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July 7, 2014

Managing disasters in India

In order to mitigate the outcomes of a disaster, precautions have to be taken well in advance.

The Surat floods of 2006 exemplify a strange kind of natural disaster. It is certainly strange when nature is so predictable that the entire city knows exactly when the water levels rise, and yet disaster still occurs. In Surat, the water level in the river crossed 12.5 metres and submerged eighty percent of the city. The strange part of it is that the water in Ukai dam was rising for three days during which the Surat Municipality had the opportunity to recognise and prevent the impending floods. Instead, there was confusion on details such as the maximum water level after which water has to be released, and which authority decides this level, and in this process of arguing trivialities the State government refused to open the flood gates until water had been entering the dam for well over thirty-four hours. This gross mismanagement of dam operations was asserted by the People’s Committee Report as the main cause of the floods. This is certainly a different kind of natural disaster than what was occurring even ten years ago.

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In this decade, with the technology that is available to us, crisis management takes on a different meaning. It has as much to do with communication, both within the administration and to the masses, as it does to do with nature and the engineering around trying to control it. “Early warning systems” are communication strategies, which the state governments have to have in place. The Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) suggested that this early warning system consist of four action points: sensing the precursors to a disaster, transmitting data regarding the disaster, processing data and recognising a crisis situation, and disseminating warnings.

Cyclone Phailin, which hit Orissa and Andhra Pradesh in 2013, showed how executing these action points led to what has widely been recognised as one of the success stories in India’s crisis management history. The cyclone was recognised, its coordinates were consistently tracked and processed, local authorities were kept informed and, thanks to electronic media, warnings were widely and quickly disseminated. None of this essential coordination was seen in Surat; signs of rising water levels were ignored, key actions like opening of flood gates were left to the discretion of a few officials who were not even in Surat, and the event did not even reach the stage of disseminating a warning to the population.

The communication problem in the case of Surat is largely exemplified by the fact that the decision makers responsible for key actions were not even in Surat, and yet essential prevention measures had to rely on these decision makers’ arbitrary judgment. The implications of this are two-fold: firstly, as the ARC also argues, the participation of local authorities in collection, processing and disseminating data is essential. The ARC advised the enforcement of zoning regulations, wherein different districts were prepared for the disaster according to the intensity of the hazard they expected to face. Secondly, it is questionable whether such management should be left to the discretion of not only high level officials, but anyone at all. In the case of Surat, there was no clear, enforceable quantity of water beyond which it became compulsive to open the reservoir. Clearly, if this is the factor that is being debated, the lesson to learn from this is that whoever is responsible for making the call, it should be on the basis of conditions that are not ambiguous.

Whether there is a transfer of power to district level authorities to deal with district level disasters in clearly defined situations, or state level authorities are compelled to act on the advice of district level authorities in such situations, is not relevant. What is important is that authority is appropriately and clearly distributed, and firm decisions are made. The ARC advised the enforcement of zoning regulations, wherein different districts were prepared for the disaster according to the intensity of the hazard they expected to face.

The other major area of concern that was also lacking in Surat is accountability. In order to mitigate the outcomes of a disaster, precautions have to be taken well in advance. Short term action like ensuring early warning systems, and being able to follow all four steps with strong communication and rescue modes, is essential. But even when short term action cannot help prevent the disaster, the authority in charge, in this case the state authority, has to have taken long term precautions also. The long term goal would be to also factor in the precautions required to minimise potential loss from the calamity. To begin with, this would require a strong sense of environmental conscience within the political economy players, to consider the social cost of overlooking the factors for environmental safety when adding up economic gains from the prospects detrimental to the ecological realm of the place.

Therefore, accountability is essential in case of failure and mismanagement after the event, so the authority can be held responsible for incurring social cost and intensifying the disaster when the appropriate measures are not taken. In the case of the Surat 2006 floods, the People’s committee Report held a strong view of holding the personnel responsible for the mismanagement liable for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder (Section 304)”. As mentioned in the ACR, “the bulk of expenditure under the National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) and Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) can be avoided for better planning and measures for prevention and mitigation”. These make clear the dire necessity for both efficient communication, and severe consequences if this communication fails.

The 2013 Uttarakhand floods are an example of a natural disaster that actually suffered from an administrative failure in taking appropriate precautionary measures for both long and short term. In the short term, the administration failed at the very first point of early warning systems as the State Met Department’s warning about “heavy rains” and advice about taking pilgrims to “safer place” and ‘postpone(ing)’ the Char Dham yatra, were not paid enough heed. This failure in communication led to delay and inefficiency in following out the rest of the points within the system. In addition to this, one of the main causes for the high magnitude of disasters, other than the melting of the Chorabari glacier and eruption of Mandakani River, was the construction of Hydel Power project and expansion of roads filled with the incessant flow of tourists without accounting for the fragile topography of the location. This negligence and lack of foresight show a failure in long-term prevention of disaster also, and the district and State authorities need to be scrutinised for their negligence which exacerbated the blow faced by the state.

The flipside of having the beauty of India’s diverse topographical structure and varied weather conditions is the need for strong disaster management strategies. Disaster management is a state responsibility, but proper distribution of authority is required and decisive action has to be ensured through accountability. Inherent in both of these factors is strong communication and a means to ensure it. Therefore, a good place to start for the country would be to focus on strengthening communication networks and using them efficiently for sensing the precursors to a disaster.

Photo: Oxfam International


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