Time to take disaster management seriously

  • Col Avnish Sharma (retd), Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Jun 15, 2014 09:32 IST

Disaster management is an unglamorous, but a highly committed job. Like the defence forces it gives an impression of rearing a white elephant but is 24x7 in nature and preoccupation. The trick is to regularly analyse the threat, update procedures, resources and actions. Periodic mock drills, as close to reality as possible, conducted with the participation of the permanent and standby roster of earmarked manpower is an absolute must.

An exhaustive Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) to tackle various contingencies is a prerequisite.

The mere drafting of an SOP will prove counterproductive, unless it is continually updated and rehearsed. This is a boring job, but unless adhered to, the results will be what we all witnessed last Sunday (June 8) after a fire at a building in the heart of the City Beautiful in Sector 17 B, during an outright tardy approach to the disaster.

A year or so back, the administration became alive to an impending earthquake threat, Chandigarh being in a high seismic zone. A disaster management capsule was planned under the aegis of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). During the initial stages of planning and organisation, I was an ex-service officer invitee nominated as a deputy chief warden of the district disaster management cell of which the deputy commissioner was the head. The theories of the initiative were discussed over two days with the involvement of the municipal corporation officials, medical teams, the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), army representatives from local units and other ancillary representatives.

Senior members from the NDMA stressed on shunning red-tapism and a seamless team work across departments and cadres. The capsule was followed with a mock exercise at the shopping plaza during day and a predicted schedule. The mock drill left much to be desired in terms of reactions, equipment worthiness, and staff participation.

Mock drills, unless realistic, serve no purpose. Officers were seen more in a supervisory mode than participative one.

A couple of months later, a major mock exercise depicting a high intensity earthquake was conducted and though the administration thought it fit to do away with us (ex-servicemen representatives, the chief and deputy chief warden), the media brought to fore the numerous chinks that existed in our preparation to tackle a contingency.

A preconception that an emergency would not befall us is the biggest misnomer that afflicts us Indians. Except the defence forces, whose primary existence is tackling un untoward threats to the nation’s security, other departments are primarily entrusted with the task of public service and thus configured accordingly. For them to be prepared to fight a disaster, a huge psychological and practical training effort is required.

However, for a task of fire fighting for which the department is configured as a special force, a thoroughly unsatisfactory effort --- as on the day of the incident --- is simply unacceptable. The glaring loopholes witnessed, thanks to a proactive media, will be an exercise in futility unless a concerted effort is initiated by the administration to put the house in order before another calamity strikes us.

It saddens us to see some brave and conscientious employees of emergency departments lose their precious lives for want of training, equipment and rusty procedures.

‘The more you sweat in peace, less you bleed in war’ is equally applicable to disaster management.

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