Dis­as­ter at NDMA

The PM of In­dia head­ing the NDMA through his proxy called Deputy Chair have failed to con­tain dis­as­ter like Ker­ala what to talk about na­tional dis­as­ter cal­en­dar mak­ing


Me­dia call it the worst flood of the cen­tury in the re­gion. Af­ter more than two weeks of re­lent­less rain, Ker­ala, a state at the south­ern tip of In­dia, known in­ter­na­tion­ally for its scenic green land­scapes, touris­tic spots and back­wa­ters, was left with over 1 mil­lion peo­ple in re­lief camps, and close to 400 re­ported dead — the num­ber is ex­pected to be much higher, as many ar­eas re­main in­ac­ces­si­ble.

In the moun­tain­ous Coorg or Kodagu district in the neigh­bour­ing state of Kar­nataka, thou­sands of peo­ple have been ma­rooned be­cause of tor­ren­tial rains. Ex­ac­er­bated by land­slides in hilly ter­rain, flood­ing has led to the de­struc­tion of homes, bridges, road net­works and in­dus­tries.

Far from be­ing a sur­prise, the pos­si­bil­ity of such dev­as­ta­tion was high­lighted sev­eral years ago.


In 2011, the Western Ghats Ecol­ogy Ex­pert Panel, chaired by the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned ecol­o­gist Mad­hav Gadgil, submitted a re­port to the In­dian Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests. The re­port warned that an ill-thought fo­cus on de­vel­op­ment was im­pact­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity of the Western Ghats hill chain, one of the world’s most bio­di­verse ar­eas that runs along the west coast of In­dia. The ex­pert re­port urged a num­ber of states, in­clud­ing Kar­nataka and Ker­ala, to adopt an ap­proach of thought­ful con­ser­va­tion, lim­it­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as quar­ry­ing, dams and con­struc­tion near pro­tected forests in hilly ar­eas. The re­port was re­jected by the Min­istry as well as by both states.

In ret­ro­spec­tive, it is clear that the worst flood dam­age took place in those re­gions where the Gadgil com­mit­tee rec­om­mended pro­tec­tion.

In Kodagu, for in­stance, tens to hun­dreds of thou­sands of large trees were felled in 2015 to con­struct a high-ten­sion elec­tric wire line. Un­con­trolled sand min­ing has con­strained river flows, while the rapid spread of high-rise build­ings on un­sta­ble hill slopes has weak­ened the soil. This un­planned de­vel­op­ment has left the area sus­cep­ti­ble to flash floods and land­slides, caused by a com­bi­na­tion of tree felling on steep hill slopes and heavy rain­fall.


The flood­ing of the Kochi air­port is another ex­am­ple of poor plan­ning lead­ing to dis­as­trous out­comes. The air­port was built on the paddy fields and wet­lands ad­ja­cent to the Peri­yar River, and ex­tends up to the banks of the river on one side.

The long­est river in Ker­ala, has a num­ber of dams – some of which had to be opened to re­lease wa­ter dur­ing the rains. The air­port was badly hit, with es­ti­mated eco­nomic costs of at least Rs 500 crores be­cause of its forced clo­sure for sev­eral days.

The Peri­yarriver is not the only one that has been dammed. The state of Ker­ala has 44 rivers with a to­tal of 61 dams. Many had to be opened across Ker­ala as they were dan­ger­ously full – a step that, while es­sen­tial dur­ing a time of emer­gency, con­trib­uted to the heavy flood­ing. A 2017 re­port by the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral of In­dia warned that not a sin­gle one of these dams had an emer­gency ac­tion plan in place for dis­as­ter man­age­ment. Pre- and post-mon­soon safety in­spec­tions had not been car­ried out for any of these dams ei­ther.

Given how likely it is that coastal and river­ine cities will ex­pe­ri­ence flood­ing in com­ing years, you would think we know bet­ter than to build air­ports near bod­ies of wa­ter. Yet Kochi air­port is not an ex­cep­tion. The run­ways of the Mum­bai air­port have been built over the Mithiriver, and the air­port is lo­cated on a re­claimed pond. One of the run­ways of the Chennai air­port ex­tends over the Ad­yarriver, af­fect­ing its long-term safety and sta­bil­ity.

It is no sur­prise that these air­ports, which are among the busiest in In­dia, fre­quently flood when the rains are heavy – lead­ing to large-scale eco­nomic losses. Yet the new Navi Mum­bai air­port is com­ing up in an equally un­suit­able lo­ca­tion on coastal wet­lands.


In the era of cli­mate change we have just en­tered, ex­treme rain­fall events are go­ing to be­come in­creas­ingly com­mon. Un­con­trolled growth at the ex­pense of the en­vi­ron­ment will se­verely ex­ac­er­bate the im­pacts of cli­mate change. Our cities are sim­ply not pre­pared for ex­treme weather events. The re­cent col­lapse of a bridge in Genoa, killing at least 43 peo­ple, is linked to poor main­te­nance, but also to heavy rain­fall.

