`There was no advance warning'

Published : Aug 26, 2005 00:00 IST



Interview with Krishna S. Vatsa, Secretary, Relief and Rehabilitation, Government of Maharashtra.

The floods were a testing ground for the Maharashtra Government's Disaster Management Plan, formulated more than seven years ago. Krishna S. Vatsa, Secretary, Relief & Rehabilitation, Government of Maharashtra, spoke to Lyla Bavadam about the plan, the on-going relief efforts, the lessons to be learnt and, most importantly, the fact that the floods have once again exposed the social and economic burdens of vulnerable sections of society.

When did the government realise the seriousness of the situation. Every weather report spoke of the possibility of very heavy rain. Goa had already been affected and parts of the Konkan were under water. Why did the government not think of some preemptive measures?

The flood crisis in the State actually started on July 9. About 15 people had died in Yavatmal. We've had the unusual situation of facing floods and droughts at the same time. After July 16, about 10 districts had serious floods. Around July 23, we had serious flooding in Ratnagiri and Raigad. We were focussed on the Konkan floods. Trains were stranded especially in Mangaon and Chiplun and we were busy evacuating passengers and getting them food. I was talking to the Air Force about airdropping food packets.

On the morning of July 26, the Chief Secretary, the DGP [Director General of Police] and myself went to see the extent of flooding in Ratnagiri and Raigad. The waters were receding but the roads were submerged and traffic was at a standstill. Mumbai was normal at that time when we took off from south Mumbai. We didn't leave from Santacruz [where the heavy rainfall had begun]. We had no early warning for the weather situation in Mumbai.

At 3-30 p.m. we got the news that it was raining heavily and the suburban railway tracks were under water. We thought we would deal with it as we deal with such situations every monsoon. We had a meeting with BEST [Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport], the Municipal Commissioner and others. We let people leave offices early, we deployed more buses. And we also took the decision to keep schools closed the next day. On the evening of July 26 perhaps we miscalculated the situation. We thought it would be four to five feet of water.

It was about five feet at Kalina by 2 p.m.

We were going by our normal experience. We thought the water would go down and traffic would move. That did not happen. The rain was unusually heavy. Our decision to deploy more buses actually backfired. The high water stalled the buses too and they further blocked the traffic. The water was just not draining. Traffic management completely loses its role once water is above three or four feet because vehicles are stalled. So the options we had were few - we couldn't deploy the fire brigade for rescue because they were immobilised. The BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] deployed its search and rescue team but it had only 32 people - not enough for the magnitude of the problem.

It was a very fast-developing problem. You couldn't keep up with it?

We just couldn't... lights went off, communications went off and the police had their own problems because all the police stations got flooded and they were busy moving persons who were in custody. Their vehicles were immobilised. You must remember we received no advance warnings at all.

But this is exactly the point - in a crisis everything stops functioning so a disaster management plan cannot rely on normal services. So where does the problem lie? Is it that the plan is too dependent on these services? Or does the plan have to be made simpler?

Disaster management is always fairly simple. Our standard response is to rush in the fire brigade, search and rescue teams, and the police. If these resources are not adequate, you rush in the Army and the Navy. I was struggling to get the Army and Navy but they also could not reach the place.

Air rescue?

There's no question of this at night. [During the crisis period] there were only two days when Air Force choppers could take off. And when you have complete darkness, a sea of water, no communications, the Navy would never risk its divers from the choppers.

Who was actually in charge because disaster management requires one person who can override the usual hierarchies that exist between the Centre, the State and the armed forces?

I was in charge. I had the full authority to mobilise any service though I did not have authority over the police or the Municipal Corporation. I was in touch with the Army and the Navy and they were the only two who could have helped me in that situation. And they did help but the help came the next day. For me it was not the problem of Mumbai where the media is completely focussed. Almost at the same time water was rising everywhere in the State - Thane, Diva, Mumbra, Badlapur, Kalyan, Bhiwandi, Dombivli, Panvel. And waters were rising in Parbhani, Nanded, Mahad, Chiplun.

