Losses and lessons

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Widespread complaints about the less-than-prompt response of the authorities to the earthquake underline the imperative of evolving a national policy on disaster management and making concerted efforts to improve the country's preparedness to me et such tragic eventualities.

V.VENKATESAN T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in New Delhi

THE aftermath of the earthquake in Gujarat has raised several questions about the level of India's preparedness and ability to cope with calamities. Survivors, for instance, lament that the official response to the tragedy came very late, and that when i t came it was woefully inadequate. But for the prompt service rendered by non-governmental organisations, social organisations and individuals, the toll, it is feared, would have been higher.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, among others, at an all-party meeting in New Delhi on February 3 that discussed the fall-out of the Gujarat earthquake and decided to set up a Natio nal Committee on Disaster Management.-ANU PUSHKARNA

Even as Gujarat was being rocked by the quake on the morning of January 26, Doordarshan was telecasting live until noon the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Anxious people in the State and elsewhere in the country did not have a clue about the extent of the tragedy. Even though the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) measured the intensity of the quake within a few minutes of its occurrence and claimed that it had immediately alerted the authorities concerned, the Union Cabinet Secretary activated t he Crisis Management Group (CMG) only after the Republic Day parade was over. A meeting of the CMG was called at 3 p.m. after the Cabinet Secretary personally contacted all its members and the chiefs of defence services with the request to initiate actio n immediately and move men, relief materials and equipment to Kutch.

Soon, other steps followed: the Chief Secretaries of neighbouring Rajasthan and Maharashtra were informed of the magnitude of the earthquake and requested to send food, blankets and other materials to Gujarat. The control room at Krishi Bhavan, headquart ers of the Union Agriculture Ministry in New Delhi, which is also the nodal agency for disaster management, was activated. The Union Cabinet met at 5 p.m. to review the situation after Home Minister L.K. Advani rushed to Ahmedabad to get a first-hand acc ount of the disaster.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted that the government's response to the tragedy initially was slow because of its preoccupation with the Republic Day celebrations. On February 7, the government announced the setting up of a 35-member National Committee on Disaster Management with members drawn from national and State level political parties. The committee, with the Prime Minister as chairman and Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar as vice-chairman, includes Union Ministers Georg e Fernandes, Mamata Banerjee, Yashwant Sinha, Nitish Kumar, Kanshiram Rana and Jagmohan. Among the representatives of the national parties on the committee are Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party president Bangaru Laxman, Bahujan S amaj Party leader Kanshi Ram, Communist Party of India(Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. Other members include K.C. Pant, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister, Jayalalitha, general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Laloo Prasad Yadav, president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Samajwadi Party, Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shi v Sena, and N. Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh.

The committee has been asked to suggest short-term, medium-term and long-term measures for relief and rehabilitation in the quake-hit areas; deliberate on the institutional and legislative measures needed for an effective and long-term strategy to deal w ith national calamities; and to look into the parameters to define a national calamity.

An all-party meeting convened by the government in New Delhi on February 3 had decided to set up a permanent disaster management committee and a committee consisting of representatives from political parties to monitor relief efforts in Gujarat. But it i s a moot question how effective the omnibus committee would be. Forming a committee consisting of political leaders may not be the best way to go about it. Experts at the National Centre for Disaster Management (NCDM), part of the Indian Institute of Pub lic Administration(IIPA), New Delhi, point out that the Gujarat earthquake has underlined the need to involve professionally trained personnel in disaster management. They feel that there is an urgent need for documentation; also contingency plans have t o be evolved and mock drills conducted at the district level to test the level of preparedness.

The NCDM, set up in 1995, has a limited mandate: it trains senior officers drawn from the revenue departments across the country, such as district magistrates, deputy collectors, public works engineers and panchayat officials in disaster management. It h as no power to recommend measures to improve the country's preparedness to meet disasters.

The centre's objective is to prepare an information base on damage caused by various types of disasters and resources spent on mitigating the ensuing sufferings of people. It establishes links with the Agricultural Ministry, the nodal Ministry for handli ng natural disasters, and provides technical assistance and services to the national programmes on natural disaster management. It also assists South-East Asian countries and members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in formulating policies and developing capabilities in all aspects of disaster management.