Cer­tain types of in­fra­struc­ture may be less suit­able to some con­texts in a chang­ing cli­mate sce­nario. Wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia cause ex­ten­sive dam­age to pri­vate prop­erty be­cause many cities are ex­tend­ing their bound­aries into for­est ar­eas. As lo­cal cli­mate be­comes hot­ter and drier, with fires be­com­ing more likely, new homes are be­ing built in ar­eas that are highly sus­cep­ti­ble to fire in­stead of less ex­posed lo­ca­tions.

Some cities are seek­ing to re­verse this tra­jec­tory of un­planned con­struc­tion. Nairobi is in the midst of an ex­ten­sive de­mo­li­tion drive, up­root­ing thou­sands of

build­ings built on ri­par­ian land that choke the flow of wa­ter and con­trib­ute to se­vere an­nual floods.

In Seoul, be­tween 2002 and 2005, the city mu­nic­i­pal­ity tore up an el­e­vated high­way that had been built over the Cheong­gyecheon stream. This in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous ur­ban-re­newal pro­ject re­duced traf­fic, re­duced air pol­lu­tion and cut the ur­ban heat-is­land ef­fect. In Yonkers, New York, an on­go­ing pro­ject aims to re­store the buried Saw Mill River.

Sim­i­lar ur­ban river day light­ing projects are gain­ing trac­tion in cities around the world. Zurich has been an early pioneer, de­vel­op­ing the Bachkonzept (stream con­cept) to cre­ate, re­store and un­cover a num­ber of streams and springs. Lon­don, which built over a num­ber of fa­mous rivers, has now un­cov­ered and re­stored a num­ber of these wa­ter­ways, while Sheffield, hav­ing ex­per­i­mented with day light­ing, is now con­sid­er­ing un­cov­er­ing sec­tions of the lo­cal Sheaf River.

The demon­strated eco­log­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits are clear — as are the so­cial and eco­nomic re­turns. For ex­am­ple, Seoul’s iconic Cheong­gyecheon stream restora­tion led to a more than sixfold in­crease in bio­di­ver­sity, a 35 per­cent de­crease in air pol­lu­tion and a growth in prop­erty prices that is dou­ble of that in other parts of the city.

The re­stored stream at­tracts tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors daily who con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to the lo­cal econ­omy. Such ideas of restora­tion need to be­come more wide­spread, and em­bed­ded in rou­tine cli­mate change and dis­as­ter man­age­ment plan­ning. The in­vest­ment made is am­ply re­paid many times over in eco­nomic se­cu­rity and growth, bio­di­ver­sity, lo­cal health and qual­ity of life, and re­silience against fu­ture dis­as­ters.

Once the emer­gency re­lief is at­tended to, Kochi and Kodagu would do well to use their re­cent ex­pe­ri­ence as a warn­ing of fu­ture dis­as­ters to come in a world of in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain cli­mate.

The fo­cus must be on long-term restora­tion projects that can re­verse some of the en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­log­i­cal dam­age that has led to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. But such learn­ing need not be con­fined to the ar­eas that have ex­pe­ri­enced the worst. The rest of the world has much to learn as well.


To­day, when the ‘God’s Own Coun­try’ Ker­ala re­sem­bles a dis­as­ter zone as floods swamp the State. In­ter­est­ingly, the nine mem­ber body is chaired by the Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia. The story re­sounds across States as the del­uge rav­ages cities, erases vil­lages, sluices roads, dam­ages crops, sweeps bod­ies, crip­ples train ser­vices, shut down air­ports and wreaks havoc in the econ­omy bring­ing every­thing to a grind­ing halt. Mum­bai yes­ter­day, Kochi to­day, Chennai to­mor­row, Kolkata, Guwahati next. Un­der­scor­ing a stark re­al­ity: Gov­ern­ment’s fi­asco and fail­ure to pre­pare ex­per­tise in pre­dict­ing rain­fall in­ten­sity and its im­pact. Suc­cinctly, dis­as­ter man­age­ment is a dis­as­ter.

Here, one can ask when we al­ready have a Na­tional Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Au­thor­ity (NDMA) why such dis­as­ter was al­lowed to hap­pen. Thanks to Gov­ern­ment’s criminal ca­su­al­ness – kaam­cha­lao! Babu­dom’s “cho­ordyaar” at­ti­tude, un­abated con­struc­tion, in­suf­fi­cient clean­ing of drains, en­croach­ments of sprawl­ing slums along­side rivers and streams, shoddy man­age­ment of storm wa­ter drains, dug-up roads, no de-silt­ing etc. Heavy de­vel­op­ment had de­stroyed green spa­ces and man­grove forests, its nat­u­ral flood pro­tec­tion re­sult­ing in in­ad­e­quate drainage sys­tem as no amount of man-made storm wa­ter drains can make

up for nat­u­ral drains. While the sever­ity of the rains can be termed as an ‘act of God’, the mess, mis­ery and dam­age is cer­tainly man-made and mostly caused by hu­man er­ror.

