The flash floods and landslides caused by sudden heavy rains in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh on June 15 have resulted in heavy casualty and loss of property. The death toll is likely to be about 1000 while over 20,000 people still need to be evacuated. Currently, rescue operations are being carried out by several agencies such as the Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Border Security Forces (BSF), and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) (see here for latest updates).
However, various news reports (see here, here and here) have highlighted the lack of disaster preparedness of the authorities in the state and the centre. In fact, news reports suggest that the Indian Meteorological Department had warned Uttarakhand government of the likelyhood of heavy rainfall within 48 hours. However, the local authorities failed to issue any warning or analyse the likely effect of such rainfall. Given the size of its population and the high risk it faces from natural disasters, it would be absolutely criminal for India to be lackadaisical about its disaster preparedness.
In this blog post, I provide a quick analysis of where India stands in disaster management preparedness.
A blue-print for disaster management
India first woke up to the need for a holistic approach to disaster management (and not relief centric) after the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami, the super cyclone in Orissa and the earthquake in Gujarat. Disaster management was recognized as a development issue for the first time during the 10th Five Year Plan (2002-2007). In 2005, the government passed the Disaster Management Act, to provide for effective management of disasters. It defined disaster as a catastrophe, calamity or grave occurrence in any area due to man-made or natural causes or by accident where there has been substantial loss of life and property. The Disaster Management Policy was framed in 2009.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is the nodal ministry for disaster management. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is mandated to deal with all types of disasters, natural or manmade with certain exceptions (such as terrorism, counter-insurgency, serial bomb blasts, and hijacking, mine disasters and forest fires). The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), headed by the Cabinet Secretary handles these issues. NCMC gives directions to the Crisis Management Group, which actually deals with all the matters related to relief activities in the case of any major disasters.
National level authorities under 2005 Act
- The Act established the NDMA and provided for setting up advisory committees and a National Executive Committee to aid the NDMA in performing its functions.
- NDMA’s functions include (a) laying down the policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management; (b) approving the National Plan and the plans of various ministries; and (c) laying guidelines for state authorities. It shall also recommend guidelines for the minimum standard of relief to be provided to persons affected by the disaster (relief camps, ex-gratia assistance).
- The National Executive Committee would prepare a National Plan for disaster management of the country.
- The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) would be under the general superintendence of NDMA but the command of the force shall be with the Director General of NDRF to be appointed by the central government.
State and district level authorities under 2005 Act
- Every state government has to set up a State Disaster Management Authority, which would be assisted by advisory committees and State Executive Committee. In addition, it has to set up District Disaster Management Authorities in every district of the state. The State Executive Committee is responsible for implementing the national and state plans and act as the coordinating and monitoring body for management of disaster in the state.
- The Act also lays down penalties ranging from one to two years imprisonment and fine for offences related to obstruction of any officer in the performance of his duties, false claims, misappropriation of money or material and for making false warning (relevant government officials have been given blanket immunity from this provision).
On-ground status on implementation
By the end of the 10th Plan, a skeletal structure for disaster management had been put in place. A central law on disaster management was enacted in 2005 and the National Disaster Management Authority was set up. However, the Act itself had certain shortcomings which contributed to its poor implementation record.
Shortcomings in the Act
The Standing Committee on Home Affairs had examined the Disaster Management Bill and made certain recommendations, most of which were not incorporated in the 2005 Act. It suggested that at each level, the respective authority should include elected representatives from the Parliament, State Legislatures and local government bodies. At the district level, there should be a Relief Commissioner (other than the District Collector/Magistrate) to ensure that affected population in disaster hit areas get relief. Although the Act included penalties for giving false warning and causing obstruction, it is not clear who would be the complainant in such cases.
Other experts (see here and here) also pointed out loopholes in the Act, which might make it less effective. They include (a) lack of clear guidelines on who shall be entitled to relief and compensation under the Act; (b) lack of clarity on who shall be monitoring the performance of the various agencies set up under the Act; (c) lack of clarity about coordination between the different agencies; (d) no guideline on how to differentiate between a disaster and a disaster of severe magnitude; and (e) no provision for declaring a disaster prone zone or classifying disasters in various categories.
Poor implementation record
The level of preparedness for disaster management at the centre and the states is very uneven. According to a 2012 report by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, even after six years of the enactment of the Disaster Management Act, many states have not yet established the state-level authorities. The report concludes that the present capability of civil administration for combating disasters remains inadequate and they rely on the armed forces for major emergency responses.
In 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released a performance report on India’s disaster preparedness. It found critical gaps in the preparedness level for various disasters. It found NDMA to be ineffective in most of the core areas since it neither had information and control over the progress of the work at the state level nor could it successfully implement various projects. The report stated that the National Executive Committee had not met after May 2008; the National Plan for Disaster Management has not yet been formulated and there were delays and mismanagement in respect of State Disaster Response Fund.
Response to a specific disaster is the best test of the level of disaster preparedness. However, the response to the Uttarakhand floods has exposed the lack of preparedness of administrative machinery. While natural disasters may be unpredictable, India cannot afford to wait for the next disaster to strike before getting its act together.