Thursday, 2 July 2020

Managing Disasters

Updated: September 27, 2014 1:03 pm

As is the case usually, Jammu and Kashmir is in news for wrong reasons. This time, it is because of the unprecedented flood in the state. It was a sigh of relief that one of my close friends, Australia-based noted academician Prof. Amitabh Mattoo, who was holidaying in his home town Srinagar, was rescued along with his parents just in time by the armed forces. In fact, water level had touched the first floor of his beautiful house in the valley. Thousands and thousands of people in the low-catching areas of the capital city of the state have been battling similarly for food and water for days and but for the heroic efforts of the Indian armed forces God knows what would have happened to them. The local administration and the state government were simply not prepared for the natural calamity, though now reports have come in that suggest that the tragedy was forecast well in advance.

One can understand the anguish of the ordinary Kashmiris as shown in the television channels. After all, they have been on the roof-tops for days and surviving on the food packets and water bottles dropped by the Air Force and surrounded by 10-20 feet of water around. But one cannot understand from where they have collected stones to throw at the rescue teams, something highlighted by the news channels. I wonder whether these are state-managed by the ratings-hungry private news channels, which, as I have argued many a time, are arguably among the worst in the world. The Indian news anchors, many of whom have been reduced to be “actors” on the small screen, and some of their chosen guests always find dirty politics in everything, even in national calamities. One of them is worried whether the armed forces, “given their record of suppression and oppression” will be able to woo the Kashmiris by their relief work. Some commentators and “experts” have put the blame on the central government led by Narendra Modi, despite he and his ministerial colleagues visiting the state, promising the state thousands of crores of rupees for the relief and rehabilitation work and ordering the armed forces not to leave any stone unturned in the recue activities. One such critic mentioned in the Facebook, something even the television channels did not notice to capitalize on, that for the security of the Prime Minister there were 10 choppers and hence the evacuation of over 1000 people was stuck!

Be that as it may, India’s armed forces have shown their mettle once again. Undaunted by torrid weather and swirling waters, they have discharged their obligations to the people of Kashmir and have suffered in the process casualties themselves. Incidentally, many of their own camps are also flooded in Kashmir. And yet, they have not stopped providing succor to people, 24X7. The Indian Air Force has deployed all types of transport aircraft at its disposal. The Army is plying dozens of Zodiac boats in rescuing the stranded people, apart from supplying tons of food and drinking water bottles. In fact, as a friend from the military background has mentioned, “For the Army it doesn’t matter whether the floods are in Kashmir or Bihar or Assam. Only one word matters—duty. It’s been called the most sublime word in the English language. ‘Seva parmo dharma’   (service to the people is the best religious duty), the most enduring motto of them all, is ingrained in the psyche of every soldier: Service/duty is the highest religion. That is what the Indian soldier is taught; that is what he is trained to believe; that is what guides his conduct, on and off the battlefield.”

Despite all this, if some commentators still find faults, then I am reminded of an example cited by noted analyst Mohan Guruswamy the other day: “There is an old Ukrainian saying that some people when shown a fine horse instead of appreciating its beauty will lift its tail and draw their nose close and exclaim—it smells!” Mohan was commenting on a particular TV news channel which “has made quite a habit of it”.

Having said that, let me now go to the real and serious issue of the India’s disaster management system as a whole. And here, there could be a lot of legitimate criticisms. It needs to be highlighted that India is one of those countries prone to natural disasters such as flood, tsunami and earthquake on a regular basis. According to a UN study that covered the period between 1994 and 2003, India is 15th out of the top 25 countries in absolute and relative values of people killed (67, 505 people) and affected (680.8 million). The total amount of economic damages reported for India for this period was USD 17.08 billion or Rs 76,500 crore. If one adds the subsequent calamities such as floods in Bihar and Odisha and the great disaster of Uttarakhand last year, the casualties and loss of property must have gone much higher. In fact, the 2011 Disaster Management (DM) report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) places annual DM losses in India as a staggering 2 per cent of its GDP. It even describes India at the world’s 10th most disaster prone nation.

All this notwithstanding, the fact remains that the country does not have sufficient warning systems. Even in places where the warnings are given, the local administrations fail more often than not in taking the preemptive measures. There are serious lacunae in planning and formulating rules, regulations, polices or guidelines for mitigation, evacuation, disaster reliefs and subsequent rehabilitation. There are often neither emergency communication plans nor infrastructure to manage communication with cut-off areas and people, something that has been most conspicuous in the Kashmir valley these days.

In a highly perceptive essay that I had commissioned sometime back for a security publication that I am associated with (Geopolitics), Major General (Retd.) Raj Mehta had concluded that there was a “great rhetoric but abysmal delivery” as far as DM in India was concerned. Let me share some of his findings. At the national level, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is the nodal Ministry for DM. The MHA is organised into six Departments and 18 Divisions, one of which is the DM Division. Its lead star is the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), chaired by the Prime Minister himself. It is authorized a Vice Chairperson (of the cabinet rank) and nine minister of state -level members. NDMA was created under an act of Parliament in 2005 and is expected to lay down policy on DM, approve the national DM plan, lay down guidelines for Central ministries and state authorities, and provide such DM support to other countries. Its working is overseen by a National Executive Committee (NEC) which is chaired by the Union Home Secretary with Secretaries from 15 DM related ministries as its members.

General Mehta was shocked to find that this NDMA did not meet at all between 2008 and 2012. NDMA till date has not come out working DM plan. And most of the NDMA projects have been aborted on some pretext or the other.

In fact, there are some structural problems with the NDMA, which otherwise has an impressive new building in the Safdurjung Development Area of New Delhi. Its vice-chairman is of a cabinet rank minister, but the nodal ministry is the MHA. Where exactly then the Union Home Minister fits in the scheme of things, if the Vice-Chairman reports directly to the Chairman, who incidentally is the Prime Minister? Secondly, what about the coordination among the other nodal ministries? There is definitely an absence of clarity here. The NDMA posts so far have been occupied by the ruling party (at the centre) activists and retired but pliant bureaucrats.

Let us look at the NDMA at present. With the BJP government coming in, all the political appointees during the previous Congress government have or were asked to quit. As a result, it is now effectively headless. Its website (as on September11) says that it has just one member – Dr. Muzaffar Ahmed. It has no Vice-Chairperson after the “resignation” of Congress politician Shashidhar Reddy, though the name of former Home Secretary R K Singh, now a BJP Member of Parliament (M.P.) from Bihar, is doing the rounds. Some reports say that Singh cannot occupy this post, as it involves the so-called provision of office of profit.

As he is deeply committed to the cause of good governance, Prime Minister Modi should do the needful, sooner rather than the latter. Disaster management is too serious a task to be left neglected.

By Prakash Nanda

prakashnanda@udayindia.in

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