The NCDM assesses the extent of vulnerability of disaster-prone areas and studies the possibility of using advanced technologies to improve preparedness and mitigate the victims' sufferings; the physical and socio-economic consequences of disasters such as floods, drought, earthquake and cyclones; and rehabilitation and reconstruction work.

The centre has conducted post-disaster surveys in at least three cases: the Jabalpur earthquake of 1997, the Chamoli quake of 1999 and the Orissa cyclone of 1999. Its research includes a comparative study of the laws on disaster management in select coun tries and case studies of areas affected by floods, drought and earthquake. It is now preparing training manuals on mitigation and management of drought and earthquake. Undoubtedly, a vast compendium of information on disaster management exists in the co untry but it appears to be of little use in the absence of a policy.

According to J.N. Upadhyay, former chairperson of the NCDM and a faculty member of the IIPA, the basic prerequisite of any disaster management system is a policy which incorporates an institutional mechanism, a plan of action, systems and procedures, and legislation that is binding on all institutions. In the absence of linkages, organisation and legislation, a crisis management group would be of little use.

In 1992, the government of India launched the Natural Disaster Management Programme with a plan outlay of Rs.9 crores. Its focus was on preparedness and increasing the level of people's awareness. It was under this programme that the NCDM was set up.

Almost a decade after the launch of the programme its objectives remain unrealised. The government does not have a national policy on disasters. And very little could be said about its progress in spreading awareness about disasters or in mitigating thei r impact.

The NCDM, which conducts about 25 training programmes a year, has so far trained only about 400 officials in disaster management. Nor has it been successful in spreading awareness about disaster management, which is evident from the fact that even the tr ained officials do not give priority to putting into practice what they had learnt. They do not conduct mock exercises in disaster management at the district level as advised by the NCDM.

Experts at the NCDM point to the absence of disaster management as a subject in school or college curriculum as a serious impediment to finding qualified and dedicated professionals in the field.

Loading relief materials for Gujarat, at Islamabad airport.-MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

Disaster management does not figure in the Union List or in the State and Concurrent Lists in the Constitution. The Agriculture Ministry has been the nodal agency for disaster management as drought and floods affect farmers and crops and land revenue.

The NCDM, which met after the Gujarat disaster, has decided to draw the attention of the Central and State governments to the imperative of having a unified legislation to deal with disaster management. The NCDM prepared a draft Disaster Management Bill in 2000 seeking to establish disaster management organisations at the national, State and district levels.

The Agriculture Ministry, which has the National Disaster Management Division, finds the lack of coordination with other Ministries a serious impediment to rushing relief to the affected areas.

The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), also known as the CMG, was set up by the Union Government a decade ago to advise, guide, supervise, and coordinate relief measures in affected States. The CMG is headed by the Cabinet Secretary, assisted b y Secretaries from Ministries such Health, Defence and Petroleum. Besides, there is the Inter-Ministerial Coordina-tion Group (IMCG), headed by the Joint Secretary in the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation (DAC), with 15 joint secretaries from oth er Ministries as members. When a natural calamity occurs, the DAC sets up a control room. The DAC is headed by a three-member team: the Additional Secretary, who is also the Central Relief Commissioner, the Joint Secretary, who is the Additional Relief C ommissioner, and the Director.

It is mandatory for the CMG to meet at least twice a year or as often as may be required by the Relief Commissioner. It has to review contingency plans formulated by Ministries and departments and coordinate their activities. The CMG held its last meeti ng in October 2000 to review the situation following monsoon and drought. It met again on January 26, after the Gujarat earthquake.

The Gujarat quake, officials in the Union Agriculture Ministry admit, has underlined the need to have a core of trained people and minimum sets of equipment ready for different types of disasters in every city and district. "For instance," says Bhaskar B arua, Secretary in the Department of Agriculture, "we may need a thousand life-detecting sensors but we may be able to buy only a hundred to begin with. But we should know where the 900 are available, by having a knowledge inventory." Requisitioning the services of the defence forces for rescue and relief work in natural disasters, according to observers, may not be correct as the defence forces may become too closely involved in civilian affairs.

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