Innovative Thinking is Required

India, which has the highest population in the world, is also one of the nations that are most vulnerable to natural disasters, and our disaster management may be a lifesaver. Consequently, NDMA needs to be upgraded further to handle unforeseen catastrophes

By Mohan Kanda
  • India along with six other countries – Mexico, Philippines, Turkey, Indonesia, Italy and Canada are at high risk to disasters in absolute terms
  • The NDRF Team deployed to Japan in response to the Tsunami and nuclear accident in the year 2011 won accolades from the Japanese government
  • The Indian system must recognise Post Disaster Needs Assessment and that the assessment is done in a technologically quick and accurate manner
  • The Indira Gandhi National Open University opened up opportunities for using distance education as a conduit, for Disaster management courses

A sudden, calamitous event, that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society, and causes human, material and economic, or environmental, losses that exceed the community’s, or society’s, ability to cope with, using its own resources”, is how the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies describes a disaster.
Natural disasters include events such as floods, earthquakes, cyclones, droughts, and landslides. Chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological disasters, besides terrorist attacks, bomb blasts, riots, air, water, road accidents etc., are called ‘man-made’.

Disaster Risk Equation

Broadly speaking, the gross level of vulnerability of a place can be defined as the product of the degree of risk, to the disaster, to which that area is prone and the exposure in terms of the people, and property, likely to be impacted. Dividing it by the degree of preparedness, one derives the net vulnerability.

Vn = R x E (or Vg) upon P

Where R is the risk of a place to a disaster, E is a measure of exposure in terms of impact, Vg is the gross vulnerability and Vn is the net vulnerability of the area, and P is the level of preparedness.
Disasters halt progress and neutralise the benefits of development efforts. World Bank studies have shown that 2 to 12% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of countries around the world is lost as a consequence, year after year. According to the World Risk Index 2020, India ranks 89th out of 181 countries. The country, in figurative terms, has literally ‘run in order to stay where we are’ to quote from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. For example, heavy rains in the Kurnool and Mahabubnagar districts of Andhra Pradesh state, in 2009, resulted in damage to the tune of Rs 12000 crores, almost equal to the anticipated growth rate in the GDP of the state in that year. Although I met then Chief Minister and made a presentation, no significant action has followed, even till today. The tragedy is that, even as I write this piece, the material I am using, and the ideas I am putting forth, remain the same, a hiatus of over a decade notwithstanding!

Developing countries, which are home to most of the poor and underprivileged people in the world, are the least equipped to prepare for, or recover from, disasters. Half the number of poor people in the world live in South Asia and the Pacific nations, with half of that number living in India alone. Little wonder, then, that the subject has assumed great international importance over the last five decades.
Maplecroft, the British risk assessor company, rates India along with six other countries namely Mexico, Philippines, Turkey, Indonesia, Italy and Canada as a country at high risk to disasters in absolute terms.

Institutional Framework

The Government of India (GoI), in 2005, December, piloted the enactment, by Parliament of the Disaster Management (DM) Act (2005). National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was then constituted, with its membership comprising persons with background, and experience, in the armed forces, civil governance, scientific institutions, police administration, health and medical services and academic institutions. There were five founder Members with General N C Vij, formerly Chief of Army Staff, leading it as the Vice-Chairman (VC).

Disasters halt progress and neutralise the benefits of development efforts. World Bank studies have shown that 2 to 12% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of countries around the world is lost as a consequence, year after year

An era, of a shift in paradigm, from the erstwhile emphasis on the 3 ‘R’s, namely, relief, rescue and rehabilitation, to a new focus, on the two ‘P’s, namely, prevention and preparedness, was ushered in. NDMA was meant to organise, a holistic, coordinated, integrated, technology-driven and proactive approach and was supported by the necessary administrative, legal and financial arrangements in the statute itself. Soon, a policy environment, a techno-legal regime and guidelines were put in place.
The formulation of the National Policy and the Guidelines, by NDMA, on different subjects, was handled by Core Groups, constituted within the Authority, headed by the Member concerned. The Groups followed a ‘nine-step process’ involving deep and wide consultation with all stakeholders including the ministries of the government of India, the states/uts, academic institutions, science and technological institutions, non-governmental organisations/community–based organisations and the corporate sector. A zero draft was first prepared, converted into a discussion paper after a round of canvassing with stakeholders from outside the Groups, and then finalised by the Authority.

