Disaster management= disaster

What’s The Big Deal?

By Poonam I Kaushish

God’s Own Country Kerala resembles a disaster zone as floods swamp the State leaving over 200 killed,
2,23,000 living in 1568 relief camps as people hanker for relief. The story resounds across States as the deluge ravages cities, erases villages, sluices roads, damages crops, sweeps bodies, cripples train services, shut down airports, wrecks the economy bringing everything to a grinding halt. Mumbai yesterday, Kochi today, Chennai tomorrow, Kolkata, Guwahati next. Underscoring a stark reality: Government’s fiasco and failure to prepare expertise in predicting rainfall intensity and its impact. Succinctly, disaster management is a disaster.
Thanks to Government’s criminal casualness — kaam chalao! Babudom’s choord yaar attitude, unabated construction, insufficient cleaning of drains, encroachments of sprawling slums alongside rivers and streams, shoddy management of storm water drains, dug-up roads, no de-silting etc. Heavy development had destroyed green spaces and mangrove forests, its natural flood protection resulting in inadequate drainage system as no amount of man-made storm water drains can make up for natural drains. While the severity of the rains can be termed as an ‘act of God’, the mess, misery and damage is certainly man-made and mostly caused by human error.
An example. Tamil Nadu has witnessed 8 severe cyclones in 13 years so one expects the national and State disaster management teams would be hands-on to tackle the emergency. The reality: Zilch, as disaster preparedness is non-existent. There is no clear line of communication or coordination among State agencies involved in search and rescue operations, only families checking on each other.
Months of flooding in 13 States have caused huge economic losses and heaped misery on millions of people. Questionably, why is the country’s preparedness for natural disasters so poor? Why are long-term responses not developed to what is an annual expected problem? Why aren’t adequate arrangements made to ensure survivors don’t die of starvation, due to the Administration’s ineptitude. Do we know the ABC of disaster management? Are we inept or plain lazy bordering on the ke pharak painda hai attitude?
Till date 2,000 people have been killed and more than 42 million affected — displaced or stranded. Alas, our preparedness to deal with calamity is as rag-tag as ever. Far from having a defence system against elemental fury, the Central and State Governments seem to be banking on hope that any future disaster would not be as destructive as the last. Not for our polity implementation of basic suggestions and developing long-term responses.
Unfortunately, in a nation natured on short-cuts and quick-fix solutions, none knows anything about disaster management or finding lasting solutions. Let alone spell it, our netagan have, never even heard about it. They do not know the A,B,C,D of managing a crisis. More shocking, according to a report by the UN, India spends about $10 billion every year for crisis management. Could we spend this sum of money for disaster management?
Across the globe disaster management is seen as an essential part of good governance and integral to development planning, not so in India. There is lack of know-how for assessing risks at local level, poor enforcement of standards and regulations and inadequate risk mitigation, no flood risk mapping concept and flood forecasting network. Add to this failure towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, lack of coordination and inadequate training at the ground level totals disaster in mitigating losses.
Besides, we have yet to understand the atypical relationship between development and disasters. Disasters can set back development even as post-disaster scenario provides new opportunities for development. Similarly, development can reduce vulnerability and yet, the same development can increase vulnerability.
Think. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was set-up amidst much fanfare with an ambitious three-layer (national, State and district) plan to decentralise disaster management right up to district levels and guidelines and policies were drawn to that effect. On paper: Good. On ground: Dud.
A 2013 scathing CAG report minced no words: The NDMA neither had information and control over progress of (disaster management-related) work at the State level nor was it successful in implementation of various projects. It is “ineffective in its functioning in most of the core areas.” What’s more, the Authority has been functioning without its core advisory committee of experts that advises it on different aspects of disaster management for the past three years!
Said a senior NDMA official, “The NDMA was bound to fail, as we were always a top-heavy organisation with many having no expertise in the realm of disaster. Worse, it is not performing several functions prescribed in the Disaster Management Act, 2005. No long-term responses have been developed, as it is assumed that by sanctions monies their job is done.” Who will be held accountable? Whose head will roll?
Woefully, there are no emergency operations centres or trained personnel to search and rescue people. Shockingly, this is not due to lack of money, since 2010 till date the Central Government has budgeted over $5 billion to prepare for disasters with the Centre contributing 75%.
Experts aver due to global warming frequent and intense extreme weather events means India must improve its planning and reduce the potential impact of disasters before they occur. Communication and connectivity enhancement have become the need of the hour. Satellite images tell us about the affected areas during a calamity, but we need higher resolution images.
Towards that end, our leaders need to involve experts and environmentalists with a track record of research and policy making. Who would evaluate the ecological problems, study its context and be involved in decision and policy-making. With special emphasis on problems created by burgeoning population and its impact on the local eco-system, growth of hap-hazard housing, environmental insanitation and decay.
The problem is neither States nor Centre have a robust decision-support system. If the meteorological department indicates heavy rainfall, what are the implications? Who should be evacuated, and from where to where? We need to move from simple forecasting to impact forecasting and ensure information flows faster than the floodwater. In such situations, the communication system is the first to collapse.
High time we transit quickly to preparedness-centric approach instead of continuing to be in the relief-centric mode and invest in better flood forecasting policy. One way environmentalists believe this could be improved is if evacuated people had safe structures on firm ground and not in flood plains; something authorities have not been able to ensure.
Another is for States to build regional mutual-aid centres, with quick response teams as it is wasteful for each State to build parallel inventories, forecasting systems and teams as these are Alongside, flood destruction could be minimized if forecasting and mapping is accurate. However climate change complicates this as places which did not previously suffer floods are now experiencing unprecedented levels of rainfall.
True, Namo’s response has been dabang till date, undertaking aerial surveys of affected districts and earmarking monies from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. But this is not enough. India needs to focus on long-term planning else without a shift in approach each disaster will continue to frustrate the Government and plague people.
Remember, desperate situations demand desperate action. The Government must stop playing pied piper. Life is not about collating statistics but flesh and blood. No longer can we ostrich-like bury our heads in the sand and wail, what’s the big deal, disaster management never heard of it! —- INFA