India has a brilliant disaster and flood management plan; unfortunately, most of it exists only on paper. On the ground, government departments work in silos, shutting each other out.
Many disaster management teams have an average age of 50, with appointments made more as sops for semi-retired bureaucrats with good political connections than with a view to tackling the kind of mayhem that Uttarakhand just witnessed.
A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report to Parliament earlier this year said the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), conceived as an apex planning and supervising body, was found “ineffective in most of its core area”.
The national (disaster) executive committee had not met since May 2008; a national disaster management plan has not been prepared since 2005, when the NDMA was set up in the wake of the 2004 tsunami; and a national database for disaster management is yet to be operationalised, the CAG report said.
The NDMA also failed to operationalise communication systems for disaster preparedness and management, one of the reasons why no immediate relief and rescue work was possible in the flash flood-hit upper reaches of Uttarakhand.
Even the Doppler weather radar for surveillance and monitoring of extreme weather events like the one in Uttarakhand was not in use, though
R34 crore had been spent on installing the system, the CAG report said.
Meanwhile, it stated, R654 crore meant for disaster management remained unspent in Gujarat, Assam and Goa. Money meant for hiring and training of personnel for the National Disaster Relief Force had not been fully utilised. And only seven states in India had set up State Disaster Relief Forces.
Accepting some of the criticism, NDMA vice-chairperson MS Reddy said the Authority does not have the power to enforce its guidelines on states.
As a result, the NDMA’s 2009 guideline for creating a landslide inventory and zoning map for the Himalayan region has not been acted upon.
“What we need is a warning system synchronised with adequate relief and rescue apparatus,” says Chandan Ghosh, head of the department of geo-hazard risk management at the Indian Institute of Disaster Management. “We need to create disaster relief cadre at the community level, for immediate action and assistance.”
On the weather forecasting front, India faces two problems. First, the language of forecasting seems sometimes to fail to convey the severity of the message. Second, as a nation, we do not have a culture of checking weather warnings or, indeed, taking them seriously when we do.
This includes not just the general public but even government departments and disaster managers. Even TV news channels only fleetingly cover daily weather bulletins.
An international audit of forecasting errors — presented in Parliament last year — showed that the Met department’s accuracy levels were comparable, and higher in some instances, than some of its global counterparts.
A comparison of wind-related forecasts between India’s National Centre for Mid-Range Weather Forecasting, the US’s National Center for Environmental Predictions, the UK Meteorological Office and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts showed Indian predictions had the lowest ‘mean error’ scores in four among five categories of projections: 48-hour, 72-hour, 96-hr and 120-hour forecasts. Only in the 24-hour category was the mean error score for India higher — 4.1, compared to the US’s 4.0 and the UK’s 3.9.
Still, given that India is set to increasingly face extreme weather events due to changing climate, the ministry of earth sciences, which runs the Met department, needs to be quicker in switching to better infrastructure, such as high-end supercomputers to process all the data gathered in real time.