The Guidelines were addressed to all the Central Ministries and States/UTs related to various types of disasters, thematic concerns such as medical preparedness, training/capacity building, the Incident Response System etc., which were common to all disasters, apart from how Disaster Management(DM) Planes were to be prepared. The National Policy, of course, had to be approved by the government of India. Recently, a step-by-step has been provided to the States and Union Territories (UTs) as regards action to be taken before, during and after the occurrence of a disaster.

The log frame of DM in the country had the law, and the National Policy, at the top, followed by Guidelines issued thereunder, the Plans made by the Central and State agencies and, finally, the measures emanating from the plans, structural and non-structural. NDMA successfully canvassed its case with (the then) Planning Commission and the 13th Finance Commission to ensure that financial support for the measures was tied up. Substantial allocation followed, as a result, for the upgradation, and modernization, of the fire services in the country and the setting up, for the first time, of disaster reserves in different parts of the country, for use in the event of the occurrence of disasters in the future.

A significant development was the mainstreaming of DM concerns into the developmental process by GoI. The Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) check memo, which had to be filled before a project was undertaken for scrutiny by the Committee, was expanded to include a question relating to the incorporation of disaster management, concerns into the design and structure of the proposed project.

Role of National Disaster Response Force

Easily, the most significant accomplishment of NDMA in its early days was the raising of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). In addition to being an exclusive, dedicated and trained and equipped force, NDRF also enjoyed the advantage of deployment in anticipation of a disaster, a dispensation that had to be fought hard for, and obtained with great difficulty. Thus, in contrast with the earlier deployment of units from the Air Force, Army and Navy, NDRF enjoyed the additional advantage of the knowledge of the local terrain, the benefits of interpersonal relationships and acquaintance with the line of control, and chain of command through Mock Drills, and Rehearsals, conducted in advance of seasons during which disasters are known to be likely to occur.

Worth to try ‘Model District’ Experiment

It has been suggested, in some quarters, that it may be worthwhile to try out a ‘model district’ experiment with a focus on implementing Disaster Management, which, if successful, can be scaled up country-wide, with appropriate adjustments, to the imperatives of different regions.
Informed and dynamic decision-making is the key to DM. Finally, especially in the area of reconstruction, it must be remembered that the challenge presented by the occurrence of a disaster is really, in the long run, an opportunity to build back better!

Mainstreaming of DM, into development activities, by the states and union territories, is taking time. Understandably, many activities need to be undertaken towards achieving this. It would be prudent to classify these activities into three sets, namely Vital, Essential, and Desirable Measures.

Ideally with the limited (human, financial and time) resources available at hand, about 80% of energy should be spent on the Vital Measures, about 15% on Essential Measures, and the rest on the Desirable Measures.
The task at hand is determining how to place the needed activities in the said three boxes. Towards this end, the available options need to be prioritised, through a ABC Analysis. Here, the activities proposed by various stakeholders should be examined carefully and placed in three sets, namely:

Set A: Those that must be done at all cost, and immediately;
Set B: Those that need to be done, but at a later point of time. These activities need not be driven; they will get done;
Set C: Those that should not be done at all, because they are bad practices, dangerous, not relevant, too expensive, out-modelled, and those that need to be discontinued with immediate effect, if already underway.

The list of priorities should come out of such an analysis.
The whole country is waiting for protection against disasters, especially natural disasters. The scale of implementation of Disaster Management measures will naturally have to be substantial. It is not the time for doing incremental work, ticking boxes on paper, and making people live in a false sense of safety from the impending negative fallouts of the hazards.

