22 December 2014

India’s disasters management is a real disaster!

Throughout history, India’s disaster management has never been stellar. In recent years, it has gone from worse to worst, according to Asit K. Biswas and Udisha Saklani!

Throughout history, India’s disaster management has never been stellar. In recent years, it has gone from worse to worst, according to Asit K. Biswas and Udisha Saklani!

Take flood-related disasters. The September floods in Kashmir, according to J&K Chief Secretary Mohammad Iqbal Khandey, contributed to “losses of Rs. one trillion,” of which housing sector was responsible for Rs. 30,000 crores and business another Rs. 70,000 crores. He claimed, as normal for all Indian disasters, the main reason for such heavy damages was because such a flood had not occurred before. The reason why the population suffered so much was “this was no ordinary event.” Thus, how could bureaucracy even anticipate such a calamity, let alone plan for it?

Similarly, last year, another “unprecedented” flood struck Uttarakhand. Some unofficial estimates indicate around 30,000 people lost their lives. The excuse for losses was very similar: such floods and mudslides cannot be foreseen and thus damages are inevitable. The economic losses of these two floods are conservatively estimated at $20 billion.

Sadly, these are only excuses and much could have been done to reduce the impacts of both the tragic events.

Note Iqbal never mentions bad planning, poor land use practices in Srinagar because of ingrained institutional incompetence, pervasive corruption, absence of any serious disaster preparation, consistent lack of accountability of the elected politicians and the bureaucrats, and near total absence of any long-term thinking and planning. The flood is now said to be a one in 100 years flood. Why Srinagar has never considered structures which could withstand one in a 200-year flood, like Hong Kong?

More than 65 years after the country became independent, the government’s main approach to disaster management continues to be rooted in crisis management only after the crises have occurred. The country has consistently failed to make good long-term advance plans on how potential impacts of such disasters can be mitigated, and have capable institutions to implement them.

India established a National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) in 2006. It was supposed to “build a safer and disaster resilient India by a holistic, proactive, technology driven and sustainable development strategy that involves all stakeholders and fosters a culture of prevention, preparedness and mitigation.” It currently has an annual budget of Rs. 35.6 billion.

By any metrics, NDMA has failed miserably and has been totally ineffective to carry out its objectives. The Comptroller and Auditor General said in 2013 that NDMA was not functional, and its project management capacity is “deficient,” and no major project it had taken up “had seen completion so far.” Such was its pathetic state that when the Kashmir flood occurred, it had no head and eight of its nine members had resigned.

The main objective of nine members appears to be to provide highly paid jobs to retired or about to retire senior civil servants, instead of competent disaster management professionals.

NDMA is dysfunctional. Proper communication between the various flood disaster management agencies simply do not exist. For example, Indian Meteorological Department observed there was unprecedented rainfall in the Jhelum catchment area, and Central Water Commission data showed that water levels in the Jhelum River were rising steadily. One did not need a Nobel Prize winner to predict Srinagar was likely to be inundated, and thus a severe flood warning and evacuation effort should be initiated well before flood waters reached Srinagar. Information simply did not flow from one institution to another, and there was not even a single intelligent official of any institution to conclude because of heavy rainfall, river levels were rising alarmingly. Thus, immediate flood warning should be issued and evacuation should begin.

Climate change has now become a convenient bogeyman for all the ills of the world, especially for politicians, bureaucrats and pseudoscientists, ranging from Ebola, war in Syria as well as Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods. This, of course, is utter nonsense. ISRO noted that Jhelum Basin had received a record of 450 mm of rainfall.

Unfortunately, Indian institutions are incapable of talking and listening to each other. Each is fiercely independent, protect its turf at all costs, and strong believers of “it is not invented here” syndrome. Thus, IMD and ISRO knew there was heavy rainfall, CWC knew the river levels were increasing dangerously and NDMA and other agencies were blissfully unaware of the impending disaster. Hundreds of Kashmiris lost their lives because of such institutional incompetence.

Both Uttarakhand and Kashmir disasters were exacerbated by the city officials because illegal construction activities were allowed, corruption and individual financial gains. In Srinagar, old canals which used to carry floodwaters were filled up for building other infrastructure like roads. Wetlands in flood-prone areas all over India are routinely being drained for construction of new houses. Thus, when a severe flood occurs, water has nowhere to go but flood the urban area. Sadly, the bureaucrats and politicians who allowed all these malpractices to occur are seldom held accountable.

Indian institutions need also move from their 19th century passive mindsets of simple monitoring. They must become proactive, and ensure their findings are promptly passed on to the institutions whose work will start with that information. For example, if IMD and CWC are held responsible and accountable to ensure that the implications of their monitoring information are always proactively and immediately passed to NDMA and other related state and central institutions, flood disasters management in India will improve remarkably.

Hurricane Katrina forced USA for a complete review and restructuring of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After the serious disasters in Uttarakhand and Kashmir, one can only hope that disaster management in India would undergo a similar radical transformation. Sadly, we are not optimistic. Like in the past, there is likely to be another Commission or Task Force whose report will most likely to gather dust on the shelves, until the next disaster strikes.


Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico; UdishaSaklani is a Research Assistant in the same School.

This article was originally published in Sanchar Times, November 26, 2014
Tags: india, natural disasters

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