Certainly, the most serious situation was in Mumbai and Thane where the maximum number of deaths had occurred and the water was not receding. Those were the reasons for the media focusing on Mumbai and Thane.

Yes, that's true.

Theoretically the Disaster Management Plan is fine but operationally it took too long to be effective.

This is like asking `where was the Disaster Management Plan when the planes hit the World Trade Centre towers'.

So essentially we have to accept that in a crisis it is inevitable that there will be great losses?

What happened in Mumbai that night was unavoidable. There was no way we could have done anything to reduce the intensity of what happened. Today you have all of Sangli and Kolhapur under water. Seventy villages are being evacuated and 1.5 lakh people are being given shelter. We are engaging in most complex manoeuvres to get the boats and the Army because we have some latitude there.

And in Mumbai you didn't have that latitude?Yes, we just didn't have that.

After this crisis is over are you planning to make changes in the Plan so that you can have this latitude to handle any crisis effectively?

Mumbai would need more search and rescue teams.

You had a search and rescue team and you said you could not get them to the crisis points.

Yes, and they did rescue about 1,000 people. We definitely have to get more such teams. The second thing is we - the government and the BMC - need to have boats. If we had the boats we could have made a difference to the situation. And the third thing is that we need to have a more robust communication infrastructure. Wireless worked - nothing else worked. The State government should think of setting up some emergency deployment force like special battalions of police which could be highly mobile and deployed in a critical situation immediately.

All these points seem very basic. Why are they not already in the plan?

They are there. There is a provision to deploy the Rapid Action Force but they were not deployed. Possibly it was not possible to deploy them but now we need to think more carefully about the deployment of some emergency force.

What were the biggest hurdles you faced apart from the lack of access and communications?

We did not have a set of skilled people who could have rescued the people who were stranded. I had to depend only on the Army and the Navy and both could not have moved as fast as was required. So tomorrow if I have to intervene immediately in a crisis at four or five hours notice there is no way I can depend upon the Army or the Navy because they have their own set procedures for deployment.

Which you cannot override in your position as overall in charge of the situation?

Which nobody can override because they follow a certain... it is a part of the culture and if they short-circuit it maybe they would not be well served. So we need to understand their compulsions also but at the same time it does not serve us so we need to develop our own capacity in this area.

Will there be a serious re-look at the plan?

The plan has no meaning unless it is backed up by a set of resources. Otherwise it is a paper plan. The Government must think of providing more resources for it.

Which is on the cards?

Which should be on the cards. If this does not open the government's eyes what will? Having said this, I will also say that people do not understand that disaster management always has serious limitations. Maybe we could have cleared the roads and the traffic. Maybe with the best drainage system we could have drained the water. But could we have reduced the fatalities? The fatalities took place in all the jhopris, where the situation is completely different.

Coming to the preventive aspect, there is no doubt that this crisis was made worse because of the rampant construction activity, especially in the suburbs. The concretisation of the city contributed greatly to the fact that the water literally had nowhere to disperse.

One cannot stop this. There are so many factors working behind over-construction. This is all over the world - people trying to make money through real estate transactions. We definitely need to look at it but what is even more important is that we look at the whole issue of unsafe houses in unsafe locations. Mumbai has an extremely high concentration of jhuggi jhopris, slums and chawls precariously placed.

All this is with the connivance of local authorities.

Not just that. Civil society is fine with this. If we do not look again at the low-lying areas and those living on those precariously placed slums on hills I do not think it will make any difference to those who are right now talking about over-construction and over-development. But tomorrow if there is a big rain, these people are going to die. If the landslides take place they will be buried and the best disaster management system will not be able to do anything.

So uncontrolled and illegal development and construction needs to be checked.

You have to think of reducing vulnerability. You have to invest in social housing. You have to take people out of unsafe locations and situate them in a better place. You do not allow settlements to grow in unsafe areas - hill slopes, the Mithi river...

Natural safety barriers of the city have been destroyed by this over-development.

Yes, this will contribute to large numbers of fatalities in the next natural disaster. These issues are crucial. It's important to have disaster management - extremely important - but unless you do something about these huge concentrations of vulnerability the best disaster management system in the world would not make any difference.

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