Following a question put to the Members of the Authority, by the Chairman (the then Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh), in a meeting, an attempt was made to propose a method for the measurement of the state of preparedness of the country for disasters. Some ballpark numbers were generated, representing the ingredients that preparedness would comprise, with weightages attached to each. The exercise showed that the country would have scored 29% on a scale of 100, two years before the day the calculation was made, and 45%, on that day. Our prediction was that, given maintenance, of the same speed and direction, the country would reach a level of preparedness of 72%, in the next five years.

Of considerable satisfaction to the government and the people of the country was the performance of a team deployed to proceed to Japan (In response to a request received by the Japanese government, a rare event), in the wake of the tidal wave and Tsunami followed by a nuclear accident in the year 2011. The team performed exceedingly well and won accolades from the Japanese government.While the team performed beyond expectations, what one really learnt from that visit was the strong and admirable culture of patience, resilience, empathy, and orderly behaviour from the Japanese people and the institutions in that country. Most significantly, the media played a role that was informed by exemplary restraint, resisting the normal temptation to sensationalise the events. They in fact encouraged relief workers to perform better. Such an extraordinary attitude was seen in the response of the people of Kerala in the wake of the floods. The public spiritedness, unity, dedication and empathy exhibited by the people have no parallel properly anywhere in the recent history of the country.

Developing countries, which are home to most of the poor and underprivileged people, are the least equipped to prepare for disasters. Half the number of poor people in the world live in South Asia and the Pacific nations, a half of that number living in India alone

A major weakness, in the extant arrangements, is the absence of emphasis on documentation of the events. Post-disaster needs assessment (PDNA) is now beginning to assume greater importance. The Indian system must recognise this and also the value of modern technology in ensuring that the assessment is done in a non-invasive and technologically quick and accurate manner.

Among other notable accomplishments of the Authority during that period were the first-ever National Mitigation Project, and the National Cyclone Relief and Mitigation Project were launched. Today, there are 7 national-level projects under implementation by NDMA. The NDMP is the first-ever national plan prepared in the country. It aims to make India disaster resilient and significantly reduce the loss of lives and assets.

How Disaster Management Fits Into Education

Interaction was commenced with the Indira Gandhi National Open University, which opened up opportunities for using distance education as a conduit, for DM courses being offered by other open universities in the country. I attended, on behalf of NDMA, a meeting of the Association of Indian Universities, in order to persuade the Vice Chancellors of the Universities in the country to include DM as a subject in the syllabi and curricula of the courses being offered by them. A University Network, namely UNDER-NIDM, was launched on 25th February 2021 by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) with NDMA’s Guidance. After the launch, NIDM is proactively in the process of building partnerships with Universities and Institutions. So far, 101 organisations have obtained membership and NIDM has also requested them to identify suitable persons who would assist in capacity and knowledge enhancement for the network. All 27 Central Government Training Institutions, such as Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA), Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA), Para Military Academies, Revenue Services related academies etc, have incorporated DM into their training curricula. Postgraduate courses are being offered by many Universities in India as DM courses also leading to an MBA Degree. At least 10 of the leading Universities are offering Distance Education Courses on DM.

Financial Support

Following a landmark recommendation of the 15th Finance Commission, GOI set up mitigation funds, at both the national and state levels in the form of a National Disaster Mitigation Fund (NDMF) and State Disaster Mitigation Funds.

It can hardly be gainsaid that, for the government of any country, preservation of the fruits of development must take precedence over all fresh initiatives on the anvil. DM is, thus, an overriding concern that needs to be addressed to the exclusion of all others. It is in recognition of that fact that the United Nations (UN), declared the decade of the 1960s, as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR), which, was followed by the announcement, in 1999, again by the UN, of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The establishment, in 2006, of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Disaster Management Centre was also another step in that direction.

