THE SUNDAY STORY

For almost two days, those sitting in the Dehradun secretariat were clueless about the intensity of the disaster that had struck Uttarakhand. It was only when it became clear that lakhs of visiting pilgrims and residents stranded in the Kedarnath-Badrinath-Gangotri axis were fighting for their lives, did the Centre and Uttarakhand government swing into action.

What unfolded over the next few days highlights how ill-prepared the State government was to deal with natural disasters, more so when Uttarakhand falls in a high seismic zone and has a history of cloudbursts. Had it not been for the Army, the Air Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which began rescue and relief operations on a war-footing almost 72 hours after the disaster, the death toll would have been much higher.

This is invariably the situation of almost all States when it comes to dealing with the challenge of natural disaster. Every year, scores of people lose their lives and lakhs become homeless owing to perennial floods in many States, but no proper disaster management mechanism is in place. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), created in 2006 after the Orissa Super Cyclone (1999) and the Gujarat Earthquake (2001), still in its nascent stage, while the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) that has to be created in each state is a non-starter.

With just 10 battalions, comprising around 12,000 personnel drawn from various paramilitary forces, the NDRF has the impossible task of covering all of India. Significantly, almost a year ago, the government sanctioned two new battalions, but the Union Home Ministry and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) have been squabbling over the location of one of the battalions, delaying the process. A proposal to have women personnel in each battalion to improve efficiency has also been hanging fire.

On the other hand, the SDRF is present in only 14 States, that too, only on paper. Only Gujarat, Kerala and Mizoram have managed to create a force capable of handling disasters to some degree. The fact that over the last three years, the NDRF has trained a mere 3,000 personnel in 12 States shows the low priority that disaster management gets in the State governments’ scheme of things.

“Every time the NDRF has to come to the rescue when a disaster strikes and the local administration does not even have basic equipment and know-how to handle the situation. Although the NDRF is strategically located to cover disaster-prone areas, it is the State government that has to respond first to any crisis. Until we have disaster response teams at the district levels — which Uttarakhand did not have — we will fail every time,” said a senior official of the Home Ministry.

In the case of the NDMA, India’s top agency for disaster management, it all began with the appointment of experts to deal with various aspects of disaster. Gradually, it has become a pasture for retired bureaucrats and politicians. One of its important mandates is to conduct mock drills and create awareness, apart from looking into policy issues; but the NDMA has turned into an urban-centric organisation.

Recently, there were mock drills in Delhi, Chandigarh and Guwahati, but there has been none in towns and cities that were more disaster-prone. “Everyone knows that the entire Himalayan region is sitting on a seismic time bomb, but not a major exercise in vulnerable towns involving locals has been conducted. There has been no effort to focus on vulnerable areas or to train people ignorant of basics needed to deal with natural disaster. This clearly highlights the poor state of our preparedness,” the official added.

What India lacks today is a ‘National Grid’ for disaster management to help integrate different wings of the government at the Centre, and in the States and the districts. “The world over, we see agencies working in cohesion, while in India there is complete lack of coordination. For instance, the Uttarakhand government had no clue to the scale of the disaster for the first 48 hours, while the Centre reacted only after crucial time was lost,” the official noted.

Another aspect is the critical role that social organisations play. In Uttarakhand too, it was NGOs and self-help groups that rose to the occasion to help locals neglected by the administration. And when leading NGOs in Delhi and other places offered supplies of food, medicines and other necessities to the NDMA, they were asked to either contact the State government or manage on their own.

Oxfam India got no response from the NDMA, and it decided to get its volunteers cracking. “Rather than working through the NDMA, we are now working directly in the disaster-hit areas of Uttarakhand. Our initial response was to support and assist the NDMA with provisions for the people stranded in Uttarakhand, and who need humanitarian assistance. The NDMA was expecting a formal request from the Uttarakhand government, and since that was taking a long time in coming, we decided to work with NGOs in the affected area and implement the emergency program directly,” said Zubin Zaman, Oxfam India’s Humanitarian Response Manager.

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