At 6.29 am, on the morning of December 26, 2004 an undersea earthquake erupts in Sumatra, triggering off tidal waves called tsunami. A minute later, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) gets the news. In 15 minutes, IMD tracks the tsunami to the Indonesian coastline. But they make no attempt to issue warnings to people on the Indian coast for, by rule, the tsunami has occurred beyond Indian waters. At 7.50 am, the tsunami hits Car Nicobar. The island is almost wiped out. Then the tidal waves head for the southern coast of India. At 8.50 am, Tamil Nadu is hit.
It is only at 8.31 am that IMD informs the Crisis Management Group (CMG). For two hours, information crawls. In these crucial hours, fishermen out on their boats, fishing communities in their villages, morning walkers on Chennai’s Marina beach, tourists and pilgrims, all go under as wave after giant wave hits them and flings them into the sea. In a single morning, over 14, 000 people die, many go missing and and a million lose their means to livelihood. Warned in time, they could have lived.
The tribal communities of the Andaman islands, with no access to modern warning systems, did better. They saw the disturbed marine life, listened to the cries of the sea birds and interpreted that some great danger was coming. A natural methodolgy, perfected over centuries of kinship with the elements. So they got off the beaches and retreated into the woods. And survived the tsunami, intact.
The severe impact of the tsunami was worsened by the state of the coastal environment. Over the years, the natural protectors along the coast, like sand dunes and mangrove forests, have been consistently disturbed and in some places, even destroyed. Regulations have been flouted everywhere; habitation allowed even in the first 200 metres, from hotels with a sea view to an air force base almost on the water to the many settlements, homes to hundreds who drowned.
Following the unparalled tragedy that has killed over 150,000 across the world, particularly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, tsunami is the new word on the world’s mind. But something worse could happen. What is the state of our disaster preparedness? At one end is the scientific establishment, at the other, the administration on the ground.
How prepared are they and how can we ensure that they act on time and do the needful? Are our systems up to it? Do we need to be part of a global combat network? With 22 states and union territories on the official list of disaster-prone areas, who’s next? India cannot afford to take any more chances. We must be battle ready now.
Disasters are not predictable. They follow no standard operating procedures. Disaster preparedness is about managing the unknown, not a science but a social behaviour that's responsive, predictive and imaginative.
• Effective disaster management depends on four factors:
• Preparedness: knowing where and when disaster will hit
• Mitigation: through measures like coastal zone regulation, building earthquake-resistant buildings, before the event.
• Relief: effective action, like moving supplies quickly
• Rehabilitation: building lives again.
Orissa, 1999. Bhuj, 2001
The Orissa super-cyclone and the earthquake in Bhuj, Gujarat exposed serious limitations in India's preparedness system:
• India has no national disaster management policy
• During a crisis, the state administration is in charge; the c entral government only offers financial and material help
• Disasters are nobody's job. Different ministries -- home, agriculture, science -- take turns when disasters strike. This creates an administrative crisis during the calamity
• Disasters are treated as a one-time crisis
• Disaster management is non-plan expenditure
To deal with the aftermath of the situation in Orissa, the national cyclone mitigation project and a core group on cyclone mitigation were announced. Due to lack of funds and direction, these are yet to take off.
Earthquakes don't kill, buildings do
Bhuj showed that science could be used to track earthquake-prone areas and specific earthquake monitoring and microzoning would help in this. Policy's role was to make sure that building codes on earthquake-proofing were enforced in vulnerable areas to minimise deaths.
Of the 11 national programmes announced after Bhuj, the first was the earthquake risk mitigation programme to enable engineers in quake-resistant buildings to accelerate the process of vulnerability-reduction. The government also committed to enforce earthquake-resistant building codes in seismic zones.
An India Meteorological Department (imd) review showed 56 per cent of the country under various degrees of seismic threat. The official agency for earthquake warning in India, indeed all disasters, imd has 51 seismic observatories in different parts of the country. Less than half meet global standards or are even broadband.
