The ‘Mahapralaya’ and Indian Politics: The State of Disaster Management In India

Myth, the smoke of history, mentions the Flood as the beginning of comprehendable antiquity. It is believed to have flushed away all obscurities and established a homogeneous society where all organisms shared descent from a common ancestor.

The ‘Matsyavatara’ And The Inception Of A ‘Yuga’

In Hindu tradition, Manu is revered as the foremost progenitor, whose simple act of kindness of saving a small fish culminated in giving a new beginning to humankind. The fish or ‘Matsya’, the first incarnation of Lord Vishnu, forewarned Manu of a forthcoming flood, which has been precisely dated to 3102 BCE by many historians. When the tempestuous waters arose, Manu entered a ship and tied a rope to the horn of the divine avatar. He, thus, passed swiftly to the distant northern mountains and disembarked once the water had subsided. The Flood, therefore, came to symbolise order-out-of-chaos through divine intervention.

The Satapatha Brahmana, an appendix to Vyasa muni’s magna opera Vedas, ensconces the various philosophical and mythological settings of Vedic rituals, including the stories of Manu and Vaishnavite incarnations. It is enshrined amongst the earliest religious compositions in the world. The Flood heralded in these sacred paeans culminates into the current era known as ‘Kali Yug’ in the cosmology of the Hindu pantheon. Humanity, since then, has been constantly in ‘tryst’ with such anfractuous disturbances occurring as a consequence of both natural and man-made causes.

Road of Disaster Management in India

Disaster Management is a dynamic process that involves planning, organising, staffing, leading, and controlling, while jointly working with many organisations to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and efficiently recover from the effects of disaster, both natural and manmade. According to the ‘International Disaster Database’ and the IMF, disasters have been a more common phenomenon since 1960 and developing countries are among the hardest hit. India, with a long coastline of 7516.6 km and one third of its population living in coastal states and union territories, shows a paradigm history of cyclones and their disastrous consequences. Lying in a disaster zone traditionally, the country loses an estimated USD 9.8 billion annually on account of natural disasters which also cause loss of lives, livelihood, and severe damage to public property and infrastructure.

In India, disaster management, now under the Ministry of Home Affairs, has evolved from an activity-based, single faculty domain to an institutionalised structure with a multi-dimensional and proactive approach for risk reduction. Relief departments for carrying out emergency tasks were first set under the British administration. The offices of Relief Commissioners, created during the colonial era, are still intact. However, the need for a permanent institutionalised setup was felt when severe cyclones struck Andhra Pradesh in 1969 and Cyclone Bhola ravaged West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1970, with the latter claiming above 5,00,000 lives. Thus, a Cyclone Distress Mitigation Committee (CDMC) was appointed in 1970 which submitted a Report in 1971 stating 59 major recommendations such as installing and upgrading warning systems, demarcating vulnerable areas, providing food and water to affected regions, restoration of infrastructure, model cyclone plan, education, and awareness among others.

Regardless, when Chirala, a very severe tropical cyclone, developed over the Bay of Bengal in November 1977 and hit the Andhra Pradesh coast with tidal waves as high as 5 m, it claimed 10,000 fatalities and a damage of over 25 million USD to crops and infrastructure. It was realised that many of the recommendations of CDMC were not adequately implemented and there was a requirement of latest technological and scientific developments. “The Secretary of Department of Science and Technology brought the cyclone issues to the notice of the Scientific Advisory Committee” and other committees were constituted in 1999 to formulate inclusive plans for managing disasters at national, state, and district levels. Moreover, states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha constituted their separate Cyclone Emergency Reconstruction Project, Disaster Management Units, Rapid Action Forces and State Disaster Mitigation Authority to equip them with a strategic framework of disaster management in vulnerable areas.

Then came the Super Cyclone in Odisha in October 1999. “About 10,092 human lives were lost, 18.97 lakh houses were damaged and 21 lakh ha of agricultural land was affected. Over 90 percent of the school buildings, dispensaries, offices, government buildings, and roads in the rural areas were destroyed.” The failure is primarily attributed to the cyclone warning mechanism which proved to be dubious and untrustworthy. The Relief Code and Contingency Plan drafted by the state was more concerned with post-disaster relief than handling of emergencies. The inadequacy of the state infrastructure and the absence of coordination with NGOs was revealed. The next major disaster which shook the grounds of disaster management in India was an earthquake—with its epicentre in the Bay of Bengal—that turned into a tsunami (2004), with towering waves of up to 30 m. Officially, 10,316 people were declared dead with Tamil Nadu and Andaman and Nicobar Islands being most severely hit. The causes of failure were again poor infrastructure and warning systems, and large population in coastal areas. Consecutive failures and mismanagement left the authorities helter-skelter, and a number of significant legislations and developments followed.

