5 Questions About India's Natural Disaster Management Capabilities, Answered

5 Questions About India's Natural Disaster Management Capabilities, Answered

[Editorial Update: This article was originally published during the Nepal Earthquake of April 2015. As we keep battling newer environmental challenges intensified by insufficient redressal measures, despite finding hope in the efforts of the security and administrative personnel, we wonder what is to become of a country as large as India, so sensitive to all kinds of natural disasters, in the very plausible event that such calamities do arise? Are there specific government-run or government-funded ministries set up to deal with these? Do we even have the right rhetoric or theories in place, let alone the infrastructure or organisational capacity to deal with them? And most importantly, what can and should we all be doing to build the systems we need and protect ourselves better? Read on for the answers we could find.]

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

-Wendell Phillips

All it takes is one disaster to trigger a panic and an epiphany of how frail human life actually is. The ever-connected existence of today has made every individual and region in the world aware of the events which we were previously oblivious to, a luxury few can afford today. The events of the past year, from the Malaysian Airlines tragedies to the Jammu and Kashmir floods, trickled into our lives in the form of tweets, updates and news stories to spur us into compassion, prayer, gratitude and eventually, vigilance. If you add a dose of media insensitivity and systemic swiftness to the mix, you would be aptly describing India’s reaction to the Nepal Earthquake.

Image Source: Nepal

The promptness with which the Indian Government and Army spurred into rescue and relief operations in the region has evoked much admiration and respect from around the world (whereas the sensationalist Indian press coverage of it left us quite shamefaced with the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia). With centuries-old heritage sites lying in ruins and whole villages destroyed, the earthquake has destroyed fragments of important Nepalese history, a throbbing loss that the country is struggling to cope with alongside the immense damage to life and property. But as the Nepalese and Indians who have been affected by the disaster embark on a gradual process to rebuild their lives, the vigilant amongst us must start asking a few key questions that help us deconstruct our own policies when it comes to national disaster management. There is no room for apathy when there are so many lives at stake - including our own - and it’s high time we review the past as well as our current resources, to see how prepared we are. Homegrown asks a few key questions surrounding the issue to gain insight.

I. How much of the loss and devastation we face in natural disasters can be attributed to fate?

When The Hindu asked eminent Seismologist Vinod Kumar Gaur about the possibility of a Great Himalayan Earthquake in May 2013, Kaur said, “Calculations show that there is sufficient accumulated energy now to produce an 8 magnitude earthquake. I cannot say when. It may not happen tomorrow, but it could possibly happen sometime this century, or wait longer to produce a much larger one.”

The Indian subcontinent broke off from the supercontinent Gondwana, approximately 50 million years ago and crashed into the Eurasian mainland, giving rise to the Himalayas; India pushes northeast into Asia at roughly 5 cm every year. A constant vigil had placed the likelihood of an inevitable ‘Great Himalayan Earthquake’ in the region resulting in a recent study concluding, “The frontal thrust in central Himalaya may have remained seismically inactive during the last 700 years. Considering this long elapsed time, a great earthquake may be due in the region.” In fact, Kaur, along with American Geophysicist Roger Bilham, had turned in a paper more than a decade ago warning of the Himalayan Earthquake which could put millions at risk in the Gangetic plains. Kaur went on to further add, “The scientific rationale for locating a borehole earthquake observatory eight-kilometre deep in Koyna, rather than tunnelling or trenching along the Himalayan foothills, is baffling. Our scientific culture lacks responsibility and rigour towards public safety, and so denies society the advantage of information, and consequently resilience, against the natural disaster.” 

India can be divided into four seismic zones ranging from Zone II to Zone V, each increasingly severe. 38 Indian cities are prone to earthquakes with Srinagar, Aizawal and Guwahati being the most vulnerable. Even if one excludes the unstable Himalayan setting, India is one of the 10 worst disaster-prone nations in the world due to its unique geographical and geological features. 60% of the Indian Sub-Continent is prone to Earthquakes of varying intensities, 40 million hectares are susceptible to floods while 8% of the total area is prone to cyclones. Droughts, a natural disaster few in the urban landscape are privy to (few even realise that the past year with low rains created drought-like situations for many districts) affects 68% of the total area.

Floods are a common occurrence in the monsoon dependent country as well especially in the states of Assam, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Floods affect close to 30 million people in India annually with Climate Change increasing their reach and frequency into regions which are not prone to such disasters. Cyclones or typhoons play a devastating role in India due to the coastal nature of the Indian subcontinent, compounded with the low-bed ocean topography. Although we can’t be as presumptuous to completely dismiss the role of fate, it seems like scientific rationale laid down the backdrop a while ago, and we would do well to take notice of it and act accordingly.
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II. If ‘fate’ doesn’t prove to be so kind, what is India’s Disaster management set up?

If there was ever a watershed moment for Indian Disaster management, it could easily be attributed to the year 2004. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which caused widespread devastation and loss of life in the region prompted a radical change in the way countries of the region needed to approach natural disasters, especially the Tsunamis. 2004 was also the year when a national framework for Disaster Management was developed which culminated into the Disaster Management Act of 2005.

Image Source: Ministry Of Home Affairs

The Act called for the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority with the Prime Minister and eight other members with a vice-chairman. The objective of the authority was to lay down policies and guidelines for effective management, risk mitigation and prevention of disasters in the country. NDMA is said to have two primary functions in the form of policy guidance and disaster response. The nine appointed members handle policy formulation and guidance while the 20 battalions which are drawn from the paramilitary forces for a period of five years, on a rotational basis, are responsible for disaster response. However, even after nine years of operation, the NDMA’s performance has been less than satisfactory, failing at most of the recommendations and policy outlines given in a disaster management report by the Ministry Of Home Affairs.

