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No systemic measures yet in disaster management

Kunal Shah

Disaster management wears different attires in various disaster seasons. Let’s start with a paradox: according to the latest Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) figures, more than 1,600 people have died in the recent past due to extreme weather events. However, we will never know the exact number of people who have died in heat waves, farmer suicides and cold waves.

Of late, the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) has been burdened to deal with multiple natural and man-made disasters. Emerging research has shown that climate change is ushering in atmospheric and geological changes, which is throwing up newer future catastrophes.

In 2016, the NDMA released the National Disaster Management Plan. This is a step forward in the right direction, but implementation of the plan document is still a far cry. Take the case of the recent Gopalganj flooding in Bihar. In the time it took the state government to declare it a disaster – as was the case – the Union government was unable able to waive of the octroi and other levies on relief material.

Non-profits thus ended up paying high taxes, which otherwise could have been used for relief work. Or sample a cold irony: cold wave is categorised as a national calamity by the IMD, but a heat wave is not. Therefore, the official number of deaths includes neither those who have died in heat waves nor those who were buried in cyclones or quakes.

In truth, paradoxes and irony kiss each other in India – the country has rich experience in drought, flood, cold wave and cyclone management, yet systemic measures are yet to show up in disaster management mechanisms. Occasional policy bravado wisdom looks great, but sadly, these critical aspects are left out of the much-needed implementation.

There are huge lessons to emulate. Take the case of the Chennai floods: in 2015, the city was submerged, but in 2016, the city administration geared itself to manage the floodwaters. The difference between the two years was early warning; the entire state machinery was put on alert.

We could also learn from other disaster management experiences in disaster-prone drought regions such as Ralegoan Siddhi in Maharashtra, and in Bundelkhand region where farmers have adopted water harvesting techniques, grow drought-resistant crops and appropriate agro inputs to double their income. Or take the case of cyclone-prone areas in Bangladesh where innumerable community radios have put fisher folk on alert and helped evacuate millions of people at risk.

When California was facing drought, watering lawns and parks was banned to save wastage of water. In many developed countries, soup kitchens have helped alleviate immediate hunger and provided succour to affected people. Today, we might console ourselves by shifting IPL matches to other cities (as if those cities don’t face water shortage problems). But this only reflects our comatose and mockery to the pain of those affected.

One of the primary tasks of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is to create alternative livelihoods for people affected by disasters. In the Sundarbans (West Bengal) where floods are a regular phenomenon – people have built economies in flood zones. In areas where water is scarce in Jharkhand, local people have built aquaculture economies to escape drought.

The people most affected by disasters are those who are poor, migrant and homeless. For them, even moving to a relief centre becomes challenging, given the lack of hygiene and security for women and children. For those affected communities, rebuilding a life remains an existential disaster.

India’s disaster management regime needs to realise that the country is already experiencing unusual weather events – whether it is Mumbai receiving 944 cm of rain in 2005 or different parts of the country facing recurring severe droughts or urbanising India throwing up new flood problems due to constructions in flood prone zones.

For example, the major flooding in Srinagar and Chennai recently was due to unplanned development and poor setting up of drainage systems. The images we witnessed are only going to become more stark and frequent. Those images will not easily fade away.

Seismic plate

Therefore, instead of waiting for disasters to befall, it is imperative to plan in order to proof populations against disasters. This may mean a diverse pan India strategy. It may mean putting in place stringent measures to ensure quakeproof constructions in Uttarakhand, which is sitting on a seismic plate. It may mean prohibiting constructions in low-lying areas, especially on historically marked areas to capture and store rainwater.

Whether it is the perennial flooding of the Assam airport in the rainy season or the disappearance of Bengaluru’s lakes creating flood zones in the city, we are only inviting disasters to become more deadly if we do not ban such constructions. Efforts must also be made to enforce strict laws that maintain construction near the sea is at a distance of 500 m.

This helps to stall the effects of cyclones and tsunamis. The rural job scheme must be implemented effectively to build and sustain water harvesting structures that can help drought-proof an area -- and not just to provide employment per se. This would require greater coordination between government agencies, city planners and local communities to work together as partners.

Digital engagement must become more pronounced to educate deprived farmers and vulnerable communities. This digitisation-monetisation needs to be taken to newer levels. More importantly, the DRR techniques must build the capacity of relief officials and workers to alleviate the pain of the affected people.

Disaster management needs to become more humane in its approach, and not become a second ‘disaster’ for the affected people. This is the most appropriate time to give fresh impetus to DRR as India enters an era of continuous climatic change.

(The writer is Director, Human Emergency Affairs, World Vision India)

This article was originally published in the Deccan Herald on 29th April, 2017

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