A paradigm shift was the Disaster Management Act of December 2005. It was a metamorphosis from the “erstwhile relief centric and post-event syndrome” to a ‘bumbershoot model’ covering the previously neglected areas of prevention, mitigation, highly stimulative and robust response, recovery, and rehabilitation process. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was set up as the apex body entrusted with the responsibility of formulating plans and policies for DM, approving the national DM plans prepared by the centre, ensuring provision and effective application of funds in mitigation and preparedness, authorising concerned departments in procuring provisions for rescue and relief, and providing external support for synergised disaster response and relief. The law also made the formation of a specialised body for responding to disaster situations compulsory. Known as the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), it is a “multi-disciplinary, multi-skilled, high tech force with state-of-the-art equipment.” The NDRF teams are placed in high vulnerability locations of the country and are required to act proactively in close association with the state administration to avoid any delays. They also train the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and Home Guards. Besides, State and District Disaster Management Authorities were also laid down to prepare state and district level plans in accordance with the guidelines of the NDMA. The most recent addition is the National Disaster Management Plan, 2016 (revised 2019) which envisages to “make India disaster resilient across all sectors, achieve substantial and inclusive disaster risk reduction” by building local capacities starting with the poor, and preventing the loss of lives, livelihood and assets.

Another set of reforms aimed at improving the early warning system. The Indian Meteorological Department, the nodal agency for providing cyclone warning services, uses a ‘fail proof system’ of INSAT satellite to communicate rapid cyclone warnings which are generated and transmitted by Area Cyclone Warning Centres in local languages. A Tsunami Early Warning System was set up at INCOIS, Hyderabad in 2007 to avert any possible disasters like the 2004 tsunami. Remote sensing, GIS (system for storing and manipulating geographical information on computer), satellite communication and other emerging technologies have been utilised, efforts made to equip the NDMA with terminal end facilities and communication connectivity in voice, video and data mode, including the usage of VSATs (two-way ground stations that transmit and receive data from satellites) and wireless Metropolitan Area Network to take advantage of the Internet technology. Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the director-general of IMD, said that the future plans of the Agency will aim to “communicate weather forecast to citizens through websites and mobile applications, improve the observations network” and improve the prediction of monsoon rainfall through the National Monsoon Mission of the Government. The efforts proved to be fruitful as the IMD has been successfully generating warnings for cyclones and saving life and government exchequer. Last year it received applause from the World Meteorological Organisation (an agency of the UN) for its forecast and “accurate prediction” of cyclone Amphan.

Although the country has come a long way in developing concrete disaster management plans and various institutions to curb these obstreperous forces of nature and man-induced calamities, these are not devoid of hurdles. The recommendation of the CMDC to deploy Aircraft Probing of Cyclones (APC) facility and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, for instance, has not been implemented yet. There is also a need to understand the inherent socioeconomic vulnerability of populations. Key to understanding this is intricately analysing the needs of women and other marginalised groups.

A ‘Gecko’ Enters from the West

The most recent instances of tropical cyclones in the country have been those of ‘Tautke’ and ‘Yaas’. The former, pronounced Tau’te, means a ‘gecko’ in Burmese language. “The process of cyclone landfall on the Gujarat coast began around 8.30 p.m. on Monday as the State braced for the impact of surging wind speeds of up to 210 km an hour. Earlier in the day, six persons were reported killed in Maharashtra''. So read the headlines of a national daily as the ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’ Tautke ran parallel to the Maharashtra coast on 17 May and wound its way to Gujarat. The Indian Meteorological Department had issued the warning of very heavy rainfall in Mumbai and over 12,400 citizens were moved to safety, away from coastal districts with the help of the administrative body, i.e. BMC. More than 55 flights from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Airport were cancelled.

Gujarat ports are functioning as suppliers of oxygen at a critical time when the coronavirus infection is witnessing a second wave in the country. Therefore, the army and rescue personnel were faced with a dual challenge as they were required to not only evacuate people safely and ensure zero loss of life but also to restore the oxygen supply by opening the routes immediately, making standby arrangements including power supply and safety of people at all Covid hospitals. The situation was constantly monitored and lines were sent to civil administration and other bodies to coordinate in anticipated relief efforts. On Monday (17 May), the Defence Minister held a videoconference discussing the preparations for immediate aid and relief work. Subsequently 11 diving teams, 12 flood rescue and medical teams and 3 naval ships—Talwar, Tarkash, Tabar— had been put on standby while the IAF deployed aircraft for moving relief cargo and teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) both in Gujarat and Maharashtra. The Coast Guard “incessantly relayed weather alert messages in vernacular languages on MMB radio for seafarers and fishermen” in the affected states and ensured the safe return of all boats and vessels to the coast before the landfall of the cyclone.