Safeguards for seismic zones
One of the ways suggested to prepare for earthquakes after Bhuj was micro-studies of earthquake zones. To do this, microzonation (mapping seismic hazards, on an urban block-by-block scale, based on local conditions such as soil types that affect ground shaking levels or vulnerability to soil liquefaction) was the preferred method. Seismic microzonation reveals safeguards to be utilised during future earthquakes.
In India, microzonation was first carried out in Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh, hit by an earthquake of 5.8 on the Richter scale in 1997. Subsequently, the Department of Science and Technology (dst) supported two more pilot microzonation studies in Delhi as well as in Guwahati.
The Geological Survey of India is also mapping 22 other cities to review their vulnerability. In November 2004, the Union home ministry’s Disaster Management Division (NDMD) put together an expert committee to chalk out a national microzonation programme prioritising states, Union territories and cities to be mapped. The committee had members from DST, IMD, Department of Mines, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai and Roorkee, and the Gujarat state disaster management authority (GSDMA). At the meeting, it was felt that different microzonation programmes (hitherto begun) lacked perspective. They simply wouldn’t have helped in planning to mitigate disasters like earthquakes, like the one that triggered the tsunami.
“More than microzonation, which is another layer of threat forecasting, what we need most now is enforcement of earthquake-resistant building codes,” says A S Arya, earthquake engineer and advisor to the Central government. Even the government’s own status report in 2004 on disaster management admits: “Although the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has laid down the standards for construction in the seismic zones, these were not being followed.” In June last year, the GSDMA also reported that less than 20 per cent of new buildings in earthquake-affected areas of Gujarat have adopted the necessary building codes.
The situation in other states is no different. In just over three years, Chennai has been hit by the impact of two earthquakes; one in Chennai on September 2001 and now by the tsunami. Chennai was even upgraded from Zone-II to Zone-III in seismic activity in 2002. Yet, building codes were not enforced by the authorities. Ironically, only one year ago, the Tamil Nadu chapter of the Institution of Engineers hosted a meeting on the Urban Earthquake Vulnerability Reduction Programme.
The Disaster Reduction Management (DRM) programme (2002-2007) implemented by the Union home ministry and supported by the UNDP says: “Typically, the majority of constructions in these cities are not earthquake resistant. Thus, any earthquake in one of these cities would turn into a major disaster”. DRM is India’s only programme to ensure earthquake- resistant buildings in India’s 187 towns.
After Orissa and Bhuj
After Orissa and Bhuj, the Union government reviewed India’s disaster preparedness. A high powered committee was set up in 1999. By 2001, it had come up with ideas for a policy and the supporting institutional mechanism. For the very first time, it was acknowledged that ad hoc crisis management could be more expensive than investments in mitigation. The committee’s recommendations included:
- A national policy on disaster management: for prevention, preparedness and mitigation before and after the disaster
- Putting aside at least 10 per cent of plan funds at the national, state and district levels for schemes to address prevention, reduction, preparedness and mitigation of disasters
- Microzonation of all urban areas to mitigate earthquake threat, to put in early warning systems for cyclone preparation and to strictly enforce building codes set by the BIS
After three years, this initiative has given way to inertia. The 10th Five Year Plan came and went without earmarking the recommended 10 per cent of departmental budgets. The much awaited disaster management act has also not been formulated.
Some time back, the Central government planned an elaborate exercise whereby the entire administration would be thoroughly overhauled and tuned for disaster management. This involved two lakh villages, around 200 towns, and close to 80 government departments and programmes. A draft of this policy was put down, but it is yet to be discussed. In 2002, the Centre asked the state governments to convert their departments of relief and rehabilitation into disaster management departments, with specific responsibilities of disaster mitigation and preparedness. This was to be followed by a separate ministry of disaster management at the central level. But after the tsunami, the nodal role of dealing with disasters is still being played by the Union home ministry. “The decision to formulate a policy and a legal framework to deal with natural disasters is a recent one. So policy and laws have just started taking shape and form,” says Shivraj Patil, Union home minister, briefing presspeople on December 29, 2004 about future plans. Many such plans have been made on paper, only never to see the light of day.
