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Reactive vs Proactive by Maj Gen G D Bakshi

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Author: Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bakshi SM, VSM (Retd)

No section of any society in any part of the world can keep itself aloof from disaster management both in its proactive role of preparedness, prevention and mitigation or its reactive role of rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

It is good that realisation of this basic fact has begun to dawn on the Indian military establishment which has long campaigned against its Constitutional responsibility of ‘aid to civil authority’ with deleterious effect on the body politic.

The great eastern Japan tragedy caused by an almost 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the coast on 11 March 2011, has served to highlight the crucial salience of the subject of disaster management. This earthquake and the resultant tsunami wave of 29.6 m that struck the Japanese coast caused a loss of 13,013 lives (with another 14,921 people missing) and 4,711 injured. About 1,25,000 buildings were destroyed and the economic loss has been pegged at over US$ 309 billion - making it the world’s most expensive natural disaster on record. The most worrying aspect was the Chernobyl-like meltdown of the nuclear reactors sited on the coast.


People’s response

Despite the enormity of the tragedy, the heartening aspect was the response of the Japanese people and their highly proactive approach based upon “preparedness, prevention and mitigation” as opposed to the reactive Indian approach that focuses largely on “rescue, relief and rehabilitation”. Thus an almost 9.0 magnitude earthquake-cum-tsunami in Japan caused at worst 28,000 casualties. The Jammu and Kashmir earthquake of 2005 that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale had caused 80,000 casualties (minus the tidal wave and nuclear dimension of the Japanese earthquake-cum-tsunami). The scale of the casualties serves to underline the basic difference in approaches to disaster management. The key life saving factor was the speed of the Japanese warning system. The initial warning was generated in just 3 minutes and the detailed warning in four minutes flat from the trigger event of the earthquake. The second great casualty mitigating factor was the design and construction of the Japanese buildings which withstood the shock of an almost 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Hence the proactive approach correctly focuses as “preparedness, prevention and mitigation”, rather than a reactive and knee-jerk response of relief and rescue operations alone as prevalent in India and other third world countries.

Indian context


  • India is highly prone to different types of natural hazards and has suffered several major disasters in the past.
  • 58.6 per cent of the Indian landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to high intensity.
  • Of the 7,516 km long coastline, close to 5,700 km is prone to cyclones and tsunamis.
  • Floods are recurrent events that cause huge damage to properties and assets every year (besides loss of lives and agricultural produce).
  • Hazards like droughts, landslides, forest fires, thunderstorms, cloudbursts, mud slides, snow avalanches and cold waves also routinely take a severe toll of life and properties.


Man-made disasters

Besides there are a whole range of man-made disasters to include Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear disasters coupled with transport accidents (air/railways/marine/road traffic). In the Indian context mass casualty terrorism like 26/11 and large scale rioting and arson also constitute major man-made disasters. This latter category is likely to become a major threat in the days ahead.

The increasingly dysfunctional and failing State of Pakistan is feverishly engaged in increasing its nuclear stockpile from 30-80 to over 110 nuclear weapons. Given the radicalisation of that society, this nuclear stockpile could easily fall into the hands of jihadi terrorists / non-State actors. This could lead to the phenomenon of catastrophic terrorism using tactical nuclear devices (like the ones Pakistan is likely to mount on its Nasr tactical missiles) or crude radiological dispersal devices (RDD) that could contaminate entire population centres and lead to mass panic. We are increasing the number of our nuclear plants. Apart from tsunami induced meltdowns these could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks and sabotage. The radiological dimension therefore will continue to loom ominously in the Indian context and demands adequate preparedness, preparation and credible steps now to ensure prevention and mitigation.

Disaster damage

Disaster management in India is a serious issue. In 1975 the losses suffered by India due to disasters amounted to US$ 38 billion. By 2005 this had reached a peak of US$ 527 billion in that year alone. Between 1995 and 1999, the losses caused by natural / man-made disasters in the developed world amounted to 2.5 per cent of the GDP. However in the developing world, losses in the same period amounted to 13.4 per cent of the GDP. This scale of damage incurred clearly highlights the difference between the basal reactive approach, premised simply on “rescue, relief and rehabilitation“ in the third world countries, with highly proactive approach of the developed nations premised on “preparedness, prevention and mitigation”. The primary need in India therefore is to move beyond the reactive and relief centric approach to a far more comprehensive and proactive approach that anticipates and prepares for the crisis situation well in advance and hence greatly curtails the scale of loss in terms of lives and property.

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