Warned yet unprepared

Monsoon Mahyem

By Poonam I Kaushish

When it rains, it pours. And how! As annual rains shower a catastrophic effect across many States, they resemble disaster zones as floods erase villages, sluice roads, damage crops, sweep bodies, cripple train services, shut down airports, wreck economy bringing everything to a grinding halt. Promising more misery, more wrenching news bulletins and more cries for the Government to act as over 370 people have been killed, over one million displaced and thousands of homes inundated across six States. Succinctly, disaster management is a disaster
Southern Kerala and Karnataka alongside Western Maharashtra and Gujarat are the hardest hit with over 190,000 people living in relief camps in Kerala alone. In Karnataka nearly 700,000 have been evacuated and World Heritage Site Hampi is flooded. In Madhya Pradesh heavy rains killed 52 people and 69 in Gujarat and damaged crops. Worse, floods have washed away thousands of hectares of summer-sown crops, wrecked roads and rail lines causing widespread destruction.
Undeniably, the Government’s approach is one of criminal casualness —- kaam chalao! Like always it dishes out more of the same: deploy army, navy and air force to work with local emergency personnel for search, rescue and relief operations, financial aid of up to Rs 10,000 each to all calamity-hit families, flood compensation etc.
Less said the better of the shoddy unpreparedness among our civic authorities during monsoons which aggravates the problem: Insufficient cleaning of drains, inadequate pruning of over-burdened trees, dug up roads, no de-silting et al. The infrastructure is incapable of handling the first downpour, let alone what follows. It only reacts after things come to a grinding halt or people have lost their lives.
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. The worst thing is nobody seems to care as ‘feel-good’ has become the holy grail of the Establishment. It’s almost a national conspiracy, let’s ignore the warts and bad things, focus only on glitzy speeches and idolise success.
Alas, instead of finding a durable and sustainable solution to the problem, the Centre has taken recourse to short-cuts and quick-fix remedies which have compounded the mess. Primarily, because our policies are based on poor land management and myopic flood-control strategies. In fact, a cursory glance at the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Disaster Management shows that over 67.4 per cent area of the country is vulnerable to natural disasters like floods, cyclonic winds and storms. Yet the Government’s response is ke pharak painda hai.
Moreover, the authorities wake up to problems only when it stares them in the face. Questionably, why is India so underprepared? Why are long-term responses not developed to what is an annual expected problem? Do we know the ABC of disaster management? Why do politicians feel that mere sanctioning of hundreds of crores will solve the problem?
Little do they realize that funds doled out instead of helping people are used by most State Governments for everything other than disaster management. Unfortunately, many civic officials spend years lining their pockets instead of taking care of civic facilities. Scandalously, roads are dug up to ostensibly lay pipes in the rain!
Thereby, exposing the country’s poor disaster control. Bluntly, neither the Central Disaster Management Authority nor the State Disaster Boards implemented any project properly. Shockingly, according to a 2017 CAG report of 517 works approved between 2007-16, only 57% were completed as release of funds was delayed or there were delays in submitting project proposals and shortfall of sanctioned funds.
In addition, in some cases funds were diverted towards works that were not approved. For example, in Assam, Himachal and Tamil Nadu alone, Rs.36.50 crores was diverted towards works not approved. In Bihar of 24 projects 10 were delayed by 10-75 months. Besides, as the river topography constantly changed, uncompleted projects became redundant and it was found that project objectives were not met due to inadequate planning.
More striking is that majority of dams lack Emergency Action Plans and developers did not account for prevention of backflow of a river, “non-establishment of embankment near the sluice gate of rivers” like bank protection along Bhagirathi river in West Bengal and errors in the benefit-cost ratio.
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.
The CAG report 2015 submitted the NDMA had neither information nor control over the progress of disaster management work in State or could it successfully implement various projects it had initiated for disaster preparedness and mitigation. 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.
Asserted 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%. Consequently, the deluge promises more wretchedness and anguish.
There is lack of know-how for assessing risks at local level, poor enforcement of regulations, inadequate risk mitigation, no flood-risk mapping and flood forecasting network, failure towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, inadequate training at ground level totals disaster in mitigating losses.
What now? Time the Government stop behaving like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand and introduces better flood warning systems. First, educate public to modify homes and businesses to withstand floods, construct buildings above flood levels, tackle climate change, protect wetlands, plant trees, restore rivers to their natural courses, introduce water storage areas and increase spending on flood defences.
Two, reforestation should be undertaken on a war footing as forests soak up excess rainwater, prevent run-offs and damage from flooding. Alongside construct levees, dams, reservoirs and channels to divert floodwater, called floodways. Three, transit quickly to preparedness-centric approach instead of continuing to be relief-centric and better flood forecasting policy. One way is to evacuate people in safe structures on firm ground, not flood plains.
States need 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. Alongside, flood destruction could be minimized if forecasting and mapping is accurate. A word of caution: Climate change complicates this as places which did not previously suffer floods are now experiencing unprecedented levels of rainfall.
Certainly, Modi’s response has been muscular till date, undertaking aerial surveys of affected districts and earmarking monies from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. But this is not enough. Desperate situations demand desperate action. The time is far gone to play the pied piper and aver this is life, stupid! —— INFA