According priority to disaster management

According priority to disaster management

The floods in the Godavari river in the year 1953 were of un unprecedented scale, both in terms of the fury of the river, as well as the extensive damage caused to lives and property.

The floods in the Godavari river in the year 1953 were of un unprecedented scale, both in terms of the fury of the river, as well as the extensive damage caused to lives and property. There was spontaneous response from all sections of the people. Political leaders of those days, in particular, showed great courage and commitment to the cause of providing succour to the suffering.

I remember how the then Minister of Education of Andhra Pradesh State S B P. Pattabhirama Rao, a family friend, crossed over on foot or rail bridge, from Kovvur town the southern side to Rajahmundry on the northern side on foot, with the river, in full spate, flowing at great speed barely a few inches below.

Among the many fundraising activities undertaken by various sections of the people for rendering assistance to the victims of the floods was one unforgettable 'Burrakadha', which I watched at Chennai, with my parents, a moving rendering of the tragic story of the killing of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharat war.

A flood that will stay fresh in my memory, forever, was the one following the torrential rains lashed coastal Andhra Pradesh state in 1969. My wife Usha and I were staying in a guest house at a small village called Pamarru while I was under training in Krishna district. We woke up one morning to find our beds literally floating on water! We gingerly made our way to our car, which was fortunately parked in an elevated verandah, and slowly drove out.

As I drove the small standard Herald car out of the guesthouse, which was at a level below the bank of the canal across the road, I had to turn right at the exit gate without being able to see the road at all. It was completely submerged and I couldn't tell where the shoulders of the road ended and the canal bund began.

Purely by instinct, I negotiated the vehicle on to the middle of the road, and then proceeded to my destination which was Machilipatnam, the district headquarters. Barely a day later, while it was still pouring heavily, I had to cross a swollen Vagu (a hill stream of sorts), overflowing a bridge. The current was swift and the cars swaying drunkenly as I boldly ventured to cross the bridge. Water had entered the car and I barely managed to reach the other side.

Following the desire of the Vice-Chairman of NDMA we the Members had to supervise personally some of the drills and rehearsals. I remember how K.M. Singh, another Member, and I, went to a small village in Assam state where the NDRF and all other stakeholders such as the district departments, non-governmental organisations (NGO)s, and Members of local Panchayat joined to make the rehearsal successful. The NDRF in particular, turned out a breathtaking performance, showing how their training and equipment could prove critical in flood-rescue.

Shashidhar Reddy, a colleague Member of NDMA, conducted a rehearsal on urban flooding in Hyderabad city in which many weaknesses of the system were thrown up. Most of them, however, remain unattended to even till today.

The Centre and the states, no doubt, have their plates full. But, then, governance is all about the ability to focus on a given set of options, in a chosen order of priority. While the urgent, understandably, crowds out the important, the strength of will required, to ensure that overriding concerns are not lost sight of, is what one expects governments to possess.

Every activity has its importance, from exploration of space and mountain expedition, to Antarctica to sports and games, cultural activities, foreign relations, education, health, infrastructure etc. But DM is not an option anymore but a compulsion, something that cannot wait and needs to be addressed first.

In fact, the day is not far when inaction, or even the postponement of action, will become the subject of scrutiny by courts of law and one finds the central and state governments being pulled up for criminal neglect. The stories of disasters over the last several years, in different part of the country have thrown up about the need for chains of command and lines of control, standard operating procedures free from bureaucratic controls and political interference and full and proper use of modern technology. Lessons which, sadly, remain largely unlearnt, at least when seen in terms of their leading into the existing plans of action.

Nowhere else in the world is the culture of coming to terms with natural disasters, and dealing with them with dignity and restraint, with discipline and forbearance, so much evidence, as in the great country of Japan. All these qualities were abundantly in display when the tsunami of unprecedented proportions ravaged the country in – and was followed by an accidental leakage in a nuclear power plant. In the plant every single one of the 50 people required for running the unit, after it had to be evacuated following the radiation leak, was volunteer, without exception. Elsewhere in the country there were no exaggerated demonstrations of grief or suffering with people queuing up patiently for supplies, buying precisely what they needed for the day, in order to leave enough for others, putting things back in the shelves when power failed in a store and ensuring that the elderly, the women and the children were given due precedence in all matters.

Road traffic was orderly with no signs of panic or undue hurry. Even the media, in a great show of patriotism and self – control, underplayed the losses and ensured that the relief workers got due credit so that their morale was kept high. Many lessons need to be learnt by us from that country. It is in a discussion of this sort that old sayings, no matter how much of worn out clichés they might sound to be, make solid sense. It is said that a stitch in time saves nine and that prevention is better than cure. What more of an apt description can one ask for the importance of laying emphasis on prevention and preparedness in preference to post event action?

And, if one is to turn to the arena of sports, there is this old adage in cricket which tells you that a run saved is a run saved, probably to encourage cricketers to concentrate also on the aspect of fielding, as it is bowling or batting that usually attract them.

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh) (The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of The Hans India)

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