Need to Internalise Disaster Management

The stage is now set for DM in India. The basic legal framework is in place. The needed finances are available in a systematic way. The central and state administrations are prepared. The word DM has already reached the desks of all ministries, departments and offices, the central governments and state governments, and nearly all the other stakeholders in the country. The next step is to internalise it. One convincing way of doing this is by practising it. But, for the effort of about 132 Crore people in India to be in consonance, an organised, proactive and prioritised effort is required. It is developing a culture of safety, and prevention, across the people of India is to be the focus, creating systems and processes is mandatory. The techno-legal environment also needs to be kept contemporary and updated.
Now for some points that need to be attended to in the near future.

Other important aspects of the residual agenda, going forward, are the implementation of the National Policy on Disaster Management( NPDM), launching long-term initiatives to implement the Guidelines in place, and mounting a major initiative on Capacity Development based on a sound foundation of technical and administrative measures.

While the National Policy is the overarching policy, the lower levels, i.e., the States, districts, towns and villages, additional imperatives will have to be factored in, to that they can respond to local imperatives, such as the terrain, the disasters to which given areas are vulnerable, and the social, economic and cultural features of the people.

Clearly, the authorities at various levels, from the national to the local, will need to be equipped with books of instructions/manuals in which what is needed from them is clearly stated. Dissemination should be bullish, continuous, and from all levels.

Given the bewildering complexity of the unfolding canvas and the rapidity with which change is occurring, it is absolutely imperative that the DM apparatus at all levels remains constantly tuned to the external environment, always on the lookout for threats and opportunities, in an ‘online’ and ‘real-time’ mode. While drawing up DM plans at the various levels (National, State & UTs, and Districts), the internationally accepted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs of the UN), should be a guiding light at all times.

Adoption of a Ground-Breaking Approach

A fresh approach should be adopted that not merely provides results which are better or more than in the past, but those which are different. It needs to be accurate, objective, and formal, able to leverage Information technology and maximise decision-making based on ground realities, rather than hearsay, while also facilitating adherence to timelines for meeting targets and mechanisms to incentivize successful implementation.

Drills and rehearsals are in full swing and NDRF is, quite literally, on a song. The Force could, however, do with a more enduring solution to the problem posed by its composition. Creating a cadre exclusive to it, with appropriate avenues of promotion and career prospects, had yet to be seriously attempted. The excellent performance being turned down by the Force, in the wake of a tragic disaster, year after year, will be that much more valuable if the drills and rehearsals being conducted can also emphasise on complementing its efforts with those of NGOs/Community-Based Organisations (CBOs). State Disaster Management Plans (SDMPs) have been prepared in all States and Union Territories except Telangana.
The National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) is the first-ever National Plan prepared in the country. It aims to make India disaster resilient and significantly reduce the loss of lives and assets. The Director General of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), stated recently that the forecasting mechanism has improved between 20 to 40% during the period 2015 to 2020. Also, he said that the forecasting mechanism improved by 20-40% between 2015 and 2020. When cyclone Hudhud hit Visakhapatnam in 2014 not only was the forecast available nearly a week in advance but the landfall was also predicted with hitherto unknown precision, thanks to advancements in technology and improved equipment. That forecast greatly minimised the property. A similar experience was in respect of the Phailin cyclone, in Odisha, in 2013. That forecast was made earlier than ever before, pinpointing the location of landfall accurately, preparatory actions and the efficacy of post-event measures were just as good as for Hudhud, if not better. While considerable progress has been made in the direction of disaster management in the country, there is much that remains to be done. The very fact that even more than 15 years after the establishment of NDMA and coming into being Abhi law, lives and property continued to be lost on a large scale on account of predictable and manageable disasters is a matter of great regret.

Regulating Floodplain Zone

The Floodplain Zoning regulations prepared by the GOI as long ago, as in 1975, should await conversion into state law in all these three states (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana) is a glaring example of the callous indifference of those at the highest levels of policy-making and implementation.
The flooding of cities, such as Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, should cause such totally avoidable inconvenience to the public, apart from lost life and property, is indeed highly unfortunate.

