On disasters, internalise lessons on rescue and relief
The natural disaster in Uttarakhand and the ongoing rescue operation provide an opport-unity to assess where India stands on disaster management. If one compares the current response to the Kedarnath tragedy (2013) — while keeping aside the difference in altitude and the scale of the challenge — the system has improved in terms of response time, equipment availability, professional manpower training and information flow. In 2013, it took the State several days to mount a search-and-rescue operation, losing precious time. In the Chamoli case, the response has been swift and the political leaders have been forthcoming with on-the- ground information.
Yet, flaws are evident. The response remains reactive because of inadequate planning and absence of precautions. Hydropower projects are often built in ecologically fragile areas, ignoring scientific evidence. The situation becomes more challenging because there are no early warning systems; there is lack of seamless flow of information between those at the frontline (the police or communities) and the government/scientists to report and assess gaps; and there is an absence of disaster-related training for the population. For example, did the workers undergo mock drills on what to do if a disaster strikes, and how to survive in such biting cold? This is even more critical for migrant labourers who have no knowledge of the local environment and modes of survival. Rescue operations in India remain human-intensive, but technology has moved forward and, therefore, constant upgradation is required. These issues need to be addressed since, in a disaster, time is of the essence and the focus has to be on saving every life.