Disaster management turning out a disaster

THE HANS INDIA |   Aug 10,2017 , 04:54 AM IST


Q) What do Assam, Himachal and Gujarat have in common? 
A) Lord Indra is playing hooky once again causing massive destruction, death and anguish. Whoever said when it rains miseries, it pours, was dead on! Leaving us desis with just one option – pray to God that disaster doesn’t strike in their region. The flood toll has reached a whopping 700 now and a few thousands have become homeless and counting.

Oh, so predictable is our netas response: an annual nautanki, yawn. Everyone goes through the stereotype motions – deluge and relief are freely bandied about. Prime Minister Modi announces Rs 2 lakh compensation for the deceased and Rs 50,000 for those injured, and Chief Ministers follow. 

Moreover, why do our netagan prioritise floods only at crises time? Remember, similar floods struck Chennai in 2015, Uttarakhand and Srinagar 2014, Delhi 2013 and Mumbai in 2005.  According to a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources between 1953 and 2012 an average of seven million hectares of land and over 32 million people were affected each year because of floods. 

The average loss of lives was 1,653 each year, cattle loss 96,593, a whopping 12.54 lakh houses were damaged and the total destruction to crops, houses and public utilities estimated at Rs 3,612.12 crores annually. And every year millions of words are written and millions more will continue to be written. But it’s like water off a duck’s back.

Why are long-term responses not developed to what is an annual expected problem? Why aren’t adequate arrangements made to ensure survivors don’t die of starvation, due to the administration’s ineptitude. Primarily because the aam aadmi translates into sterile statistics to be manipulated at will. 

Undeniably, the governments’ approach is one of criminal casualness. It only reacts after people and cattle have either lost their lives. Promises are aplenty – house-building grants, rehabilitation schemes and free rations. What it all boils down to is a measly pay-out of Rs 200 each to about 2000 people for building houses against the promised Rs 750. 

Not for them implementation of basic suggestions and developing long-term responses. Think. Around 76% of India's coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, 10% to floods and river erosion, over 20 million people, about 6.5 million acres of crop is submerged and more than 20 lakhs cattle heads perish. Yet, our leaders remain oblivious to hydrological concerns of cities, busy as they are enlarging their respective “relief empires” and pointing accusing fingers at each other. Their ideas and remedies as water-logged as the floods under discussion. 

Funds are doled out from the Calamity Relief Fund. Little realising that instead of helping the people, most State Governments use this for purposes other than disaster management or to create infrastructure for which money is provided in the regular budget and nor do the State Disaster Boards implement any project properly. 

Shockingly, according to the CAG 2013 report the National Disaster Management Authority has no “information and control over progress of (disaster management) work at the State level, was unsuccessful in implementation of various projects and ineffective in its functioning in most core areas."  Succinctly, disaster management is a disaster.

Moreover, even as the Centre approved Rs 33,580.93 crore for State Disaster Response Funds for 2010-2015, many States misutilised these, some didn’t invest them, thereby incurring huge interest losses, smacking of financial indiscipline while not a few are yet to utilise funds. 

Examples: Assam has over Rs 500 crore which is unutilised, even as it wants another Rs 3,000 crore as interim relief. Similarly, Odisha has Rs 824 crore and the story is recurrent elsewhere too. Bringing things to such a pass that everything is kaam chalao! Crisis over it is back to business as usual. 

Flood policies are based on the assumption that flood disasters result from nature's actions and are not man-made. Whereas, in actuality the damage is caused by human error, mainly, poor land management and myopic flood-control strategies. This was underscored by the CAG 2010 report which lamented the country’s disaster management preparedness and warned of impending catastrophe including severe natural ecology hazards.

Loss of green spaces which can reduce flood intensity and soil erosion has added to the problem along-with concretisation, unplanned urbanisation alongside nature’s fury. Concerted efforts are needed like massive afforestation and soil conservation programmes throughout the country. Reforesting of the Himalayas would be a beginning in this direction. 

It is needed to trap some of the early monsoon water underground in artesian basins which could be used during dry season. Rainwater harvesting, improved waste management practices, multi-purpose projects could be taken up, which would not only control floods, but also augment power supply alongside development of urban fringes to reduce pressure on existing urban cities.

Our polity needs to emphasis on national priorities, take into account local realities and involve experts and environmentalists who would evaluate the ecological problems, study its context and be involved in decision and policy-making. With special emphasis on problems created by burgeoning population and its impact on the local eco-system, growth of haphazard housing, environmental  insanitation and decay, drainage and  stagnant water bodies.

The need of the hour demands action. Blueprints and discussions are not going to help unless and until the government starts implementing those master-plans dumped in dusty government corridors. Even as NaMo bulldozes ahead with grand designs to build 100 futuristic ‘smart’ cities, this season’s devastating floods shows, fixing today’s flood-prone metropolises is a more pressing task.

By Poonam I Kaushish

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