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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Hindu, Feb. 3, 2001