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Fixing the disaster management

The recent Kashmir floods have, yet again, tragically revealed that our institutions created over generations to deal with such calamities have been politicised and severely degraded. Writes Gurbachan Jagat.

chandigarh Updated: Oct 01, 2014 12:53 IST
Gurbachan Jagat
Gurbachan Jagat
Hindustan Times

The recent Kashmir floods have, yet again, tragically revealed that our institutions created over generations to deal with such calamities have been politicised and severely degraded. Those of us who have worked in the civil services/police know of the existence of systems at the district and state levels. These systems go a long way back and were based on the solid foundations of anticipation, experience and knowledge of the area and its problems. They catered to droughts, floods, communal riots, internal security, wars, hijacking of planes, kidnapping and, of late, even terrorism.

For these contingencies, blueprints exist at the district and state levels. Every district magistrate and superintendent of police was expected to study these blueprints thoroughly whenever they were posted to a district and the relevant senior officers were expected to do the same at the state level. These blueprints were studied and updated at specified intervals and drills were conducted periodically to examine their feasibility and take corrective measures, if necessary. Regular meetings were held at all levels in which officers of the relevant departments exchanged notes in order to ensure effective coordination whenever the contingency arose.

Annual review

I remember as a district SP (1971) taking part in annual reviews of flood control measure about a month or two before the onset of the monsoon season. The financial commissioner in charge would come from Chandigarh and accompanied by the DM/SP, senior engineers of the irrigation and other departments would inspect the flood-prone areas, embankments and bundhs and also interact with the people living in those areas, as they were more aware of their local problems. Actual demonstrations were given regarding rescue operations. This was a great learning experience and also gave time to take corrective measures.

These schemes were updated as rivers and streams changed courses and new challenges appeared. Similar exercises were carried out regarding law-and-order situations.

The importance of these schemes was to have a platform for initiating action where each official knew of his role and how to coordinate with whom. With the passage of time these documents have lost their importance. Very few officers take the trouble to study these schemes and update them or carry out field trials. Even if they are updated, senior officials, more often than not, merely append their signatures without going through these copious blueprints. As a result, when contingencies arise, there is confusion and disarray among the first responder that is the district and state administration.

Bhuj experience

I remember accompanying the union home minister in the immediate wake of the earthquake at Bhuj in 2001.

I was then DG, BSF. Even after 24 hours, there was no civil administration on the ground and hardly any relief work going on. The civil hospital had been razed to the ground and when we looked around for private doctors it seemed that all had fled the city. Most of the district officers were too traumatised to be effective or were busy looking for their families or relatives. I found only one DIG of police working at a makeshift camp in the light of a lantern. On the other hand, we had a peculiar situation at the airport. Relief had started arriving from other states and countries but there was nobody at the airport to coordinate the dispatch of these men and material. I remember a German dog team that had come; it was specialised in finding survivors. As the hours passed they became more concerned as the first 48 hours provide the best window for rescue.

It took quite a few days for some semblance of a systematic response to come up on the ground and it all initially appeared ad hoc in nature. The teams from other countries were well-organised and trained and knew what and how much they could do.

On our part, we have only to see what has happened in the recent past in Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Orissa, etc. The immediate response has been to call in the army and allied paramilitary forces available. Where were the state governments concerned? As some of these states are prone to floods, where were their plans to deal with the floods? Be it internal security, floods, earthquakes, communal riots, the only plan seems to be 'call the army', 'ask the Centre for Rs 3,000-5,000 crore', 'conduct some more aerial surveys'. Has any of the above states conducted a detailed inquiry and held anybody responsible for the multiple failures? Has any chief minister resigned for his failure to protect his people? Has the Centre ever asked for any accounting of the relief funds sent? Even decades after the occurrence of these calamities and insurgencies, the states are still asking for more grants, more waivers of loans to balance their budgets.

Evil nexus

The sad reality is that institutions have been politicised, degraded and virtually destroyed by those running the state governments. The evil nexus of the politician, bureaucrat, policemen and mafia has taken over the administration and is running it for their personal objectives. The result is that the administrators are no longer interested in their basic duties because they realise that serving the whims of the political masters, rather than the state, pays greater dividends. On the other hand, where there is no interference and where systems function there you have our indigenous satellite orbiting the planet Mars.

There is a dire necessity for systems to deal with emergencies that we can anticipate and have anticipated in the past. Individuals cannot replace institutions and institutions need systems to run efficiently. It is time to get out those moth-eaten 'confidential' schemes, study them and update them in the light of our new experience and new dangers and it is also time to hold people to account and ruthlessly weed out the incompetent, the corrupt and the cowards. We should involve the people because ultimately they are the ones who organise themselves and help each other in the absence of an organised state response. Let us learn at least now and go back to the drawing board. India will not advance while its institutions are led and choked by mediocre and self-centred administrators-India needs its best to step up to the crease and take guard.

(The writer is a former DGP of J&K, DG, BSF, chairman UPSC; and a former governor of Manipur and Nagaland. Views expressed are personal)