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Founding Editor View on Disaster Management

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The logic of a disaster management authority, its mitigation programme, a speedy response and rehabilitation mechanism and a population aware of the risks and dangers are plain to the eye and to the commonest of senses. Disasters, natural or man-made, cause more death and destruction per calendar year than any other non-medical reason worldwide.

Yet there is a sharp divide between those countries and societies that are prepared to handle the challenge of a disaster and those that are not. India, despite all its claims to high status and role, belongs to the latter category. And it is a country that is most frequently affected by disasters, more natural than man-made, but an enormous disruption and destruction in the lives of millions of people.

The lackadaisical attitude to the value of life in India is best borne out by the emergence of the National Disaster Management Authority, as part of the Union Home Ministry. The NDMA does not control assets that would be the first to respond in case of a disaster; it also does not have the authority to mandate construction standards in vulnerable zones of the country and neither does it have the power to put the whole country through disaster drills covering the entire spectrum of threats. As a rule the first to respond to a disaster are always the firemen and yet the NDMA cannot influence their reaction time and capabilities and it certainly cannot decide what equipment the fire team must carry and be driven in. Which then really sums up the crisis in this country and the inability of the leadership to institute changes that are as basic as they are logical.

The Indian subcontinent is heading rapidly into the Asian landmass forcing great stress along the fault lines of the earth’s crust. The frequency of major tremors is higher in South Asia than most parts of the world. Uttarkashi, Latur, Bhuj and Muzaffarabd are simply those that happened in the last two decades. Each one of them is classified as a major trembler. Yet nothing has been done to change the construction patterns in the country, with unregulated buildings booming at rates that can only be called as mind-boggling. And all of them constructed without catering for an earthquake. Take an example from the recent earthquake off the coast of Japan. Before the tsunami struck the hapless people, the total number of those lost to the Richter 9 earthquake was about 100, from house collapses etc. An earthquake on the same scale in South Asia would certainly have casualties in the unimaginable figures.

The other frequent cause of disasters is floods, visiting every year as a matter of routine. The devastation caused in Pakistan last year was, of course, beyond the scale that has ever happened in India, but it still does question the efficacy of the response mechanism. The simplest lesson learnt from across the world and South Asia specifically, is that a de-centralised mechanism and an authority that backs it, is the most vital component of tackling disasters. A body of re-employed people sitting in Delhi is not the answer to the country’s problems and threats. The answers are in the districts, where a mechanism needs to exist and practice its responses with a frequency that is reassuring to its population. Till now the country has only faced natural disasters, but should a terrorist let off a chemical or radiological weapon in a large gathering, the consequences would be beyond compare. Why the country needs to wait for that to happen before preparing for it is one of the illogical aspects of governance in India.

 


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