The five Ps of disaster management, writes Abhishek Singhvi
Amphan has wreaked destruction. India needs a focused approach to cyclical natural disasters.Updated: May 27, 2020 05:46 IST
Representing West Bengal (WB), as I do in Parliament, I recall it seeing the deadliest cyclones in the world, especially the oxymoronically named Bhola (1970) which claimed 500,000 lives. Amphan was the first super-cyclone in the Bay of Bengal after 1999 (ie, wind speeds beyond 220 kph). Though the temporal stretch of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) seems bigger, chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee may be accurate, at least in temporal proportionality, when she calls Amphan “a bigger disaster than Covid-19”. A constitutional authority cannot be ignored if she says that 70% of the state’s population has been severely affected and when she underlines the quadruple whammy of Covid-19, the lockdown, migrants’ resettlement and the cyclone.
In less than two days, Bengal lost around Rs 1 lakh crore. The cyclone left 80 dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, uprooted trees, ravaged houses, marooned dwellings, knocked out electricity and phone lines, flooded cities and villages, plundered embankments, fencings and boundaries. It wreaked ecological destruction and devastation, especially in the eco-sensitive Sundarbans. Not least was the ruination of Kolkata’s iconic Great Banyan Tree, among the world’s largest.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s aerial tour yielded a relief package of Rs 1,000 crore ($132 million) for WB and Rs 500 crore ($66 million) for Odisha. These figures underestimate both the size of the disaster and, consequently, the size of the palliative.
The Gujarat earthquake led to the central government releasing Rs 500 crore (at 2001 value, 20 years ago) plus ad hoc release of share in central taxes. The Centre is yet to release to Bengal the pending Goods and Services Tax refunds of approx Rs 2,400 crore for last quarter of FY 2019-20 (To be sure, Bengal is not alone in this regard). The CM has rightly reminded the PM about Rs 53,000 crore on account of social security refunds from central government schemes (such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Food Security Act and so on) owed to the state.
Elementary but elemental steps are needed to be taken on an emergency basis to ensure efficient rehabilitation and effective growth of the affected areas.
First, there is a need for a genuinely non-discriminatory and equal approach qua all states. The Gujarat episode led many international agencies to come up with financial assistance including the European Union, United States (US) Agency for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency and World Bank ($300 m) and Asian Development Bank ($500 m). Irrespective of Bengal’s eligibility, capacity or political orientation, the Centre owes it to such states to specially reach out to international institutions.
Second, there is a need to exponentially increase government allocation to fight natural disasters. We should not be afflicted by the same “fiscal stimulus inflexibility” syndrome, reflected in the PM’s supposed Rs 20 lakh crore Covid-19 package.
Third, we cannot, on the one hand, rightly project India as a global leader and, on the other, pale when it comes to justifiable proportionate global comparisons. In the 2011 tsunami-earthquake, Japan allocated $167 billion for rehabilitation and recovery. It made a five-year plan to do so comprehensively. Similarly, the US Congress allocated $121.7 billion in hurricane relief in 2005 and 2008. Earthquake-prone Iran allocated 2% its national annual budget towards disaster risk reduction, including $4 billion in 2012. Though precise figures for allocation “per head of vulnerable group” are not available, it is clear that comparisons with India on per-affected-population basis yield a dismal picture.
Fourth, random allocation is far less useful than targeted and focused relief measures. Japan’s targeted five-year plan focussed on each stakeholder — from fisheries to housing and power. Knee-jerk reactions in grand mega-announcements after cyclones, without specific sub-allocations, lose their limited vigour and vitality by the time they reach the ground target.
Fifth, planned and targeted measures need to be coupled with a robust institutional framework. After 2011, the Japanese government enacted the “Act on the Development of Tsunami-resilient Communities”, to efficiently combine structural and non-structural measures to minimise damage.
All municipalities had to draft their reconstruction plans based on modelling and the plans were based entirely on urban planning, land management, structural mitigation and relocation. Such innovations have barely been conceptualised in India, much less implemented and even medium-term thinking, much less long-term planning, is conspicuously overwhelmed by short-term ad hocism.
Finally, and ironically given our cyclical annual natural disasters, we have very little policy focus on pre-disaster countermeasures. Prevention is always better than cure, and such countermeasures will be highly effective as well as cost-effective. Many countries in their disaster-prone coastal regions have constructed high seawalls to protect vulnerable communities. Odisha’s cyclone shelters are a praiseworthy-but-partial achievement, deserving emulation.
We need five “Ps” to cope up with recurring disasters — prominence, as in the role of governments; a pool of funds; planning, especially long-term, of rehabilitation and development; policy qua institutional support; and preparedness qua countermeasures.
There is light after the longest tunnels and only with these five “Ps” can we dream with French impressionist Paul Gauguin, who said, “The cyclone ends. The sun returns; the lofty coconut trees lift up their plumes again; man does likewise. The great anguish is over; joy has returned; the sea smiles like a child.”