To generate funds for disaster prevention and preparedness, the 12th Finance Commission deliberated about fund allocation for disaster prevention and mitigation under the Central Calamity Relief Fund. This was a policy shift from the earlier practice of budgeting for only relief and rehabilitation. If it had been implemented, this would have given the whole disaster preparedness schedule a major momentum. However, in practice, states are still being funded the old way. This means state governments get allocation according to their spending during the previous financial year. A state that suffered a cyclone the year before would get more allocation, but a state facing a drought this year may not. Skewed policies mean disaster preparedness gets routinely derailed.
Where do we stand?
The last five years have given opportunities aplenty for India to test its state of disaster preparedness. It’s been a tough learning curve, with the mandatory ‘annual examinations’, from Orissa’s ‘super cyclone’ in 1999 to a mid-term earthquake in Bhuj in 2001.
A series of unit tests followed, in the form of droughts and floods, year after year, in state after state. And now, to round off the five-year disaster programme, the oceanic earthquake that triggered off the tsunami.
Looking at our response to these disasters, major and even minor, it is hard not to see the stark truth. India has failed every single test. Our reflex is a non-starter right from the initial transmission of information.
Post-disaster mismanagement further compounds the situation. For instance, after the Gujarat earthquake, the flow of information was identified as the single most important system that needed to be made effective in practice. But crisis management during the tsunami shows that we are yet to learn even this basic but all important lesson.
Bureaucratic hurdles make it worse. The government’s standards of procedure (SoP) prescribed for the duty room at the seismology section of the IMD says that an earthquake would be required to be reported to the CMG only if it had occurred within Indian territory or very close to the borders, irrespective of magnitude. This was the procedure followed during the tsunami (non) alert, when, despite getting news of tsunami only a minute later, IMD didn’t react.
The same procedure was relaxed in 1998 when India wanted to monitor its nuclear weapon tests in Rajasthan. “The dissemination of information, which is an administrative part, was not enough in this tsunami,” says N M Prusty, director (emergency and rehabilitation) of CARE India, a non-governmental agency (NGO) working with tsunami victims.
Seismologists also failed to gauge the earthquake’s geographical ramifications. The other side of Sumatra, the Pacific Ocean region, is a known tsunami-prone area. Tsunamis are less of a phenomenon in the Indian ocean. But they have occurred. Yet the Indian scientists monitoring such phenomena presumed that the earthquake in Sumatra wouldn’t affect the country or trigger a tsunami affecting the Indian coast, going purely by historical records of less tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
Typically, there is an overdrive by whichever state faces the calamity. Orissa, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh have set up committees and made extensive plans. After Latur in 1993, an elaborate Disaster Management Plan (DMP) was worked out for each district in Maharashtra, but not put into practice. The initial panic reaction soon wears off and even routine precautions are forgotten. Annual emergency drills mandatory for the district administration are not carried out. No wonder, as soon as the first news of a disaster comes in, the first thing to be thrown out of gear is the entire government machinery.
The monitoring and management of the Indian coastline has come under sharp focus after the tsunami disaster. There is now a strong demand to implement the Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991. Let us look at why protecting coastal ecology is so critical. Natural protectors, such as sand dunes and mangrove forests, were formed over centuries.
Sand dunes were natural bulwarks against strong sea winds, high waters and in emergencies, tidal waves like the tsunami. But tourism pressures have destroyed them everywhere, with sand dunes being flattened to provide hotels with extra beach cover or an ocean view. Mangroves, the tiny forests along the coastline, holding rich nutrients of the land and the sea and home to a variety of marine life, are extremely crucial as they cushion the impact of tidal waves. This unique ecology has now been disturbed, and in many places even cut down, against all regulations. One of the biggest violators has been the government of India, which has sliced through the heart of the mangrove clusters in Goa and Karnataka to take the Konkan railway through.
