India’s role in helping the Nepal government in its relief efforts in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake has come in for a lot of praise. The most important reason for this is the promptness shown by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in handling the emergency well. The NDMA’s work shows that India’s disaster management abilities have evolved much since the 2004 tsunami. Still, experts believe that disaster mitigation and prevention measures already taken are far from satisfactory. Lieutenant-General N.C. Marwah, NDMA member, talks to Frontline about how disaster management functions in the country and explains how it can be improved:
The NDMA’s role in the earthquake relief efforts in Nepal has been widely acclaimed. How prepared is India in the event of a disaster of this scale in near future?
We must understand how the NDMA and the whole disaster management work in India. The NDMA came into being after the National Disaster Management Act of 2005. The Act has comprehensive and elaborate guidelines for all types of disasters. It lays down the responsibilities of government agencies at various levels. The disaster management plan not only means responding to a disaster; it also means mitigation of risks. The NDMA is only a part of India’s disaster management plans. It focusses on the immediate response to a disaster.
The Act says that all States should have their own disaster management plan. The NDMA, from time to time, recommends fresh disaster management measures for them. Likewise, the States have a district management plan. We have identified five most vulnerable zones with regard to earthquakes and work closely with the States. Risk reduction measures must be central to disaster management planning. We have to think of it when we plan mega-infrastructure or even normal buildings. Various laws and standards have been laid down for infrastructure projects. The States, municipalities and government agencies are responsible for their implementation. New buildings should conform to new disaster guidelines. It is obvious that disaster management requires a great deal of coordination between the NDMA and various government agencies, with roles cut out for each leg of the plan.
Yes, the Act mentions responsibilities for each level of governance. Disaster preparedness should be a priority. But before everything, the communities in vulnerable zones should be aware about risk-mitigating programmes as they are the first respondents to a disaster. Before the local fire stations, paramilitary forces, NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] elements, home guards, before any official agency. Awareness drives are being undertaken at various levels, sponsored by the Centre and the State governments.
What about mock drills?
Mock exercises touch on all aspects of disaster management—awareness and sensitisation of all the stakeholders and all the governments and non-government agencies that are involved. The NDMA has conducted a total of 486 exercises in various States with the help of the State governments; of these, 166 focussed on earthquakes in vulnerable zones. Mock exercises include drawing up a plan, ensuring participation of all stakeholders, and drilling it out with them by assuming a disaster situation.
We have undertaken three mega mock exercises—in Shillong and Mandi, and on the Bihar-Nepal border. These are high-risk zones. These mega exercises went on for a period of time and included awareness drives in schools, hospitals, blocks and panchayats. A drill in the National Capital Region assumed an earthquake with its epicentre at Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.
The States also have disaster management plans. How do they work with the NDMA?
The State Disaster Management Authority is directly under the supervision of the Chief Minister just as the NDMA is under the Prime Minister. The SDMA should have its own State Disaster Relief Force [SDRF]. We work very closely with each other during disasters. However, most States don’t have a dedicated disaster response force. The States have trained certain units of their police machinery to respond to emergency situations. Battalions in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been trained in flood management because of the concern over floods. We at the NDMA also have a dedicated team that aims at awareness and capacity building. We train many such battalions. We also train the NDRF commanding officers. And we are aiming at conducting 50 mock exercises in the near future. The NDMA’s role is one of cooperation with the States. The funds for disaster management now are directly routed to the States through the Finance Commission and not through the NDMA.
Municipalities and other such agencies are controlled by the State. We facilitate and help them in undertaking various capacity-building measures.
Experts have felt that while India’s disaster response has evolved into a good system in the post-tsunami period, mitigation and preventive aspects are still inadequate. What do you think are critical concerns as far as disaster management in India is concerned?
Our concerns pertain to the implementation of the plan. After the Nepal earthquake, the overriding concerns across regions is whether the structures people are residing in and working from are safe. What happens if something like Nepal happens here? Particularly in the metros? The parties concerned need to ensure that building rules are followed and implemented. Two days after the Nepal earthquake, newspapers talked about NCR people organising a rapid visual survey [RPS], roping in qualified engineers and architects to inspect high-rises to assess whether they are safe.
The rapid visual survey involves identifying vulnerable buildings and then strengthening them to make them earthquake-resistant. So the priority right from the State level to the municipality level should be to undertake these surveys and take measures to undertake retro-fitting and, of course, ensure that new structures conform to building norms.
Secondly, we need to have intensive awareness programmes in these vulnerable areas, leading on to capacity building of communities residing there. For capacity building we train civil defence teams in handling disasters. We have already initiated a dialogue with the National Cadet Corps [NCC]. Our teams train NCC boys and girls in their camps. Since the NDMA’s reach is limited, such programmes help us reach much larger audiences. We also train a large number of NGOs [non-governmental organisations].
Do you think the disaster management plan is adequate in handling all disasters effectively?
The structure is fine, but more qualitative interaction between different agencies is needed. All governmentagencies should work together.
The role of the NDRF has been widely acclaimed in the last few disasters. How big is the NDRF?
The NDRF today has 10 battalions, and the present government has sanctioned two additional battalions. So we should have 12 battalions, and each unit has about 1,200 people. They are highly trained and equipped with specialised and sophisticated machinery. We often collaborate with international disaster response forces. Our focus is to energise the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Coperation] centre for disaster management in India so that all South Asian countries can cooperate actively in case of a disaster.
The NDRF’s role is acclaimed because of the promptness shown by all departments of the NDMA. The NDMA already has a control room that functions 24X7. In the case of Nepal, we immediately beefed up our staff over here. The Secretary attended a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. Thereafter the meetings were chaired by Cabinet Secretaries. The NDRF teams are supposed to be ready on a half-an-hour notice. We are happy that our NDRF teams with two or three tonnes of relief materials and essential items to carry were airborne towards Nepal within two hours of the disaster striking. This means they were ready in less than 30 minutes.
Do you believe that environmental violation and indiscriminate industrialisation have led to greater risks of natural disasters?
Yes, these factors are there, but these are the issues that are being specifically dealt with the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Greater sensitisation about environmental regulations may act as a preventive measure.
Yes. Definitely. When we interact with States, we apprise them of all these issues. The NDMA plays a very active role in engaging with many Ministries too. Environmental issues like violation of Coastal Regulation Zone rules need to be fixed, and we are aware of that.
The general notion is that when a disaster happens, the NDMA is the only institution answerable. But the NDMA’s focus is disaster response.
You’ve asked a valid question. The buck stops at the National Crisis Management Group [NCMG] under the Act. The chairman of the NCMG is the Cabinet Secretary and there are representatives from all the Ministries in it. The NDMA Secretary is also a part of the group. The Ministry of Home Affairs becomes the nodal Ministry for the response mechanism in case of a disaster.