Disaster Mis-Management: Nature’s Fury and Our Failure

27 Jun, 2013    ·   4014

D. Suba Chandran on plausible lessons to be learnt for the better management of future natural disasters

Let us get our questions correct in analysing disaster management. Do the natural disasters kill more? Or our failure to manage the disasters increases the casualty rate?
Any analysis of disaster management in our part of the world – entire South Asia, starting from the earthquakes in Kashmir to the recent floods (flash or otherwise), including the cloud burst in Ladakh, floods in Orissa and Pakistan, cyclones in Myanmar and the building collapse in Bangladesh, will reveal, not many people got killed in the first day, or the second. No doubt, the immediate aftermath has always been gory and heart rending, given the visual expression in our electronic and social media, what really kills (in literal and figurative terms) is what happens during the next ten days or two weeks.

Clearly, natural disasters per se do not kill people in South Asia in large numbers. It is our failure to manage the disasters in terms of immediate rescue and the subsequent relief and rehabilitation kills more. While we may not be able to fight the nature, we can certainly increase our successes in managing the disasters, by learning from our collective failures in South Asia – at sub-regional, national and regional levels.

So, what lessons could be learnt? How can we manage our disasters better in future, and reduce the number of casualties? Clearly, these lessons should be at individual, societal, sub-regional, State and regional levels.

First, an analysis of disaster prevention and preparation: can the disasters be prevented? Environmentalists and ecologists at the global and regional levels have been warning repeatedly about our abuse of the nature. For soil erosion to sea rising, multiple effects of climate change and its disastrous fallouts have been researched well.

Unfortunately, the above warnings and research has not moved beyond the books, reports and some NGO work. We as an individual and a society, has externalised these warnings and activism, as happening elsewhere. Given the extent of human and material damage, and its impact on the economy of families and the nation, there has to be more focus on natural disasters and management in our curriculum.

Lack of awareness at the societal level is a major reason for our failure to be well prepared to meet disaster exigencies. While there are not many initiatives on creating this awareness, whatever is available, we do not take them seriously. When was the last fire drill we had in our building or in our environment? When was the last evacuation plan we worked of an emergency, even at the mental level? Forget about preparing for the disasters, why is that, we don’t even give way to an ambulance vehicle that is demanding our attention on the road, asking for way?

Second, an analysis of how well prepared are our State and the Agencies. In India, at the national level, there is National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) constituted by a statute. Founded in 2005 and headed by none other than the Prime Minister, the NDMA which is the apex body of managing disasters, promises us in the home page of its website: We will ensure your safety.

What has been the record of the NDMA so far in fulfilling its promise in a disaster situation so far, since 2005? True, it may not be useful to shift the blame for failure to one institution, when the responsibility is shared by many of us in managing the disasters. But having created a huge institution and given an important mandate to protect the people in a disaster situation, it is imperative to have an independent critique of this institution – in terms of what have been the Standard Operating Procedures, and how far they have been implemented in a disaster situation. And more importantly, what has been the net result?

The NDMA at the national level is supposed to have been followed up by every State with its own SDMA. This is where the NDMA is facing a serious challenge, to have partners at the State; it is the State, which has a huge network from the district headquarters to the village administration. The NDMA will not be able to reach directly to every village in a given disaster environment.

This is where the State governments have to augment their Disaster Management Authorities. While funding is an issue, the larger problems include the capacity and right attitude in creating these SDMAs. While there is a Disaster Response Force at the national level – the NDRF, what is the status of the SDRFs at the State levels? Even in those States where there is a SDMA and SDRF, how big are they? Can a disaster of the magnitude which we have witnessed in J&K, Himachal, Uttarakhand and Orissa be managed with two or three battalion strength? Do we actually realize, how much manpower and technological support is needed to rescue a child fallen in a thirty feet narrow hole?

If the numbers are an issue, attitude and enthusiasm within these institutions, especially at the leadership levels are another issue. Serving in these institutions should not be seen as punishment posting; nor should we crowd these institutions with retired bureaucrats. There is enough young blood in this country’s bureaucracy – both at the national and state levels, who can do a better job. While the seniors do have the experience, let us train our young officers to take charge in managing the disasters.

Two photographs uploaded in the Social media in recent months will explain the above issue: the Indian Prime Minister “visiting” the disaster areas by an aeroplane, and the Thailand Prime Minister helping the flood victims with standing in knee deep waters! In fact, in the Indian context, we should request our leaders from not “visit” the disaster site; we end up wasting our limited manpower in securing their safety, than actually using more productively in helping the victims.

Third, and most importantly, is related to how the society could help the State in a disaster situation. The NDMA does talk about State-Society partnership in managing the disasters. The biggest strength that the society has is youth bulge – almost in all parts of the country and in rest of South Asia as well. If one has to observe the passion in the Facebook, one could reasonably conclude that this force, a potent weapon in fighting disaster is under used or un-utilized.

This is where our NSS and NCC, and their multiple variants in schools and colleges could be made use in an effective manner. Being from the local areas and being passionate, with little training and motivation, this force could be the first respondent in a situation. If this section could be rightly identified, trained and provided basic skills on disaster management, every village may have a battalion strength force! Disaster management should be made an essential part of the curriculum; let there be enough mock drills, especially in those regions, where the threat from natural disasters are more.

Finally, we need to invest more in technology ranging from disaster prediction to management. We may have nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missiles to reach Diego Garcia or Beijing. True, it does massage our ego. We should invest in them, and perhaps even further to reach the moon, and even the farthest planet in our Solar system. But should we also not have enough capacity to reach out to those who are dying for help on the other side of the river, just few hundred meters away? Does that not pinch us?

To conclude and underline, what is written earlier in this analysis: natural disasters per se do not kill in large numbers; our failure at the State and Societal levels to manage these disasters kill more.

Natural disasters per se do not kill in large numbers; our failure at the State and Societal levels to manage these disasters kill more

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir