India Prone To Disasters

“Till recently, the approach to Disaster Management has been reactive and relief centric. A paradigm shift has now taken place at the national level from the relief centric syndrome to holistic and integrated approach with emphasis on prevention, mitigation and preparedness. These efforts are aimed to conserve developmental gains as also minimize losses to lives, livelihood and property,” this is what the website of National Disaster Management Authority says. But does this apply to reality? Apparently no, as has been witnessed in the recent nature’s fury in the Uttarakhand disaster, which has exhibited characteristics of a complex event due to the combination of flash floods and landslides and the inclement weather which precluded access by air to the region in the initial stages. The resultant destruction of ground transportation infrastructure also impacted the time taken to respond. Finally, being a hilly area the disaster zone has got divided into isolated pockets of devastation which has hampered relief work.

Against this backdrop, it is worth mentioning what the National Policy on disaster Management maintains. According to it, India is vulnerable, in varying degrees, to a large number of natural as well as man-made disasters. 58.6 per cent of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity; over 40 million hectares (12 per cent of land) is prone to floods and river erosion; of the 7,516-km-long coastline, close to 5,700 km is prone to cyclones and tsunamis; 68 per cent of the cultivable area is vulnerable to drought and hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches. Vulnerability to disasters/emergencies of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) origin also exists.

Heightened vulnerabilities to disaster risks can be related to expanding population, urbanization and industrialization, development within high-risk zones, environmental degradation and climate change (See Maps). In the context of human vulnerability to disasters, the economically and socially weaker segments of the population are the ones that are most seriously affected. Within the vulnerable groups, elderly persons, women, children–especially women rendered destitute and children orphaned on account of disasters and the differently abled persons are exposed to higher risks.

Keeping all these aspects into consideration, the Government of India (GoI), on December 23, 2005, took a defining step by enacting the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which envisaged the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the Prime Minister, State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs) headed by the Chief Ministers, and District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) headed by the Collector or District Magistrate or Deputy Commissioner as the case may be, to spearhead and adopt a holistic and integrated approach to disaster management (DM). The government claimed that there would be a paradigm shift, from the erstwhile relief-centric response to a proactive prevention, mitigation and preparedness-driven approach for conserving developmental gains and also to minimise losses of life, livelihoods and property. Lamentably, the ground reality in this regard appears to be quite contrary to what the government claims.

Here, it is noteworthy that prompt and effective response minimises loss of life and property. A caring approach for the special needs of vulnerable sections is also important. The existing and the new institutional arrangements need
to ensure an integrated, synergised and proactive approach in dealing with any disaster. This is possible through
contemporary forecasting and early warning systems, fail-safe communication and anticipatory deployment of the
specialised response forces. A well-informed and prepared community can mitigate the impact of disasters.

Furthermore, relief is no longer perceived only as gratuitous assistance or provision of emergency relief supplies on time. It is on the contrary, viewed as an overarching system of facilitation of assistance to the victims of disaster for their rehabilitation in states and ensuring social safety and security of the affected persons. The relief needs to be prompt, adequate and of approved standards. In the case of devastating disasters, where extreme weather conditions can be life-threatening or when the period of stay in temporary shelters is likely to be long and uncertain, the construction of intermediate shelters with suitable sanitary facilities need to be undertaken to ensure a reasonable quality of life to the affected people. The design of such shelters should be eco-friendly and in consonance with local culture. In Uttarakhand disaster, both natural calamity and man-made factors contributed equally in intensifying the disaster–first, the state witnessed unprecedented rain within a few hours and as a repercussion, there was a cloudburst and landslides. That was a natural disaster but the huge devastation was due more to local factors. If you build a hotel or a house near a flood plain, a disaster like this is likely. It is noteworthy that the tsunami in 2004 had brought about the
enactment of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the creation of the NDMA. And it would be catastrophe if we wait for another disaster to learn our next lesson and bring a quantum improvement in how we, as a nation, deal effectively with natural and manmade disasters.

By Niharika Sharma

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