When cyclone Hudhud hit Visakhapatnam in 2014 not only was the forecast available nearly a week in advance but the landfall was also predicted with hitherto unknown precision, thanks to advancements in technology and improved equipment. That forecast greatly minimised the property

Unmindful of the sound advice contained in the NDMA guidelines on the incident response system and in total disregard to the interests of the public, the governments in the three states failed to establish a change of command in lines of control. The ‘headless chicken’ syndrome that characterised the response to the event was indeed shameful.

In Chennai, in particular, the need for the officials in charge of releasing the water and those in charge of ensuring that the influx was dispatched in an orderly and harmless way to pre-planned destinations to obtain clearance from the highest political level directly and immediately led to the colossal devastation that followed. In all three cases, there would be a strong case for a public interest litigation to succeed, laying the blame squarely on the highest political and administrative authorities.

Privileges of Modern Technology

The advantages of long experience and the benefits of modern technology have made it possible to improve systems of early warning and forecasting of various disasters. Systems that forecast events such as tropical cyclones, riverine floods, landslides and avalanches have undergone dramatic improvement. Even the ability to forecast earthquakes, regarded, until recently, as beyond the scope of scientific methods, is beginning to appear a distinct possibility. The important thing in this context is to ensure that there is a healthy and harmonious amalgam, of Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITK), the precious legacy bequeathed by our forefathers, from times immemorial, and modern scientific methods, while, of course, duly validating the wisdom and experience of the ITK.

When cyclone Hudhud hit Visakhapatnam in 2014 not only was the forecast available nearly a week in advance but the landfall was also predicted with hitherto unknown precision, thanks to advancements in technology and improved equipment. That forecast greatly minimised the property

I had the great pleasure, and honour, of calling on Prof J R Narlikar at Pune recently. As a student who did sums for him on the chalkboard during his visit to Osmania University in the late 1960s, the experience was by way of fulfilment of a long, cherished desire. A story probably apocryphal, that goes about him, is that he was refused a licence while in England for being ‘overcautious’! This allusion is by way of illustrating the fact that there can be such a thing as overdoing of disaster management. Events such as river flooding, for instance, have their own benefits too. They replaced topsoil, and, when managed properly, serve as feeders for structures for storage of water, in times of need in the future, apart from recharging the aquifer and helping it recover from mindless mining, for various purposes, such as agriculture, domestic and industrial. A sense of proportion is therefore the need of the hour. As they say in French, “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”.

Those at the highest levels of governance at the National, as well as State levels, need to appreciate the fact that a linear and incremental approach that leads to a performance that is more than the past or better is no longer enough. What is required is an out-of-the-box ability to think, or to plan ‘differently’.
As Aristotle said in his ‘Physics’, “In a race, the quickest runner can never over­take the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead”. For millennia, mankind has interrogated the external environment and nature has provided answers to the questions posed. In the complex and rapidly changing scenario that is unfolding today, the crying need is to find the right questions to ask!

In October 2005, the precise definition of a calamitous event posed a challenge to the newly constituted National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). One recalls, in that context, a story, perhaps fictional, that the distinction, between a calamity, and a catastrophe, was once being discussed in Parliament in England. Sir Edmund Burke, the Leader of the Opposition, is said to have suggested that, while it would be a calamity, if Lord North, the Prime Minister, were to drown, it would be a catastrophe if somebody saved him! Fortunately, for NDMA, the issue was resolved by the DM Act, 2005, which used the word ‘disaster’ to describe events such as calamities, catastrophes and emergencies.

Mohan Kanda

Dr Mohan Kanda is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service. In his long and distinguished career, he served in various capacities at the State as well as at the Centre including Chief Secretary of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, and Member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Government of India. He has authored several books including ‘Ethics in Governance - Resolution of Dilemmas - with case studies’

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