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India's flawed disaster management story

October 17, 2013 13:00 IST

The successful effort to combat Cyclone Phailin threatens to put disaster mitigation, and a fundamental overhaul of how disaster management in India is structured, on the back-burner, says Anand Sarkar

Honestly, it is not the greatest job on the planet being a disaster management professional. There is never an ordinary day at the workplace, if you can call it that. The outcomes of efforts are usually in black and white; you saved the day or compounded the misery of what was already a -- disaster. Our very own National Disaster Management Authority has suffered similar travails but has managed to earn some temporary breathing space in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin, after enduring searing criticism during the Uttarakhand flash floods in June.

It might be comparing apples with oranges, but fundamentally the two are fruits after all. Thus, there is a case for placing the two recent events side by side.

Uttarakhand was a perfect disaster since it had the element of surprise going totally for it on all fronts. It is every authority's worst nightmare but the scramble to provide much-needed succour to the affected faced Herculean odds that were largely man-made. Cyclone Phailin, on the other hand, was a perfect example of getting good grades in a Board examination -- swallow the syllabus, repeat past question papers and you are guaranteed success.

The Bay of Bengal today is a highly sensor-networked environment, providing high quality early warning. This is due to past cyclonic events and more importantly the 2004 tsunami. Phailin was identified as a threat more than 90 hours in advance. That, allied with sticking to the textbook by forcing people out of the path of the storm, ensured casualties never even breached the moderately high two digits. It is a phenomenal feat in the context of post-independence India that a warning was heeded without dithering and deserves a very special place in the history books.

But coming back to life in disaster management; setting a benchmark leads to expectations, and that was proved rather starkly since on the same day as the cyclone, a stampede at a temple in Madhya Pradesh resulted in mass casualties. As is the case always, success clouds flaws, and flaws at the heart of India's NDMA story are very much there to stay for now. The principal problem is, instead of being a nimble-footed organisation that can provide solutions in a jiffy, and provide policy and enforcement oversight, it is instead well on its way into becoming a bloated unspecialised-manpower heavy "central authority".

The fundamental flaw is the creation of the National Disaster Response Force. While it has been lauded for its efforts, the force was created through the conversion of paramilitary police battalions. This has yielded a lot of muscle power, 10 battalions worth (a battalion is anywhere between 300 to 800) but little else. The fact remains that if the NDRF has to go anywhere the Indian Air Force has to fly it, leading to inevitable logjams especially when disaster strikes with surprise (read Uttarakhand), thus, blunting its effectiveness. But more importantly training and maintaining this massive central force sucks away funds from the one thing India sorely lacks -- first responders who can respond within a few minutes of a disaster. It is a well-known fact that fire brigades and paramedical services are lagging for decades in many parts of the country, and these are the very people who provide the best first responders. Firemen and paramedics have not grown in numbers in proportion to the population and lag years behind in qualitative training.

It is an expensive proposition to create and maintain these resources, and any penny that doesn't reach them is a cause for very big concern. The last time money was allocated for fire services was through a central initiative in 2010 -- the sum was a paltry Rs 205 crore.

The NDRF in its current form is not an answer to disaster management in India. What is instead needed is a slim force that can bring with it crucial command and control assets, and highly-skilled professionals who will offer specialised solutions to local first responders. This is the very model that is followed by two disaster management agencies that set benchmarks, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations.

Even more crucially the more bloated, in terms of unspecialised manpower, the NDMA/NDRF become, they suck away attention from what is their principal agenda as laid out in the Disaster Management Act -- disaster prevention. It is not only human cost in a disaster, but a very real economic one as well that is currently swept under the very fat carpet that the Government of India treads upon.

In the US, Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors have the authority to declare no-building zones and have to accord clearances to economic projects and major events that lead to people congregating. It's been eight years since the NDMA has been around, and there is not a single action plan to ensure events such as the Madhya Pradesh stampede don't happen. There is no local authority that wants to take on the task of enforcing disaster prevention measures.

Various policy initiatives formulated by the NDMA on this front have been abandoned halfway. True, it is not a very pleasant thought that in addition to dealing with a bevy of bureaucracy, you might have to get an additional clearance from an NDMA inspector but we are learning the very real costs of not doing so.

Image: A woman cries after a stampede at a temple in Madhya Pradesh's Datia district which claimed 115 lives on Sunday  

Photograph: Reuters

Anand Sankar
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