Natural ecology along the coastline must be left undisturbed and wherever destroyed, must be restored on a priority basis. Like building codes in earthquake areas, implementing coastal zone regulations properly and fully will help mitigate future disasters from the sea.
Andaman and Nicobar
The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) islands form one-fourth of India’s coastline. The islands are biodiversity hotspots, with a variety of endemic species of flora and fauna. They are home to ethnic communities which date back to prehistoric times. The islands are also in a seismically active zone. During 1989- 1998, an earthquake rocked the region every six days (a total of 614). Even a tsunami hit, with amplitude reaching 1.04 metres, was recorded on December 31, 1881.
Off the disaster map
Given these issues, disaster management for the islands should have assumed top priority. As we are discovering to their cost, penning down a disaster mitigation plan is no guarantee against crises unless they are also implemented. Even the existing plan does not adequately provide for emergencies. Far from admitting to this lacuna, the authorities’ energy is focussed on playing down these issues. “It is wrong to assert that the administration did nothing for disaster management. We were certainly prepared to face any situation,” avowed V V Bhat, chief secretary of A&N administration. These preparations, which cost them most of the Rs 1.50 crore allocated for Natural Calamity relief in A&N (under the 10th Five Year Plan, 2002-2007), were confined to conducting a few earthquake drills in schools and buying 15 tents, tarpaulin and some cooking vessels, not enough even for a single village that is hit.
The tsunami disaster has shown up these grandiose statements for what they actually mean. The islands got the brunt of it: body toll, 1,310. All but three of 15 villages of the Car Nicobar region were flattened. The ecology was not spared either. “It will take at least 1,000 years for the islands’ corals to recover from the tsunami destruction,” says Ajoy Bagchi, executive director, People’s Commission on Environment and Development, New Delhi.
Island ecology eroded
Corruption has washed away a centuries-old natural method of disaster management. “About 10 per cent of the tsunami impact could have been absorbed by the now non-existent mangroves and sea beaches,” says Sameer Acharya, secretary, Society for Andaman & Nicobar Ecology, a non governmental organisation (NGO) based in Port Blair. Ironically, after the tsunami, the Supreme Court (SC) has revised its earlier ban on tree felling in forest areas and allowed the administration to use timber for rehabilitation work.
Three years ago, 84 per cent (or 6,930 sq km) of A&N was covered by forests (State of Forest Report 2001, Forest Survey of India). This may seem like a lot, until you see that in 1999, the forest cover was 99 per cent (7,606 sq km). In just two years, 676 sq km of forests were lost. In particular, the mangrove cover has steadily declined since 1997: by 2001, only 0.14 per cent of the total area (789 sq km) was under mangroves. Even here, the actual extent of mangrove degradation cannot be gauged, due to conflicting reports. The State of Forest Report, 1997 puts the mangrove cover as 686 sq km, but the islands’ environment and forests department says it was 233 sq km. Meanwhile, a study by the Middle Andaman forest division, based on analysis of satellite images, indicated an even lesser mangrove cover: 130.6 sq km in 1997-1998.
What is clear, however, is that mangroves have been systematically destroyed to establish settlements and fulfil the needs of the timber industry. The government subsidises this destruction: a 90 per cent subsidy for transport of goods and a 80 per cent plus power subsidy. Between 1991 and 2001, total subsidies to industry have grown from Rs 208.57 lakh to Rs 411.23 lakh in 2000-01. The importance of mangroves can be underlined by the fact that many relief workers in tsunamiaffected areas now report that areas with mangroves or any other natural barriers, like Pondicherry, have incurred less loss in life and property than Nagapattinam and Cuddalore, where the Tsunami waves went through the low lying areas that were occupied by settlements instead of forests. “There should be some kind of a planned development, there should be some kind of a law enforcement in terms of what region to be occupied even in the coastal region,” says V Rajamani, a seismological scientist based in Chennai.