When the heavy downpour and gusty winds lashed Gujarat the next day, they took away the lives of 13 people. Despite excruciating efforts and preparedness and innumerable lives being saved, the cyclone left behind a trail of havoc in the form of damaged homes, and uprooted trees and electricity poles. A harrowing incident occurred off the Mumbai coast as 3 barges working for ONGC were stuck in the Arabian Sea because they failed to adhere to the warnings and weather advisory. The lives of over 700 people were in danger. The Navy, Coast Guard and IAF were spurred into action, and started rescue operations airlifting affected workers. The rescue work lasted several days with 628 personnel saved successfully and 86 casualties in total. The affected masses felt a déjà vu as yet another nightmarish disaster haunted them.

A Political Tempest in the East

On 26 May, the ‘very severe cyclonic storm’, Yaas, made landfall on the Eastern coast of India. The handling of Yaas, though successful, brought discrepancies in the political arena to the fore as a tumult was to follow in the politics of the country. Units of NDRF and fire service teams had been stationed and CM meetings with Central and State agencies, DMs and SPs were held 3-4 days prior to the landfall to make relief and rehabilitation preparations like food and rescue shelters. While the evacuation work was underway smoothly, a blame game had begun between the West Bengal and the Central government. Mamata Banerjee alleged the Home Ministry for discrimination in the distribution of relief funds. The damage incurred by the state due to Yaas was at ₹15,000 crores, and the same was to be discussed in a review meeting with the PM on 28 May. Ms. Banerjee made the dignitaries wait and did not attend the meeting. She preferred to submit the report on the disaster to the PM personally. The CM was allegedly upset about the presence of certain BJP leaders in the meeting, including Nandigram MLA Suvendu Adhikari. The Centre responded by recalling Alapan Bandhopadhyay, the Chief Secretary of West Bengal and a close aide of Mamata Banerjee, and appointed him within the ambit of the Government of India.

In a critical situation, when paramount coordination and negotiations in good faith were expected between the Centre and State Government by seeking oblivion of political acrimony, the two continued issuing recriminatory statements against each other. Both the parties alleged each other of “unconstitutional” attitude and a murder of the culture of cooperative federalism. Although the National and State Disaster Response Forces, army, navy and other concerned agencies carried out the relief work in the state, the petty politics which disregarded many significant issues disheartened the already distressed people of Bengal.

Not the Hero we Deserved, but the Hero we Needed

Amidst the drama, a figure has emerged in the Indian politics as a redeemer to the people of his state of Odisha. “We do not want to burden you during the pandemic. But we want help for certain long-term measures to make Odisha resilient,” said Naveen Patnaik, the CM of the state to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the latter met him to discuss the provision of financial aid for recovering the losses incurred in the wake of cyclone Yaas. From a blunder in the handling of the 1999 super cyclone to huge success in the imitable management of Fani, Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas, Odisha has traversed a long distance in coping with disasters; and Naveen Patnaik has been in the pivot of this development.

Odisha has faced some of the most severe disasters in the past few decades. There have been a few misses but the state has kept an open mind to learn from them and turn the tables. “A disaster resilient power infrastructure and resilient coastal protection with storm surge resilient embankments, form the nucleus of Odisha’s policy of learning from each cyclone that hits it and further perfecting its strategy”. In the year 2019, a record 1.5 million people were evacuated to safety by the Odisha government in a span of 24 hours. When Amphan hit, the country was witnessing the first phase of Covid-19 and there was no example to follow for disaster management. Odisha used its own experience as an exemplar to tackle Yaas. “Over 9000 public buildings with toilets and water supply were identified and we evacuated 7.10 lakh people and utilized 8,410 such shelters for them. We supplied masks, sanitisers and medical response teams were sent there to check Covid,” said PK Jena, Odisha Special Relief Commissioner in an interview. Disaster and Pandemic Management has been included in the curriculum of schools and colleges in Odisha and every year on 19 June a mock drill is organised to assess the response and preparedness of the administration as well as the people. The Odisha model though globally lauded, finds a back burner in the paltry politics of the nation.


By Vibhuti Pathak

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