Deaths here are more due to policy failures than nature's wrath!



As the scenario in flood-hit Uttarakhand is heading towards being disastrously grave, where hundreds have reportedly perished, thousands more are missing and many more have been made homeless, I have reasons to wonder whether our disaster management efficiency meets the international standards, or even the very least required standards. In books, the relief measures look ubiquitous – 10,000 armed forces personnel are deployed with food, medicines and clothing; also, the assistance of 18 helicopters and transport aircraft paints an imposing picture. A sum of Rs.1,000 crores is being released along with Rs.1 lakh for every family where any member has perished and Rs.50,000 for families whose houses have been destroyed or damaged. The government’s efforts to provide support seem impressive. However, I cannot help but compare the situation with developed countries; and I doubt whether so many deaths and damage would have occurred there in the first place! The deadly twister that savaged the states of Oklahoma and Missouri in United States in May this year had in total 15 deaths across the affected area. Compare this to the following data. The catastrophic flood in Bihar (2008) killed more than 250 people and rendered over 3 million people homeless. Over 300,000 houses were gutted and 340,000 hectares of land were immersed under water destroying crops worth crores of rupees. In comparison, a much severe storm and subsequent floods in United States caused by Hurricane Sandy, which hit as many as 24 states across the country, resulted in casualty figures of only 147 and homeless figures of 30,000-40,000. The disparity of physical infrastructure obviously plays a big part in the extent of damage and deaths on a comparative scale, but the preparedness level to combat natural calamities too makes a difference. The level of preparedness in both pre and post calamity scenarios is a direct consequence of public policy towards natural disasters.

On a global front, nations are drafting policies to reduce all kinds of losses due to untimely disasters. Australia developed a unique plan just to fight influenza. Under the Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza (AHMPPI), the government increased access to antiviral vaccinations and included H5N1 avian influenza vaccines in the medical stores nationally. Moreover, the states were empowered with legislative powers which allowed them to execute bio-security measures in lines with the national quarantine policy.

Similarly, Brazil has recently drafted national legislations on urbanization, building construction and land usage in order to reduce risk and deaths (and loss) during earthquakes and other similar disasters. Contrast this with the situation in India, where most of the buildings, especially in the National Capital Region, ignore FSI (Floor Space Index) criteria and consequently can collapse easily during a quake. FSI is basically a system that defines a ratio between the built up areas allowed and plot area available; thus, more the FSI, taller is the building. But then, in order to accommodate more flats, builders ignore these ratios and construct skyscrapers without giving heed to any safety measures. Worse, evacuation is virtually impossible during emergencies and a collapse of one such building would create a domino effect in the entire vicinity. In the past, in Delhi and Mumbai, the collapse of multi storeyed buildings in crowded areas has resulted in hundreds of deaths.

Even Barack Obama, in March this year, signed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act (PAHPRA), which reauthorizes the provisions of the Project Bioshield Act. This will enable authorities to stock medical countermeasures and mobilize medical professionals during any emergency. Moreover, it forces various pharma producers to come together for national help during such emergencies. No such similar policy measure exists in India.

India is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world when it comes to the state’s role in combating natural disasters viz. disaster preparedness, disaster mitigation, disaster response, and rehabilitation & recovery. The frequency and types of such natural disasters in India is alarmingly high – earthquakes, floods, cyclones and droughts have an overbearing effect on many in the country. Result – casualties, damage to properties, destruction of crops, and dents in livelihoods. Even relatively minor causes, like, cold waves, heat waves, avalanches, landslides, bushfires, pest attacks et al, too create havoc in our lives and make inordinate losses. The main reason for that is contrary to the UN described focus on pre-disaster assistance and a pro-active approach that must be adopted to prevent and control rather than ramification. India’s disaster management is still based on archaic post-disaster rehabilitation and damage control. The relief fund disbursement from the Central government is mainly carried on through the government sponsored Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) scheme in association with National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) and the fund amount is generally based on the extent of calamity, the necessity of the relief operation, and preparedness of the state government. That’s in direct conflict with UN guidelines that suggest the improvement of relief infrastructure and release of necessary funds before the disaster. Moreover, the overwhelming cost burden for various relief operations are laid on the heavy shoulders of fund crunched state governments. An impractical proposition. Often the state governments are not only financially crippled but are near bankrupt – thus levying the cost load on them actually implies the centre escaping its responsibilities.

Therefore, to prevent the kind of losses that Uttarakhand is experiencing, the government’s approach towards disaster has to be upside down. Pre-calamity operations must be set off to minimize the losses and casualties in case of one. Plus, the relief machinery lacks adequate training and management and is often found in want of pre-planned contingency measures, relying thereby mostly on ad hoc measures that diminish the efficacies of its operations. Although numerous committees were formed over the last decade to discover measures to handle catastrophes better; the prophesies have not really translated to better disaster prevention management or even logically sound fund allocation. India’s poor policy measures for disaster management are a precursor for nature’s wrath. Will policy changes occur any time soon?

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