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  • Disastrous crisis management

    OVER JUST 15 months India had experienced the Orissa cyclone, water scarcity in Gujarat and Rajasthan, floods in Bihar and West Bengal and now the massive Gujarat earthquake. And shortly after the rubble is cleared, we will have to deal with a severe drought in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Any country would find it difficult to cope with natural disasters occurring in such rapid succession.  But India is not unique in this respect. Other countries of subcontinental dimensions such as Brazil, China, and the U.S. are also forced to confront such a range and frequency of disasters.  Where India is unique though is in the Government's initial leaden-footed response to a crisis.  Far from being hardened after handling disasters for years, the Government machinery at all levels is always found wanting in its first response.  it is hard to believe that though more than 50 million Indians are affected by natural disasters every years, in which some 5,000 people die, our action plans become inactionable whenever a natural calamity strikes.

    Hundreds of lives, perhaps even a couple of thousands, were probably lost in Gujarat because the State Government was too paralysed to react in the first few days.  And the Central Government consumed valuable time coming to terms with its usual ;paranoia about teams from abroad who immediately; offered all the expertise and equipment they had. A Russian team which had honed its rescue skills in the earthquakes of ;Armenia (1988), Taiwan and Turkey (1999) was ready on the very first day but it could leave for India only after 24 hours because it took that long for the Government of India to decide that it needed help. (When every minute's delay means lives are lost in a disaster, one wonders if the political establishment and senior officials in the Capital who had assembled on Rajpath on the morning of the quake were informed that disaster had struck Gujarat and if they were what they did during the three hours that they spent watching the march of pageants and missiles.)

    True, nothing  of the scale of the Republic Day earthquake has happened in the past 50 years and that could explain the initial paralysis in the state administration. But neither the Central nor the State Governments appear to have bothered to draw any lessons from the abysmal failure to cope with the Orissa cyclone.  The Government of Gujarat seems to have learnt nothing from its lethargy during the Kandla cyclone of 1998 when a few thousand people perished on the port construction site. (That no one really knows how many died in Kandla in 1998 is a story in itself. The dead all came from armies of migrant labourers who had no permanent homes and whose contractor-employers could not be bothered to record the migrants' personal details). In spite of our obvious inadequacies there is a callousness about official attitudes to disaster management that is frightening.

    Jyotsna Behn was rescued after being trapped for 100 hours in the Ahmedabad rubble with the body of her son decomposing next to her. Her legs and one arm have been amputated, but she has survived. But her spirit would have been extinguished if she had known about the smugness with which the Government has been responding to questions in Parliament about our ability to handle natural calamities. Here are just two of innumerable examples. There was no proposal to prepare any new scheme for disaster preparedness after the Orissa cyclone, the Lok Sabha was told (on May 17, 2000), as "There already exists a well laid down institutional arrangement for disaster preparedness and mitigation both at the Central and State level...". And who would have known that there actually is an emergency; plan. "A National Contingency; Action Plan has been prepared which identifies the actions to be taken by various Central Ministries and State Governments in the event of natural disaster." (Rajya Sabha, December 14, 2000). After refusing to acknowledge for months ;that ;we ;may; need ;to institute a ;national disaster management authority to assess our vulnerability to these events, it finally took the recommendations of the Eleventh Finance Commission-of all bodies- to force the Centre to consider setting up a national centre for crisis management.

    The Central Government has suddenly woken up on the need to look anew at out disaster management capabilities- of course only after the quake.  An empowered Group of Ministers on Natural Disaster Management has been constituted.  And wonder of wonders, one of its members, Mr. L.K. Advani, said after its first meeting that we may; even have to consider ;drawing up a policy on natural disaster management.  We have had empowered groups of Ministers on so many subjects but it has taken the Kutch quake to wake up to the priority of building new institutions and policies for disaster management.

    Obviously, more committees, more organisations and more policies are not recipes that will automatically correct the glaring failures in administration. But when the steel frame of the civil administration at all levels has rusted through so much that it has more failures than successes to its credit in disaster management, when the crisis management groups that are supposed to function at the Central, State and district levels are present only with their silence and when the relief manuals that the State administrations swear by are proving to be of little help, there is surely a need for a completely new approach to coping with natural calamities. The civil administration at all levels failed spectacularly in Orissa in November 1999 and it has failed yet again in Gujarat. Time and again, about the only Government institution that has measured up to the task of disaster management is one that is not supposed to deal with these challenges - the defence forces.

    A good part of the destruction caused by natural disasters is "human-contributed" if not actually human-made. A theory that is becoming fashionable after the building collapses in Gujarat is that "earthquakes do not kill, buildings do". Yes, but that is only a half-truth, for, even if building codes had been strictly adhered to in the construction of high-rises and low-cost earthquake-resistant technology had been used in low-income housing the intensity of the Kutch quake was such that destruction would still have taken place. So, largetion would still have taken place. So, large-scale and rapidly organised rescue operations would still have been required.

    In contrast to the disorganised operations of the civil administration, the speed and scale with which civil society in the rest of the country has come forward to assist in the reconstruction of Gujarat has been truly extraordinary. The NGOs as always have been doing what they always do best. But it is the spontaneous mobilisation of money, clothes and medicines that has begun which is amazing and has arguably never before been witnessed during a war or after a natural disaster in independent India. Young and old, rich and poor, pensioners and the salaried, school children and the retired all over the country have lost no time in coming forward to contribute what they are able to (at times more than they can afford to) and do what they can - without any prodding from the Government. In Gujarat itself, religious barriers have broken down and people in villages unaffected by the quake have travelled to the affected areas to help in rescue and relief. The spontaneity of this people's mobilisation stands in stark contrast to the war hysteria that the Central Government cynically manipulated during the Kargil conflict. The solidarity that millions of Indians are wanting to demonstrate with the people of Gujarat also shows up the seemingly sophisticated but actually superficial arguments by the "expert" economists against the new surcharge on direct taxes. Tax assessees and non-tax assessees will probably be voluntarily donating more in cash and kind to the reconstruction effort than what will be collected from the surcharge. The Central and State Governments have not acquitted themselves creditably. in the first week after the quake. One can only hope that they can harness the initiative of civil society and properly use the contributions of individuals in the more difficult and longer-term task of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

    Source: The Hindu, Feb. 3, 2001

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