Discussion on Disaster Management
On the 26th January 2001 while the nation was celebrating Republic Day, a devastating earthquake struck Bhuj in Gujarat killing tens of thousands and causing incalculable damage to business and property. This has once again exposed the country's total administrative inadequacy in moments of crises and the lack of a proper Disaster Management Plan. The Orissa and Andhra Pradesh cyclones and the Bhuj Earthquake have rung alarm bells and raised questions about the authorities constituting a disaster management plan of a permanent nature.
At the time of every disaster, relief measures are undertaken in an ad hoc manner without any personnel trained particularly for such contingencies. But despite the best efforts of these government and voluntary relief workers, the lack of coordination, equipment and planning is all too apparent. No one seems to know how, what and where to begin and what work to undertake on a priority basis. With the result that precious time is lost in a situation where every second, every minute and every hour means a difference between life and death to persons trapped beneath rubble or those trying to reach higher ground as they watch flood waters rise menacingly over their bodies. The victims of such horrific disasters cannot wait for days to be rescued. They need prompt relief measures in order to live another day. But this is only possible if the Government has a Disaster Management Control mechanism in place before a disaster strikes.
Against such a backdrop, it is not surprising that many of the accounts emanating from Gujarat have tended to be cynical, even dismissive, of the Government's relief efforts. But criticism must be tempered taking into account three factors: the sheer magnitude of disaster, the role of the Armed Forces and the lessons learnt from the disaster for the future. To understand the scale of disaster one must realise that the entire state was affected from north to south, an area of almost 20,000 square kilometres. This is more than the total landmass of many countries, which should give some idea of the scale of the operations undertaken. Bhuj, the worst hit area, was cut-off in every way - transport, communication and resources - from the rest of the country.
An estimated 100,000 must have perished in Kutch, with 50,000 killed in Bhuj city alone. Even in Ahmedabad, five days after the quake residents of high-rise apartments were still sleeping in cars and tents. It was the armed forces that rushed into relief operations within 48 hours. For the first time, the corporate sector also participated in the relief operations without thinking about the impact on their bottom lines. And voluntary groups also rose to the occasion.
Ideally, disaster management should be left to an agency created solely for this purpose and the Army left with the perennial task of defending the country. But since the Government of India has no other institution that can launch relief operations on a war footing at such short notice in any comer of the country, perforce the Army has to be called in. The logistics capability required for such relief operations rests solely with the Armed Forces. The Army today has a standard operating procedure for all natural disasters, and the one for earthquakes was updated from the lessons learnt after the 1993 Latur quake.
However, the current crisis management structure will have to be altered. And a body created for natural disasters. Such a National Disaster Management Team would be adept at handling disasters or crisis situations and help control the death and devastation that normally occurs in such scenarios.