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Fresh Look Needed:CONTOURS OF DISASTER, by T D Jagadesan, 23 June 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 23 June 2006

Fresh Look Needed


By T D Jagadesan

India is a large country with all types of terrain and climate. It has high altitude mountain areas, thickly forested mountains, riverine areas, flat plain lands with heavily built metros, deserts and long coastline. It is natural that at times some parts will face natural calamities and disasters like floods and earthquakes. The Centre’s recent Disaster Management Act ensures long-term rehabilitation of affected people.

The country also has vast resources in manpower – military, police and paramilitary forces, air and naval forces, as well as number of NGOs. Additionally, it has a stable Government. Despite all this, the earthquakes of Uttarkashi (Uttaranchal), Latur (Maharashtra), Bhuj (Gujarat) and Jaipur (Rajasthan) are some incidents where thousands perished due to delayed or inadequate rescue efforts. Many incidents of floods in Assam and Orissa are testimony to administrative bungling in bringing immediate relief. Even malpractices, siphoning of funds are daily occurrences.

The latest is the devastating earthquake in Jammu & Kashmir in October 2005. The extent of damage in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was proportionately more than that on the Indian side. Even so, the scale of destruction here was massive and required a concerted rescue effort. What was witnessed was a slow and indifferent approach. Surely, this was not due to lack of will but lack of foresight, planning and execution.

There is an ongoing campaign to malign the armed forces in Jammu & Kashmir by vested interests, backed by the Hurriyat and other Pakistani agents. The disaster had presented an opportunity to both the armed forces and security agencies to display their benevolent side despite the fact that majority of the people, particularly in border areas, don’t need any proof of their good intentions. They have experienced it over the past 60 years or so.

But, those on Pakistan’s payroll continue to manage to tarnish the image of the armed forces through propaganda while operating against Jehadi Islamic terrorists. Thus, despite heroic efforts by armed forces personnel, who plunged into rescue and relief efforts, the full impact could not be felt owing to lack of foresight, bureaucratic inertia and attempt by leaders to extract political mileage out of this disaster.

It was declared that the Government of India has created a Disaster Management Cell and a detailed plan to meet challenges after the Tsunami disaster of December 2004. If such an organization has really been created, no impact was visible in the quake-hit Uri, Baramulla, Tanghdhar and Poonch sectors.

Basically, three types of large-scale disasters can be foreseen, according to experts – fury of floods with or without cyclones, earthquakes and Tsunami. It is not difficult to visuliase the likely places of such disasters by studying natural conditions. For example, earthquakes can strike anywhere, but areas lying in zones of high seismic activity are particularly prone. By imagining the worst scenario, a plan of action can be formulated. This will shorten the reaction time, which is of utmost importance in rescue efforts.

After an earthquake, people trapped under debris can be saved by using heavy earth movers. The same is used in clearing roadblocks to enable large quantities of aid material to come through. Such material includes tents, shelters, blankets, packaged food and drinking water, first-aid and other medication. These should reach the victims within six to 24 hours. Further delay would add to the death toll.

In the recent case, the extent and intensity of the devastation was apparent within the first six hours. It was fairly clear that a large quantities of tents would be required, which were neither available locally nor with the Army in the State. These could have been sourced from other parts in the country and airlifted to Srinagar and Jammu. Besides, food packets and warm clothing could have been collected from industries in Jammu, Punjab and Delhi. Medical teams as well as medicines could have been made available.

A specific request could have helped in mobilizing these resources within a short time. And tapping of all these resources in a timely, coordinated and transparent manner could have given a better account of our capabilities, But what transpired was far short of expectations. The condition in remote villages was unbearable. Even if a few tents and blankets could have been air-dropped with food and bandages it would have been of great help as people in border areas are capable of erecting them and distributing the resources themselves.

In the case of floods, there is need for boats for rescue work, shelter for affected people, food, water and medicines. The question is not of providing relief but mobilizing it within an acceptable time-frame. This is the crux of disaster management. In various earthquakes and flood-relief operations, the local administration becomes ineffective as it becomes a victim in the calamity and is not available for coordinating relief and rescue work.

A detailed plan, it will be recalled, was prepared and presented by the Central Army Command to the civil administration after the Latur and Uttarkashi earthquakes. But we still haven’t learnt from the past. Even though we have experienced people, they do not find a place in any disaster management cell at either the Central or State level. It is managed by novices. However, the former Army Chief, Gen N C Vij (Retd) has been named head of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).  It should go a long way in relieving the distress.

But disaster management entails enormous resources. Co-ordination, storage, dispatch and distribution are specialized jobs needing meticulous, sustained efforts. If done precisely, these will go a long way in relieving disaster. Remember, tsunami relief materials meant for the Andamans and Nicobar Islands were rolling in some parts of the mainland long after the relief operationjs were over. The earthquake disaster management in J & K had been hampered not by lack of heart but by an absence of expert handling.

Thus, India must create an organization with its headquarters in New Delhi and centres in other parts of the country. And, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs as envisaged in the Act must take care of resources such as heavy earth-movers, tents, water tanks, pre-fabricated moveable shelters, boats, blankets and minimum stock of essential items. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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