remains, the world’s largest arms importer. Where India has succeeded in indigenization is in high-tech, big-science fields. India makes its own nuclear reactors and space probes, but still has to import more mundane equipment such as passenger jets.

Itty Abraham argues in The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb that when India became a nuclear power in 1974, it was too late to matter.1 In other words, by 1974 the ability to detonate a nuclear warhead no longer entitled a nation to membership in the elite club of the most technologically-sophisticated nations. Sadly, this seems to be the case for India’s space accomplishments as well. In his speech at ISRO, PM Modi declared, “With this particular success, ISRO joins an elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the Red Planet.” True as this may be, the world seems not to have taken much notice. Although the Indian media was thrilled by Mangalyaan’s arrival at Mars, the American media, at least, has remained unmoved. Mangalyaan was not even mentioned in today’s issue of the New York Times.

  1. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State (London: Zed Books, 1998), 166. []

Sixty-five years of Indian independence

Sixty-five years ago today, India gained independence from the British Empire. Today was the first August 15 that I got to spend in India; I passed it in the city of Jaipur. As a citizen of another nation that celebrates its own independence from Britain, it was interesting to see how Indians celebrated their independence. I missed the morning flag-hoisting at SMS Stadium, but I did get to see some of the decorations around Jaipur. Here are a few of my pictures.

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