An ex­am­ple. Tamil Nadu has wit­nessed 8 se­vere cy­clones in 13 years so one ex­pects the na­tional and State dis­as­ter man­age­ment teams would be hands-on to tackle the emer­gency. The re­al­ity: Zilch, as dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness is non-ex­is­tent. There is no clear line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or co­or­di­na­tion among State agen­cies in­volved in search and res­cue op­er­a­tions, only fam­i­lies check­ing on each other.

Months of flood­ing in 13 States have caused huge eco­nomic losses and heaped mis­ery on mil­lions of peo­ple. Ques­tion­ably, why is the coun­try’s pre­pared­ness for nat­u­ral dis­as­ters so poor? Why are longterm 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. Do we know the ABC of dis­as­ter man­age­ment? Are we in­ept or plain lazy bor­der­ing on the “ki­farak­painda­hai” (What dif­fer­ence does it make) at­ti­tude?

Till date 2,000 peo­ple have been killed and more than 42 mil­lion af­fected – dis­placed or stranded. Alas, our pre­pared­ness to deal with calamity is as rag-tag as ever. Far from hav­ing a de­fense sys­tem against el­e­men­tal fury, the Cen­tral and State Gov­ern­ments seem to be bank­ing on hope that any fu­ture dis­as­ter would not be as de­struc­tive as the last. It seems that it’s not for our polity to im­ple­men­ta­tion of ba­sic sug­ges­tions and de­vel­op­ing longterm re­sponses.

Un­for­tu­nately, in a na­tion na­tured on

short-cuts and quick-fix so­lu­tions, none are mo­ti­vated to do any­thing about dis­as­ter man­age­ment or find­ing last­ing so­lu­tions. Let alone spell it, our lead­ers have, never even heard about it. They do not know the A, B, C, D of man­ag­ing a cri­sis. More shock­ing, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the UN, In­dia spends about $10 bil­lion ev­ery year for cri­sis man­age­ment. Could have we spend this sum of money for dis­as­ter man­age­ment?

Across the globe dis­as­ter man­age­ment is seen as an es­sen­tial part of good gov­er­nance and in­te­gral to de­vel­op­ment plan­ning, not so in In­dia. There is lack of know-how for assess­ing risks at lo­cal level, poor en­force­ment of stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions and in­ad­e­quate risk mit­i­ga­tion, no flood risk map­ping con­cept and flood fore­cast­ing net­work. Add to this fail­ure to­wards cli­mate change mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion, lack of co­or­di­na­tion and in­ad­e­quate train­ing at the ground level to­tals dis­as­ter in mit­i­gat­ing losses.

Be­sides, we have yet to un­der­stand the atyp­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween de­vel­op­ment and dis­as­ters. Dis­as­ters can set back de­vel­op­ment even as post-dis­as­ter sce­nario pro­vides new op­por­tu­ni­ties for de­vel­op­ment. Sim­i­larly, de­vel­op­ment can re­duce vul­ner­a­bil­ity and yet, the same de­vel­op­ment can in­crease vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

Think. The Na­tional Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Au­thor­ity (NDMA) was setup amidst much fan­fare with an am­bi­tious three-layer (na­tional, State and district) plan to de­cen­tral­ize dis­as­ter man­age­ment right up to district lev­els and guide­lines and poli­cies were drawn to that ef­fect. On pa­per: Good. On ground: Dud.

A 2013 scathing CAG re­port minced no words: The NDMA nei­ther had in­for­ma­tion and con­trol over progress of (dis­as­ter man­age­ment-re­lated) work at the State level nor was it suc­cess­ful in im­ple­men­ta­tion of var­i­ous projects. It is “in­ef­fec­tive in its func­tion­ing in most of the core ar­eas.” What’s more, the Au­thor­ity has been func­tion­ing with­out its core ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee of ex­perts that ad­vises it on dif­fer­ent as­pects of dis­as­ter man­age­ment for the past three years!

Said a se­nior NDMA of­fi­cial, “The NDMA was bound to fail, as we were al­ways a topheavy or­gan­i­sa­tion with many hav­ing no ex­per­tise in the realm of dis­as­ter. Worse, it is not per­form­ing sev­eral func­tions pre­scribed in the Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Act, 2005. No long-term re­sponses have been de­vel­oped, as it is as­sumed that by sanc­tions monies their job is done.” Who will be held ac­count­able? Whose head will roll?

