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Unprepared, and paying for it

A look at the country's disaster management strategy or the lack of it

india Updated: Mar 13, 2003 12:14 IST
Vishal Thapar
Vishal Thapar

There is a palpable sense of replay over Calamity Gujarat. A hellish catastrophe, the area cut off, and initial reports of a toll of 500 soaring to over 10,000, and still counting, a day later. The prime minister leading the nation in making solemn declarations of support to the devastated populace. Disaster is back on Page 1 of newspapers.

After the quake the convulsion, and the odium of managing disaster. "The only preparedness is awareness, identification of role players for rescue and relief, comprehension of responsibility, and most importantly, incorporating quake resistant features in buildings," says town planner Anshu Sharma, whose NGO, SEEDS, specialises in disaster management.

For a country which is wracked by disaster as frequently as India is, it's surprising that a comprehensive disaster management plan is still on the drawing board. What's in place is a frugal pretence, with the Union Ministry of Agriculture being the nodal agency for managing calamities through a Contingency Action Plan which involves a Crisis Management Committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary.

"With the exception of Maharashtra, no comprehensive risk assessment or disaster management manuals are available for any Indian city," complains Sharma. What's significant this time is that a major urban centre, Ahmedabad, has for the first time been struck by a natural calamity in India. The consequences of concentrated pockets of population being felled by the quake are unprecedented. The Agriculture Ministry's plan segregates responsibility in the pre-disaster, disaster and post-disaster stages.

Gujarat Suffers
The failure to go by the book has shown up in Gujarat. "At the moment, the biggest problem is the unavailability of trained persons to lift debris and rescue those buried under it," observes Prof Vinod Chandra Menon, a Pune expert on disaster management.

Most crucial, he says, is well coordinated intervention in the "golden hour", the period of one hour after the quake. "The quality of response is everything, and professional handling is vital."
But the litmus test for the government's ability to handle catastrophe will be the handling of the international humanitarian assistance which will expectedly swamp Gujarat. The first such occasion to attract massive non-governmental response was the Uttarkashi earthquake of 1991. Within 72 hours of the disaster, 1200 NGOs were on their way with with truckloads of relief material, choking the highway.

They trooped in in much greater numbers at Latur in 1993. The sheer numbers of philanthropists created such complete confusion and chaos that the Maharashtra government was forced to cordon off the quake hit area and restrict entry only to Maharashtrians.

Tom Alcedo of Care India, an American NGO, agrees coordination is vital for avoiding overlap or duplication of humanitarian effort. "There must be an organised way of determining the most needy, and then ensuring equitable and fair distribution of relief," he counsels, recalling the food riots that broke out after the cylone in Orissa.

Plan on the anvil
The JC Pant Committee is preparing the blueprint of a National Disaster Management Plan. This plan, due to be submitted on March 31, shall also have a model state plan and district plan. In addition, a Draft National Calamity Management Act has been prepared to empower the district magistrate to cope with disaster. It's intended to give him access to all resources, including private ones.

Has India failed to learn lessons from the past? "The initial response is invariably good, but once its off the front page, it's a challenge to enable people pick up the threads. Public memory is short. In Orissa, the level of preparedness on a formal basis is still not there. Advocacy for formal preparedness at the levels of both institutions and community is crucial," says Alcedo.

Thompson of Oxfam cautions against helping too much. Victims must be given time to think how to respond," he urges. He is wary of political interventions: "They came and declared a deadline for re-building at Latur. The result was a whole village of concrete boxes. It was a very questionable way forward. Outsiders shouldn't rush re-building."

Sharma concurs, but in a more practical sense: "In the rush to rebuild after compensations are announced, people again raise unsafe structures. There's been no time in informing people how to build better, safer houses. Somehow, we've always missed the bus. This time, this is our priority."

First Published: Mar 13, 2003 12:14 IST