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Government to set up Disaster Management Authority

By Our Special Correspondent

Prime Minster Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at an all-party meeting on the tsunami disaster, in New Delhi on Sunday . — Sandeep Sexena

NEW DELHI, JAN. 9. The Government has decided to set up a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and introduce a Bill in the budget session of Parliament to give it statutory status. The Government has accepted a demand of all political parties to evolve an early warning mechanism for tsunamis and decided to set up a committee to look into the issue.

These decisions were taken when the country's political leadership converged at the Prime Minister's residence here today for an all-party meeting to discuss the situation following the tsunami havoc.

Convened by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to "mobilise the collective will" to meet the challenge, the Government received appreciation and support from across the political spectrum for its "prompt action."

The Prime Minister said the Government would look into the issue of whether India or at least the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could have been forewarned about the tsunami. When the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asked about the possibility of a warning, given the time lag between the quake near Sumatra and the tsunami hitting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands first and the mainland an hour later, Dr. Singh said the enquiry was not aimed at blaming anyone but for only future reference.

Vaiko's charge

While all parties were supportive of the Centre at the meeting — which went on for three-and-a-half hours — the Tamil Nadu Government came in for criticism from Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. He said, "the State machinery was totally paralysed for the first four days." The Tamil Nadu Finance Minister, C. Ponnaiyan, and the Public Works Minister, O. Pannerselvam, countered the charge.

Brushing aside apprehensions on the competence of Parliament to enact legislation on an issue normally dealt with by States, the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, said a Cabinet Note on the setting up an NDMA was ready, as was a draft Bill. This was the recommendation of the National Committee on Disaster Management that was formed after the Bhuj earthquake in January 2001.

Adoption of children

At a briefing by the Defence Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, the Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, and Mr. Patil, any change in the adoption laws for easy rehabilitation of children orphaned by the tsunami was ruled out. "We will take care of these children," Mr. Patil said, adding that only childless couples would be allowed to adopt after due verification.

Maintaining that the responsibility of the children rendered destitute by the tidal wave was that of the Government, Mr. Patil said: "Adoption is the last resort."

The Government was gathering data on the number of children orphaned. They would be handed over to relatives or established non-government organisations.

The issue of adoption was raised by Mehbooba Mufti of the People's Democratic Party and there was consensus that the orphaned children should be raised within their own communities with State support.

Republic Day Parade

Asked about reports of a possible cancellation/scaling down of the Republic Day Parade, Mr. Mukherjee said no political party had made such a demand. "The Prime Minister convened a meeting of the Cabinet to ascertain the views of all the constituents of the United Progressive Alliance. And, no one made such a demand today either."

"The Parade is not a festivity but an observance of a national day — a historic one in the nation's freedom struggle," he said. But, without stating whether this year Parade would see a change in schedule, he pointed out that its duration had been changed several times in the past.

Foreign aid

The Government had received support for its decision to refuse foreign aid for tsunami relief. "We do not require foreign aid at this juncture," Mr. Mukherjee said. On the offer of assistance from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), he said that was different as India was a founding member of both. "We do not want aid for relief, and World Bank and ADB aid is for development assistance."

Nilotpal Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said the Government, as part of the exercise to evolve an early warning mechanism for tsunamis, had convened an international conference of scientists later this month.

According to the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the Government assured the leaders that it would ease the railway freight norms to facilitate the transportation of relief material by political parties and NGOs.

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