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Disaster Management: WHAT, NEVER HEARD OF IT?, By Poonam I Kaushish; NEW DELHI, 3 August 2007 Print E-mail

NEW DELHI, 3 August 2007

Disaster Management


By Poonam I Kaushish


Ok, fellow countrymen, it is once again the season to curse all you want. The rain Gods for nature’s fury. The weatherman for getting his predictions all wrong. Our over-worked doctors and overflowing hospitals grappling with disease and death. Our good-for-nothing polity for multiplying our piling miseries. Alas, if only curses could put an end to our miseries one would have no regrets. But year after year, our annoyance falls on deaf ears. Whoever said when it rains miseries, it pours, was dead on!


Take the on-going flood fury which has engulfed the entire country. Andhra, Assam, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, Karnataka, Bihar and elsewhere are all submerged under the deluge of torrential rain. Raising a moot point. What do people do when confronted with three choices to survive floods? One, die in water? Two, die without water? Three, die after drinking contaminated water? Most opt for the third and suffer. And if they face drought then too they have three options.  One, die of hunger. Two, commit suicide. Three, eat insects, snakes and suffer. This is our India.


Indeed, what’s the big deal? Kahein baarh, kahein sookha. It’s an annual feature. Thousands die, lakhs are rendered homeless and property worth crores is lost. Millions of words have been written on drought and floods and millions more will continue to be written. But it’s like water off a duck’s back. Everyone goes through the stereotype motions---drought, famine, flood and relief---words which are freely bandied about. Appropriate noises, hollow concerns and instant remedies are made at crises time only to be dismissed as a bad dream post crises.


As the people grapple with floods in several States, our netas go through the ritual political circus. All lament the deaths. But their screams are gagged by their ambitions. The Prime Minister makes an aerial survey. The Government sets up a crisis management team. The State Government seeks Central relief. Babudom analyses the flood situation and its aftermath over official lunches and dinners!  Rations are air dropped. So what if half land in water and the remaining spark off food riot and killings. Everyone is satisfied that they have done their bit for the nation.


But the basic question is: does anyone really care?  Not at all. Everything is kaam chalao! Busy as they all are enlarging their respective “relief empires” and pointing accusing fingers at each other. Their ideas and remedies as water logged and diseased as the flood under discussion. Tragically, exposing the political and administrative callousness towards human life. India’s millions, now a billion, don’t seem to count for much apart from a sterile statistic.


Even a cursory glance at the Parliamentary Standing Committee Report on Rural Development, especially housing, is revealing. It is a shocking indictment of our disaster management preparedness. Incredibly enough, over 67.4 per cent area of the country is vulnerable to natural disasters like cyclonic winds, storms and floods. Yet the Government’s approach is one of criminal casualness.


The Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) is a case in point. Its guidelines clearly state that houses should not be located in the disaster prone areas and that the beneficiaries should  construct houses on land available to them. Whenever, land is not available to them, the State Governments are required to provide land in such places which are not disaster prone. Since barely 33 per cent of such land is available, the only way the Government can provide safe havens is by giving them disaster-proof technology. The Committee is appalled that the onus of using this technology has been shifted from the State Government to the beneficiaries!


Further, it points out that the guidelines do not address the disaster issues in the right way. Thus, it insists:  make use of disaster-proof technology “compulsory,” like HUDCO does for houses constructed with its assistance. At the same time, it makes a note of the lack of awareness among masses, especially the rural poor about this technology. It recommends “awareness drives” by HUDCO with the State Governments, local bodies, housing boards etc.


Sadly, why can’t the powers-that-be implement such basic suggestions? Why do they not develop a long-term response to floods, which is an annual predictable crisis?  Why is it that every State Government only reacts after people and cattle have either lost their lives migrated? See the absurdity—food grains and fodder arrive at their destination days after the calamity has struck, thanks to cumbersome bureaucratic procedure. What about the rations which are swept away in the flood waters? Who will be held accountable? And which head will roll?


Moreover, why do politicians feel that mere sanctioning of hundreds of crores will solve the problem? Little do they realize that funds doled out from the Calamity Relief Fund instead of helping the people, are used by most State Governments for purposes other than disaster management. Alarmingly, there is no effective coordination between various rural development programmes.  The Agriculture and Water Resources Ministries work in opposite directions. Each Minister and his babus guard their fiefdom with zealousness. Let alone coordination, every silly information is shrouded in secrecy. Shockingly, in a nation natured on short cuts and quick-fix solutions, none is willing to learn the ABC of disaster management or finding lasting solutions.  It’s not that they have to look far.


Various measures have been mooted since Independence only to be put in the deep freeze. Simply because they don’t translate into votes or add to the polity’s coffers. How many are aware that in 1947 when there was the task of constructing the Bhakra-Nangal Dam, another project for river Kosi was also mooted. In 1950 it was finalized only to be revised in 1953 and divided into two parts. One, construction of a multi-purpose high-level dam. Two, change the course of the river by raising the embankment on both sides to prevent over-flooding. Since then it continues to gather dust in some obscure corner of the Government’s corridors.


Yet another project prepared way back in 1957 never saw the light of day. It was to construct a high dam on the catchment area on Nepal’s side to ensure that the waters of Kamala River did not flood north Bihar and the adjoining areas. Since many Himalayan rivers in the flood-prone areas originated from China, Nepal and Bhutan, New Delhi should have at least worked out adequate water management arrangements with these countries in the event of rivers overflowing. Yet this was not done. In fact, had the Centre taken timely measures, we would not only would we have had no flood miseries, but would also have created enough hydel power to meet the country’s requirement.

Importantly, words like preparedness, mitigation and rehabilitation do not exist in our netagans dictionary. Preparedness entails focusing on the most vulnerable areas, educating the people how to handle a flood, setting up an effective communication network and carrying out a safety drill from time to time. Mitigation involves construction of safe shelters and houses to reduce the effect of the impeding disaster. Moreover, villagers should be made to undergo training at the village centres about safe building procedures. Rehabilitation work entails replacing implements and tools of the artisan and workers to carry on with their life post-disaster.


It is high time our netagan pull up their bootstraps. They need to focus on long-term rather than short-term planning and shed their passion to pander to vote-banks. You need neither a bleeding heart nor blindness to know what should be done. Decisive indecisiveness will not do. It only holds out promises of more misery, more wrenching news bulletins and more cries for the Government to act. The time is far gone for the Government to play the pied piper. And aver, disaster management never heard of it. ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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