India has a long coastline stretching over 5,700 km, exposed regularly to tropical cyclones arising in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The Indian Ocean is one of the six major cycloneprone regions of the world. In India, cyclones usually occur between April and May, and also between October and December. The eastern coastline is more prone to cyclones and 80 per cent of total cyclones generated in the region hit here. The average coastal population density is 432 persons per sq km as against 256 persons per sq km for the entire country.
Therefore, it is crucial coastline areas have a specific, well-managed system to combat disaster. In 1991, the MoEF (Union ministry of environment and forests) notified the country’s coastal stretches as coastal regulation zones, with most of the A&N coastline being designated CRZ-IV. The coast was divided into four zones:
- Islands and estuaries: to be left alone except for national security measures
- Areas 200 metres from the shore, to be kept free for waves
- Two “no development” zones: up to 500 metres In addition:
- No new construction was to be permitted within 200 metres of the high tide line (HTL).
- Sand from the beaches and coastal waters could not be used for construction or other purposes
The CRZ also sought to regularise the population and commercial pressure on the active play zone of the sea waves. These regulations have been blatantly violated. In fact, since its notification in February 1991, it has been amended nine times, virtually diluting its original restrictions. Sand mining is rampant in the Car Nicobar region despite an SC directive on May 7, 2002, stipulating that commercial sand mining be reduced in the union territory. In 2003 alone, more than 20,000 million tonnes of sand were lifted. Destruction of beaches has led to waves entering settlement areas and causing extensive damage to crops. Sand mining has also aggravated the impact of tsunami as sea and land distances came down.
In June and August last year, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority permitted construction on the beach on Coastal Road in Besant Nagar despite protests from local residents. Construction activity in violation of the CRZ continued till the tsunami washed away all constructions killing around 100 labourers. “That is the kind of impact we will have in the future if we don’t stop this blatant abuse of the coast,” says T Mohan, an environmentalist in Chennai. Similarly, the CRZ notification was relaxed to permit the prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam when environmentalists raised objections to it, citing violation of the CRZ. The plant was inundated by the tsunami.
Says Mohan, “CRZ has been more violated than implemented.” In fact, even traditional fisherfolk, badly hit by the tsunami and forming 90 per cent of the total dead, are now clamouring for its strict implementation. “CRZ was diluted to make ways for insensible development which ultimately paved way for our destruction,” says Thomas Kocherry, chairperson, National Fishworkers Forum (NFF). NFF has been demanding strict implementation of CRZ for years. “All along the sea coast on the west and east of the country, wanton construction was allowed killing natural barriers like mangroves”, says Kocherry. In the 1980s, the mangrove forest was 6,740 sq km, which has come down to 4,120 sq km. NFF moved the SC against CRZ violations and got two favourable orders asking the central government to stop aquaculture, implement CRZ.
Despite the enormous need to implement these regulations, CRZ has been mostly abandoned. In April 1996, the SC directed the state governments to prepare the coastal zone management plans and get them approved from the MoEF within three months. Despite this, no initiative was taken to develop coastal areas. Instead, an MoEF committee is reviewing CRZ. The government’s commitment can be gauged from the fact that even the draft National Environment Policy, 2004 (NEP) is trying to revisit the existing coastal protection plans to make it more tourism-oriented.
Over the last 13 years, since the notification was enacted by the Union ministry of environment and forests, there have been enormous pressures on the coastal zone. In many cases the ministry has made the changes through a number of notifications that have come up since 1991 (see box: Breaking the rules). These notifications have allowed various uses including oil exploration and the setting up of a desalination plant. Institutional planning and management of these regions are weak and non-functional. But now they may be reconstituted, given the pressure from tsunami-hit states for strict implementation of the CRZ.
If that happens, new coastal management policies must emphasise the issue of livelihood security of poor fishing communities. Good coastal management needs the involement of all stakeholders, from organisations of coastal villagers to industry and facilitators like conservators, environmental NGO and scientists.