III. What have the agency’s disaster planning efforts been, thus far?

The flood and landslide mitigation projects initiated by it on a national level in 2008 have either been abandoned midway or are being redesigned due to poor planning. The projects designed to create national atlases to map vulnerability of landslides, earthquakes and floods have also been left incomplete. Hypothetical drills were conducted by the agency between 2012-2014 to develop a contemporary intensity map as well as inform and educate people about the ravages of earthquake. Devastating earthquakes from the past were simulated again in the present scenario where it was found that an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Chandigarh

would lead to deaths of 1 million compared to 20,000 estimated death in 1905 while an earthquake in the North-East would lead to a loss of 800,000 lives if an 8.7 magnitude earthquake struck the region similar to the 1897 Assam Earthquake. Yet, these drills and tests with alarming results have failed to influence India’s preparedness for a potential disaster. The 2007 Vulnerability Analysis of Delhi showed that out of 33.8 lakh buildings, over 31 lakhs were at medium risk during an earthquake and 1.46 lakh were at high risk. Shimla, once called the Queen of Hills, is said to be at its most vulnerable where a 7.5 magnitude earthquake would destroy 98 per cent of the city, as structures would either collapse or suffer substantial damage. A comprehensive drive to correct and install earthquake-mitigating efforts for Delhi buildings is said to have been stopped by the arrival of the Commonwealth Games. While Nepal undertakes efforts to rebuild their heritage sites, experts are shocked at the lack of a plan for heritage and landmark sites like Qutab Minar, many of which will not be able to take the brunt of an earthquake with the same magnitude as that of Nepal.

IV. How effective has the NDMA setup been in facing recent disaster management challenges?

A comprehensive Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Report submitted in April 2013 found various problems in the functioning of the organisation. It stated that NDMA did not have information and control over the progress of disaster management work in the states, nor could it successfully implement various projects it had initiated for disaster preparedness and mitigation. While the law provides NDMA with an advisory committee of experts in the field of disaster management at the national, state or district level, the report found that since June 2010, NDMA was functioning without the advisory committee. The nodal agency has even struggled to help out with disaster response, taking each significant disaster as a learning lesson and promising better performance which was somehow never actually delivered. The performance of the agency was heavily criticised during the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, which had ravaged the state and left thousands in need of rescue. The agency had promised that it had learnt several lessons from the disaster and was going to apply them in the future, a claim which fell apart in the wake of the Jammu and Kashmir Floods of 2014.

Jammu And Kashmir Floods Image Source: DNA

The election of the NDA government saw the resignation of all members of the NDMA, rendering it effectively headless when the country needed the organisation the most - when the Kashmir floods struck.  “Our job is to supplement a state government’s efforts. It is the state that takes the lead role; it is assisted by various central agencies,”

said an NDMA official, highlighting the complexity any disaster assumes in a federal set-up. In fact, NDMA member Lt Gen N.C. Marwah declared“NDMA is a toothless tiger,” as he mentioned that the National Disaster Management plan was still awaiting approval from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Uttarakhand Army Relief Operation Image Source: Mid-Day

Uttarakhand’s disaster management authority had not congregated even once when the floods struck the state in 2013 amid complaints of inadequate funding. The Jammu and Kashmir Disaster Agency did not have the requisite resources to interpret the data it had before the floods last year. There is also the added confusion of the earlier disaster management set up in the form of National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) being functional and handling the Kashmir issue without the NDMA, all the while dealing with delays and bureaucracy. “The problem is neither the states nor the Centre has a robust decision-support system,” rues the NDMA official as he encapsulates the problem facing India’s Disaster Management.

V. Lessons Are Learnt, But What More?

When the 2004 Tsunami struck India, the only main warning system was the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. But a decade later, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System has now been set up with Australia, Indonesia and India taking charge of the system. The dedicated buoys have gone up from 6 to 60 as the International Community has jointly worked together to prevent loss of life and property due to Tsunamis with a successful trigger warning sent during the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami. A sign of relief for those who live on the coast, but perhaps a decade too late for others as the importance of timeliness in Disaster Management is imperative, yet constantly ignored, in India.

An NDTV Debate on how India could improve its Disaster Management strategy discussed the importance of training communities, six-monthly drills and better planning while giving topmost priority to Disaster Management. The present government has said that they were looking into restructuring the NDMA and have taken up a few of the CAG recommendations by reconstituting the NDMA with three members from a non-political background. Yet, a massive scope for improvement in NDMA exists with few recommendations from Business Standard such as :

  1. Either the Home Secretary or NDMA secretary should be given the entire responsibility to manage a disaster. This will reduce the response time.
  2. NDMA should be empowered to give directions to a state to comply with its guidelines
  3. Fire and civil defence authorities should be brought under NDMA
  4. NDMA clearance should be taken before construction in flood-prone and earthquake-prone areas 
  5. National Disaster Mitigation Fund should be created

The predictability and prevention of a natural disaster is untenable with no scientific method available to accurately predict the time of an earthquake and Tsunami. But the goal of disaster management is always focused on minimising the effects of disasters on life and property and preventing the occurrence of a full-blown crisis. We hope that the vigour and passion with which the Prime Minister was able to deploy the Indian Army and the NDRF to help in Nepal rescue and relief can be applied to revamping a comprehensive and effective national Disaster Policy which sees us being pro-active rather than offering a delayed reactionary response, the price of which would be paid in blood.

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