Even as the death toll from Gujarat races towards the 50,000 mark and more, the consequences of not having a clear Disaster Management Plan are becoming painfully evident.
Unlike Uttar Pradesh, Orissa or Latur, Gujarat -- arguably India's most globally connected state -- has had international aid agencies rushing rescue teams with heartening speed. Many countries have announced generous monetary aid as have Indians across the country who continue to contribute money and material for the quake-affected people.
But all the help and goodwill cannot make up for the absence of a co-ordinated Disaster Management Plan. Our problem is that we refuse to learn from the past and tend to mothball reports and studies, instead of using them to prepare for the future. After the 1993 earthquake that rocked Latur and other villages in Maharashtra, killing 10,000 people we have little excuse for failing to have a DMP in all the states and the Centre.
The World Bank's rehabilitation assistance to Maharashtra in 1993 included two important initiatives. First, it started the MERDP – or Maharashtra Earthquake Rehabilitation Documentation Project -- to record the entire rehabilitation process. The MERDP, through scientific process documentation, has catalogued the process of decision making, speed of implementation, chain of command and chronicled the lessons from the rehabilitation process.
Second, the World Bank funded the creation of a comprehensive DMP for Maharashtra which included a detailed survey of all districts in terms of availability of people, infrastructure and NGOs to help in the rehabilitation process. Unfortunately, the second report remains just a well prepared document which is unlikely to be operationalised in an instant.
It is now acknowledged that the Latur earthquake is one example of an extremely well managed rescue effort -- but it still held important lessons for improving the process in future. Today, these reports are readily available for every state and the Centre as a base on which to prepare their own DMPs. Here are some important lessons documented from the Latur project:
Need for a DMP
Not only do individual states need detailed DMPs which covers map resources but they have to be converted into easily operational drills at the local level. A clear chain of command, division of responsibility, and back up plans are imperative for eliminating panic and confusion and allowing rescue operations to function smoothly.
In any emergency relief operation, the first few hours are crucial in saving lives and the longer it takes for the administration to respond to the disaster, greater are the casualties. Naturally, local area disaster programmes are the first to kick off rescue work and state-level and national level efforts are more focussed on restoring infrastructure links, providing heavy equipment, co-ordinating food and supplies and directing the rebuilding and rehabilitation effort.
One important factor which helped efficient co-ordination in Maharashtra was that the control room for co-ordinating relief operations was not located at the police headquarters (as is customary) but within the chief secretary's office. It was manned by eight IAS secretaries of the state government, which ensured that there was swift co-ordination between various departments and no red tape.
Though the chief minister's presence is vital for direction (Then Maharashtra chief minister Sharad Pawar personally supervised all relief operations for the first eight days by setting up camp in Sholapur, the nearest town to the disaster-affected areas) rescue and rehabilitation work, every other VIP visit ought to be banned. This was the important lesson from Latur.
VIP visits, especially those of publicity-seeking politicians, are always disruptive. In Gujarat they brought into focus the utter callousness of these visitors. These visits divert key personnel to perform escort duties or to brief politicians and eats up meagre resources such as cars, police personnel etc.
In Gujarat, Sonia Gandhi's motorcade was pelted when the security staff made way for her by scaring the already traumatised people by pretending there were fresh tremors. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit stalled relief and rescue operations for an entire day as his security staff shut Bhuj airport.
Good Samaritans rushing to the rescue also become a problem, as they did in Maharashtra when they choked up highways and blocked the transport of relief material. Even in Bhuj, the authorities and NGOs are now appealing to people not to come in to help, because it is straining the damaged infrastructure and meagre resources of the affected area.
Credible aid collection
Disasters bring out the best and the worst among people. Keeping company with the moving stories about people and army jawans risking their lives to help neighbours or the large-hearted donations that are pouring in from around the world are the ugly reports of thieves looting victims and preying on their loss.
Aid collectors are another lot with unscrupulous elements. Everybody from political parties, to cable operators and the neighbourhood shyster, quickly plastered tin boxes with 'earthquake relief' and went on a collection spree which has little to do with the disaster.
Amidst these are genuine Samaritans -- who want to ensure that their aid efforts really reach the victims and are not gobbled up by a vast and corrupt government machinery. Their fears are more than justified, but they often end up hampering aid efforts.
Controlling the quality of aid
Storing unwanted aid and perishables is a serious problem. A lesson from Latur was that even the quake-affected did not want some of the clothes which were sent to them and that disposing off heaps of unwanted clothes became a problem in itself. Even food packets which pour in from overseas -- unless they are in the form of raw grain and pulses -- has to be tested by the government as fit for consumption before assuming responsibility of distribution to the victims. Medicines have to be similarly checked to see that they are not out of date.
Finally, unlike the army which alone moves into rescue operations fully armed with equipment, food, tents and relief material -- neither NGOs nor government servants are similarly equipped. Setting up basic facilities for rescue teams so that they can focus on their work is itself a part of the relief operations.
Sensitivity training for the media
Though television crews did a fantastic job by being the first to report the quake and bringing us the fastest pictures and the most moving stories about the catastrophe, their efforts can do with some sensitivity training. Politicians depend on television images for their survival and television teams could do well to avoid hectoring the prime minister and other VIPs to visit quake-hit areas.
Every single disaster in India has led to reports about how VIP political visitors disrupt operations, throw tantrums, foment dissatisfaction among locals, make unreasonable demands on administration and hold out false promises to victims.
In 1993, Sharad Pawar managed to persuade then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao not to dash down to Latur for several days. In the BJP-led Gujarat the people had no such luck, but surely television networks could have avoided stressing that it was Vajpayee's first visit to the state and drawing attention to the fact that he had not rushed to Gujarat earlier. Such reportage only puts pressure on politicians to record their presence at disaster sites.
(Incidentally, I wonder why the prime minister went to Gujarat dressed up in a in a dark formal Nehru jacket, as though he was to address the United Nations rather than provide solace to traumatised victims. His stiff demeanour was another problem. Is it any wonder that two victims have returned the cheques that he distributed?)
Finally, there is the question of what happens to all the money that we donate. Aid has been pouring in from all over the world and there is a real fear that large chunks of it will be gobbled up by an unscrupulous administration.
In fact, Anang Shah, an Ahmedabad resident and writer, has written to the Gujarat government to appoint a 'reputed international firm to audit the aid being received from all over the world and spent on earthquake relief.' His demand needs to be taken up by industry associations and the public because everybody is worried about misappropriation and irregularities in utilising donations meant for the victims.
Shah says there are already reports about misuse and urges the state government to make the process of collecting donations transparent so that it does not deter potential donors from contributing more generously.
As is obvious, such co-ordinated action is only possible if there is a written DMP with a clear structure and chain of command. Also, reviewing the role of NGOs and their preparedness for tackling disasters as well as sensitivity training for the media have to be done as an on-going exercise and not after a disaster.
But it can only happen if there is a DMP in the first place.
Design: Dominic Xavier