The Indian ocean covers 73,556,000 sq km, or 20 per cent of the world’s surface. Aspects like oceanography, geo¬physical phenomena, undersea exploration and eco¬nomic and military uses have a bearing on ocean behaviour. How cognisant are our experts with this large water body?
Other than isolated research programmes associated with the Indian monsoon system — the Bay of Bengal Monsoon Experiment (1999-2000) and Arabian Sea Monsoon Experiment (2002-2003) — the funds allocated for oceano¬graphic research (Rs 147 crore in 2003-2004), have spent, till recently, on the Antarctica programme or undersea explo¬ration for strategic metals and medicines.
Disaster preparation is confined to cyclone warning sys¬tems. Cyclones in Indian waters are tracked using INSAT satel¬lites, cyclone detection radars (range: 400 km), installed at 10 stations including Paradip, Vishakhapatnam and Bhuj. Experts now claim that the new upgraded cyclone surveillance systems can detect any cyclone in the region.
Tsunamis new to Indian Ocean?
Notwithstanding the establishment’s defence that tsunami are a rare phenomenon for us, the Indian Ocean has experienced tsunami, although not on the scale (four to five tsunamis each year) and experience of countries along the Pacific Ocean. While Harsh Gupta, secretary, Department of Ocean Development (DoD), says the last recorded tsunami occurred in 1881, the NIO called it the fourth tsunami to hit the Indian shorelines since 1881. Some of the confusion is due to lack of proper documentation. Dale Dominey-Howes of the department of physical geology at Macquarie University in Australia, told Down To Earth, “We only have limited data on tsunami events in the Indian Ocean. There is a possibility that there may be unrecorded tsunami that has occurred in the Indian Ocean.” G S Roonwal, geologist in Delhi University agrees, “Studies show that the Indo-Australian Plate (the sea floor that runs along Australia, Indonesia and includes the Indian subcontinent) is vulnerable to tremors and tsunami.” One was noted in the Andamans in 1941 during the Japanese invasion, but no official records are available. And just three weeks before the tsunami, Hyderabad hosted a global hazards meet where the catastrophic nature of tsunami and measures to minimise impact were discussed.
Tsunami vulnerability index
Seismologist Arun Bapat says tsunami vulnerability is deter¬mined by:
- A potential to produce tsunamigenic earthquakes
- A 500 km-plus distance between the seismic region and the coast
- When only water lies between the epicentre and the coast
Going by this, the junction of the Indian, African and Arabian plates near Socotra island and the underwater Carlsberg Ridge in northern Indian Ocean, would appear to be tsunami-vulnerable. As recently as in 2003, in a paper on the Diglipur earthquake (on August 13 2002 of 6.8 magni¬tude in the North Andamans), C P Rajendran, Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Thiruvananthapuram, had observed that “There is a lack of a good database on the effects of tsunami waves, to which not only the coast of Andaman-Nicobar is exposed, but also the eastern coast of India — a threat that is generally under-estimated. The paper noted it was likely the region had entered a phase of renewed seismic activity.
India needs centralised ocean management
In the US, a single body, the National Oceanic and Atmospher¬ic Administration, coordinates all oceanographic and atmos¬pheric studies. But in India, there is a multiplicity of organisa¬tions involved in oceanographic studies, under various min¬istries, and this causes an information whirlpool. To name a few:
- Department of Ocean Development: funds for oceano¬graphic studies
- Survey of India: maintains tidal gauges; managed by local port trusts
- IMD: entrusted with disaster warnings, including those from the sea
- NIO: for oceanographic research
- Geological Survey of India: for marine geological studies, including undersea earthquakes
Why, with all these organisations, do we still lack proper data? Research on India’s strategic areas (defence, nuclear and space) gets prioritised, while modernised tide gauge systems to provide real-time data on wave behaviour gets sidelined, even if the amount involved is as tiny as Rs 10 and they, too, are operated manually. Survey of India (SoI) had in fact moot- ed a proposal to have an array of digi¬ tal tide gauges to transmit real time data by satellite to a 24-hour centre at the SoI headquarters, Dehradun. DoD also plans to double its capacity of buoys, used to measure ocean data.
