Disaster response: time to stop making excuses

Army help makes the difference between life and death

December 14, 2015 02:04 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST - NEW DELHI/CHENNAI:

Chennai;Tambaram: 14/11/2015:Fire and Rescue services team members evacuating a family that was marooned in floods in Sasivaradhan Nagar in Old perungalathur .Photo:  G.Krishnaswamy.

Chennai;Tambaram: 14/11/2015:Fire and Rescue services team members evacuating a family that was marooned in floods in Sasivaradhan Nagar in Old perungalathur .Photo: G.Krishnaswamy.

When they were last heard, on the night of December 1, Lt. Col. Venkatesan and his wife Geetha were talking loudly to their daughter on the phone.

The water level was rising rapidly across most parts of Chennai, and in no time, the nearby river gushed into Defence Colony, Nandambakkam, and engulfed their ground-floor house. While their neighbours moved to the upper floors or rooftops, the old couple were trapped. A neighbour’s efforts to alert the Army to their plight failed.

Around the time when the two were drowning, Deepthi Velachamy had gone into labour. Efforts by the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) to evacuate her on a boat was deemed too risky, and she moved to the rooftop where a Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) hovered, and a soldier pulled her into it. The shaky visuals of the daring rescue have gone viral since.

On December 4, she gave birth to twins.

Contrasting plight The contrasting plight of the elderly couple and the pregnant young woman captures what is increasingly a consistent feature of natural disasters across India: access to the Indian military rescue team is the only difference between life and death for those affected.

There is no other organisation, at the Centre and State levels, that has the kind of logistics capabilities, trained manpower and willingness to wade into a disaster zone.

Before the tiny window of opportunity for timely protest slips away, here is a question for all of us — not just >flood-affected residents of Chennai ; this is a question for those who ran out during the earthquake in New Delhi last week and those who dealt with >Cyclone Phyan in Gujarat a few months ago: what next?

The answer, better not be, nothing. Not this time.

It has been drilled and etched in our collective brains that the first 72 hours of any disaster, we fend for ourselves. The state response, if at all it comes after that window, will be a welcome and unexpected relief.

As was witnessed in Chennai, >the Army is more likely to reach you before the local administration. Our Army has been reduced to a disaster relief team, and that is a problem.

“Responding to natural disasters for immediate rescue and relief has now become a key function of all three arms of the military. I cannot see any change to it for a very long time to come,” said a senior military officer involved in recent operations.

“The question is no more whether the military should be involved in rescue and relief, but how do we improve coordination with the civil administration.”

While everyone has been >blaming the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam , the Tamil Nadu government’s lethargy is a result of years of cumulative illiteracy about disaster management. A failure on the part of the States and the Centre to develop a first line of responders to natural calamities has meant that the military has come to be the most reliable relief and rescue agency. Given their bases nationwide, the armed forces are able to respond in large numbers to an SOS.

Where is NDMA? As videos of our men in uniforms rappelling down to rescue the elderly and assist women and children went viral on social media, there was one question no one asked: where is India’s nodal agency to coordinate relief, rescue and rehabilitation efforts during national emergencies — the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

In August 1999, after the devastating ‘super cyclone’ in Odisha, which claimed almost 10,000 lives, left over 2 million homeless and disrupted the lives of 20 million residents, the Indian government set up a high-power committee to suggest “effective mitigating mechanisms” for natural disasters. Two years later, when an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale struck Kutch on January 26, 2001, we still did not have a plan. The 2001 earthquake, which lasted two full minutes, killed 20,000, injured 1,67,000 and left over 6 lakh people homeless. Bhuj was devastated.

As policy evolution goes, it took three more years for the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to set up the NDMA and the State and district disaster management authorities. By then, the Indian Ocean tsunami pounded over 2,200 km of the coastline, killed over 15,000 people and rendered lakhs of people homeless. However, by 2005, the NDMA was up and running. And, as per the Act, the armed forces are supposed to be called upon to intervene only when a situation is beyond the capability of the civil administration.

Sticking with the most recent examples from the Chennai floods, sample this for an idea of how our current disaster ‘mitigating mechanisms’ are nowhere near the vision of being ‘effective’. The NDMA website has not been updated since December 3. As of December 13, the website’s tab called ‘Rescue Operations in Chennai’ has nothing but two e-mail addresses.

At the State level, the photos of 100 soldiers from Hyderabad, waiting for over 10 hours for instructions from the Tamil Nadu government as Chennai sank, was the lowest point of relief coordination, says a retired bureaucrat on the condition of anonymity.

“It is evident that bureaucrats don’t have the freedom to act. Even during natural disasters, they have to be given instructions because they are now used to that pattern of governance now. They expect ‘clearance’ for everything and a lot of time is wasted as officers look up to the CM for every small decision,” he added. The State’s Relief Commissioner, Atulya Misra, did not respond to queries sent by The Hindu on December 9.

“Local politicians were playing dirty because the State administration was missing in action. The political executive washed its hands of the matter the minute the forces landed. It became the Army’s job to ensure that relief and rescue operations went smoothly. However, the State government did not want to lose political mileage,” another retired official said.

Stoic society Experts maintain that mediocre disaster management in India has thrived on society’s tolerance. “It is time we stop accepting inexcusable answers like ‘emergency mechanisms did not work because of the emergency.’ All societies plan, prepare and execute at least 10 per cent of what they planned. What we do is equivalent to writing a final examination every few months without any preparation. We have all the books and resources we need. All systems are in place. But on paper,” said Kavita Narayan, a public health expert and disaster management specialist trained by the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

By December 6, when the Indian Air Force ceased its relief operations, in just five days it had flown over 40 sorties, airlifted 30 NDRF teams and five Army columns, evacuated 700 stranded civilians to other parts of the country, and transported 281 tonnes of relief material. It had pressed into service transport aircraft, ranging from the massive C-17 Globemaster to the old Russian AN-32s. Over a dozen helicopters carried out the kind of operation that rescued Deepthi to the safety of a hospital.

The Army, which was still on the ground, had over 70 teams with 57 medium-sized boats and 16 small boats in Tamil Nadu to aid the civil administration..

Disasters, natural or man-made, are part of our lives in megacities. In fact, as Chennai showed, how we live is accelerating climate change. Since we are the ones accelerating it, it is only the basic common sense to give some thought to preparedness.


Read all articles in the 'Fix Our Cities' series

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