Last week, the Uttarakhand government issued full-page advertisements in newspapers on the occasion of a puja at the state’s star religious attraction, the eigth-century Kedarnath Temple, the first after floods and landslides devastated the area in June. Asking for the ‘lord’s blessings’ to rebuild the state, the advertisements focused only on how much the Congress-led government has spent on its rebuilding efforts and compensation. There was no mention of what the government was doing/planning to do to improve the state’s and its citizens’ disaster management capabilities, considering that they were found horribly wanting after the summer cloudburst.
The root of the word ‘disaster’ comes from the Greek prefix for bad, ‘dus’, and the term for star (aster). Literally, it means bad-star. But the world has come a long way from blaming stars for such events. “Disasters are an outcome of social, political, economic and natural processes, and not standalone events,” said S Parasuraman, director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences at the launch function of the India Disaster Report II, which he has co-edited with Unni Krishnan, head of Disaster Response, Plan International, Britain. The June disaster was an example of how these ‘processes’ combined to bring the state to its knees. It was not just the cloudburst that led to the devastation; unbridled construction of dams, roads, illegal structures and deforestation amplified the scale of the disaster. Its impact on the state’s finances has been enormous: `136 crore has been paid in compensation, leave alone the cost of repairing the infrastructure.
Disasters are occurring around the world with greater ferocity and frequency — and India can expect a large number of natural disasters in the next 10 years. While it may not be possible to stop an earthquake, a sound disaster management protocol can stop it from becoming a crisis. In a developing country like India, disaster risk reduction cannot be a secondary priority.
Other than the deaths, destruction and the financial loss that disasters cause, they also have severe long-term effects, especially on the poor. They perpetuate poverty, lead to migration, trafficking, hunger, malnutrition, food crisis and so on. Take for example, the Bundelkhand region, which was hit by successive droughts since 2007. Local media reported that farmers caught in a debt trap due to farm failure were selling their wives for anything between `50 to `12,000.
While India has a policy on disaster management, there is room for improvement. First, it needs to expand its observational and forecasting capabilities. As per the last five-year plan, India was supposed to have 55 Doppler weather radars; as of now, there are only 20; second, communities must know what to do when disasters strike; third, as T Nand Kumar, member, National Disaster Management Authority, said at the launch function, there needs to be investment in capacity-building of not only communities but also of officials; fourth, we must implement building safety codes and build a culture of zero tolerance towards safety and disaster management issues; fifth, disaster education must be mandatory in all states (at present, only a handful have it); and last, India needs a foolproof communication channel to disseminate advance weather warnings. Mobiles could be an answer with targeted messages going to affected areas but safeguards need to be built in to avoid its misuse.
Since disasters of varying magnitude hit different parts of the country round the year, why not have a system of calculating their effect on the economy? Many countries already follow disaster loss assessment protocol to figure out the economic costs of such events. According to the United Nations, the impact of disaster on the GDP of developing countries could range from anywhere between 1.5% to a staggering 12%.
The IDR II is a sequel to the India Disaster Report: Towards a policy initiative, which was published in 2000. The report galvanised public opinion to demand a disaster management policy. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, the second edition goes a step further: it asserts the need to link natural systems, social systems, and technological limitations to devise policies for disaster prevention, relief operations and environmentally inclusive development.