India gets ready for tsunami
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, set up in 1948 to mon¬itor the only ocean known to have tsunami, works with an observational system based on a network of deep sea pressure gauges. Now that tsunami have struck here, India is also con¬sidering being part of a global tsunami warning system, besides developing an indigenous one that will be built at a cost of Rs 125 crore. DoD will be the nodal agency.
Scientists have also identified six modern seismic observa¬tories of IMD at Bhuj, Andaman island, Chennai, Hyderabad, Guwahati and Delhi. If and when an earthquake of magnitude 7 or more occurs, pressure sensors deployed in the deep as part of Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting Systems (DOARS) along the fault lines will pick up signals of pressure waves building up. It is believed that only an undersea earthquake of magnitude 7 or above can trigger a tsunami. Harsh Gupta opines that only two fault lines in India need to be carefully monitored for a potential tsunami: these are the regions around Bhuj and the Andaman sea.
But science needs now to go beyond mere technology and to start thinking of the people they’re for its ivory tower, cannot respond to disasters unless they know what’s needed on the ground and who to share information with. So ocean science, like the others, needs to be part of a wider vision. Where technology, people, administration all come together. To combat disaster impact.
If not now
It would be naive to assume that disasters will stop. We cannot change the nature of disasters. What we can change, certainly control, is the scale that a disaster wreaks. This is precisely what disaster preparedness -- a mouthful in the abstract, a cataclysm as sudden and neutral as death itself -- is about. Disasters can retail death only when the response to it is lazy, that is to say, unplanned. This is why disasters have to be planned for, actively encountered, not only at the level of policy (of which India has seen enough already, in the last five years) but also, and specifically, at where it hits hardest: people affected. Affected because they were not informed. Affected because they had no idea that a calamity -- it could be the ground shaking, or a rolling sea driven through coasts, powered by a mad wind, or even a jet plane wall of water -- was about to slam into and turn their lives upside down. Affected because a machinery busily whirring to only reproduce itself day after administered day never factored them in in its positivist mathesis.
Yes, disaster management begins with the communities that live and eke out their living in areas -- seismic zones, on the coast now bereft of mangrove bufferage -- disasters can seize and toy with in their dread grasp. For this very reason, disaster management is about science: about the tremor a needle records, about conclusions drawn on the basis of a bizarre recording on a fancy, expensive instrument, about this information being effectively transmitted -- a gory forewarning, but one that nevertheless forearms. It is one thing for science to cook up a nuclear bomb -- the provocation here is negative, for this bomb presumes an implacable enemy. Indian scientists have done this. Yet they have never possessed the humility -- social as well as methodological -- to gear their intelligence towards the simple realisation that when disasters occur, it is the poor that actually get devastated.
It is not usual to point out that the real victim of the tsunami -- like that of the Orissa cyclone or the Bhuj earthquake -- is Indian science, and, to the extent that the State controls research, actually the Indian State. It is also not usual to point out that the tsunami is a blessing: it has revealed the extent to which India's scientists are isolated from its people.
But it is possible that now they will invest in the affected, only for the future. And it is imperative that our administrators take up seriously the fact that disasters hurt less when planned beforehand, monetarily.
It's not that difficult, really. The systems are all in place. A disaster preparedness committee that's recommended several procedures, the cmg to initiate action on information received, the imd to track climatic events and disseminate the information flow. But so far, we still don't seem to be able to meet disaster with any success. Isn't it time to change?
Only the next disaster will tell.
Story anchored by Richard Mahapatra.
Contributors: T V Jayan, Ritu Gupta.
Inputs: Avilash Raul, Sanjib Kumar Roy and R K Srinivasan
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