Woe­fully, there are no emer­gency op­er­a­tions cen­tres or trained per­son­nel to search and res­cue peo­ple. Shock­ingly, this is not due to lack of money, since 2010 till date the Cen­tral Gov­ern­ment has bud­geted over $5 bil­lion to pre­pare for dis­as­ters with the Cen­tre con­tribut­ing 75%.

Ex­perts aver due to global warm­ing fre­quent and in­tense ex­treme weather events means In­dia must im­prove its plan­ning and re­duce the po­ten­tial im­pact of dis­as­ters be­fore they oc­cur. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and con­nec­tiv­ity en­hance­ment have be­come the need of the hour. Satel­lite im­ages tell us about the

af­fected ar­eas dur­ing a calamity, but we need higher res­o­lu­tion im­ages.

To­wards that end, our lead­ers need to in­volve ex­perts and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists with a track record of re­search and pol­icy mak­ing. 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 hap-haz­ard hous­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tal in­san­i­ta­tion and de­cay.

The prob­lem is nei­ther States nor Cen­tre have a ro­bust de­ci­sion-sup­port sys­tem. If the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal depart­ment in­di­cates heavy rain­fall, what are the im­pli­ca­tions? Who should be evac­u­ated, and from where to where? We need to move from sim­ple fore­cast­ing to im­pact fore­cast­ing and en­sure in­for­ma­tion flows faster than the flood­wa­ter. In such sit­u­a­tions, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem is the first to col­lapse.

High time we tran­sit quickly to pre­pared­ness-cen­tric ap­proach in­stead of con­tin­u­ing to be in the re­lief-cen­tric mode and in­vest in bet­ter flood fore­cast­ing pol­icy. One way en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists be­lieve this could be im­proved is if evac­u­ated peo­ple had safe struc­tures on firm ground and not in flood plains; some­thing au­thor­i­ties have not been able to en­sure.

Another is for States to build re­gional mu­tual-aid cen­tres, with quick re­sponse teams as it is waste­ful for each State to build par­al­lel in­ven­to­ries, fore­cast­ing sys­tems and teams as these are along­side. Flood de­struc­tion could be min­i­mized if fore­cast­ing and map­ping is ac­cu­rate. How­ever cli­mate change com­pli­cates this as places which did not pre­vi­ously suf­fer floods are now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­prece­dented lev­els of rain­fall.

True, Namo’s re­sponse has been da­bang till date, un­der­tak­ing aerial sur­veys of af­fected dis­tricts and ear­mark­ing monies from the Prime Min­is­ter’s Re­lief Fund. But this is not enough. In­dia needs to fo­cus on long-term plan­ning else with­out a shift in ap­proach each dis­as­ter will con­tinue to frus­trate the Gov­ern­ment and plague peo­ple.

Re­mem­ber, des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions de­mand des­per­ate ac­tion. The Gov­ern­ment must stop play­ing pied piper. Life is not about col­lat­ing statis­tics but flesh and blood. No longer can we os­trich-like bury our heads in the sand and wail, “what’s the big deal”,” dis­as­ter man­age­ment never heard of it!”


So, in short, In­dian NDMA needs some im­me­di­ate re­vival as it is ex­pected to ex­e­cute what the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency of the US is do­ing. They re­port be­fore the dis­as­ter rather chip­ping in in re­lief and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the dis­as­ter. They have a na­tional dis­as­ter cal­en­dar which takes care of each and ev­ery hur­ri­cane, for­est fire etc. and in­form peo­ple in its af­fected area. Sim­i­larly, in Ja­pan — a place which is no­to­ri­ous for earth­quakes — the Ja­panese Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment Sys­tem has list of all ac­tive vol­ca­noes.

They have in­for­ma­tion of which vol­cano is go­ing to burst at what time frame. So, they evac­u­ate the af­fected place and save lives and their wealth. The NDMA of In­dia also needs to work on those lines. But, for that, it needs an ac­tive struc­ture. A Prime Min­is­ter who is head­ing it with a proxy called Deputy Chair won’t be enough. In fact, it re­quires reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing of its chap­ters and of­fice bearer’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. But, the fact of the mat­ter is, they haven’t sit for long. So, what to talk about their qual­ity dis­posal.

Flood af­fected area in Ker­ala

A res­cue team evac­u­ates peo­ple from a flood-af­fected area in Ker­ala

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi con­duct­ing an aerial sur­vey of flood af­fected ar­eas in Ker­ala

Fish­er­man res­cues Ker­ala flood vic­tims

Congress Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi vis­its the flood-af­fected ar­eas in Idukki, Ker­ala

Ker­ala Chief Min­is­ter Pinarayi Vi­jayan ac­com­pa­nied by Op­po­si­tion leader Ramesh Chen­nithala, at a re­lief camp in Kochi

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