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Sunday, September 7, 2008


The govt must put in place an effective disaster management mechanism to control a spate of natural calamities, says Shantanu Nandan Sharma

 IT WAS October 5, 1968. The Kosi river in Bihar played havoc as 9 lakh cusec of water was discharged in one day alone. Forty years later, the survivors of flood fury in north-eastern Bihar are returning to their homes without fully knowing how a repeat of such discharge in a day can ruin them altogether. 
    The sudden diversion of the Kosi's course last fortnight already inundated huge tracks of Supaul, Madhepura, Araria, Purnea and Saharsa districts, traditionally nonflooded pockets of Bihar's annual monsoon fury. The flood, which has killed over 50 persons and impacted over 30 lakh people in 1,700 villages in the state, has forced the Nitish Kumar government to realise that the impact of the Kosi's change of course would have been much less if officials of the traditional flood belt of the state were posted there. 
    Yes, experience counts a lot during disasters, but India can't afford to adopt unscientific disaster management modules to minimise impacts of repeated natural calamities. For a couple 
of days, flood victims in Bihar had no clue what to do, and more importantly what not to do. The Centre swung into action, but it was too late to stop the menace. By the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh undertook an aerial survey along with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi on the 11th day of the tragedy and announced an immediate release of Rs 1,000 cr, large-scale damages were already witnessed. 
    But a bigger tragedy for the country is its inability to put in place an effective nation-wide disaster management mechanism to contain impacts of natural calamities. If Indian-American Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal could ensure an immediate evacuation of people in 
response to hurricane Gustav, why can't Lalus and Nitishes fail to deliver the same on a scientific manner? In Bihar, the state administration must share the blame for its failure to meet the unexpected challenges, but the problem is actually rooted in the lack of proper mechanism to deal with such a situation. 
    Bihar's disaster management secretary Pratyaya Amrit agrees that the flood came as a shock to the administration, but they finally tamed it. "Technology has been a big help in tackling this flood. Our officials in the area were not that experienced to face such a flood fury. However, we got into action immediately. We managed to have the satellite images of the flood-hit areas which helped a lot in undertaking many logistics decisions," he explains. 
    Significantly, the ministry of home affairs has a dedicated wing called national disaster management, but analysts say it's grossly inadequate to face major disasters in a vast country like India. But the question here is how long India will wait to bring in scientific modes of disaster management. According to official figures, floods in India this year alone has affected 1.8 cr people with a death toll of over 1,700. The damage to crop, houses and public properties are estimated to be Rs 1,850 cr officially, though the unofficial figure will be much higher than that. 

    As India is still not catching up with the developed countries in adopting disaster management strategies effectively, the losses are mounting. Former industry minister and exchairman of river inter-linkage project Suresh Prabhu says if India fails to move fast, the phenomenon of global warming could spell doom further. "Because of the climate change, the intensity and frequency of natural calamities are bound to rise. It has already been scientifically proven that we will now see a huge amount of rainfall during a very short span of time which will lead to flash floods. In this backdrop, proper wa
ter management is critical and challenging," Prabhu explains. 
    Although the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government initiated a mammoth project to link rivers in India at a guesstimated Rs 1,58,000 cr, the UPA government almost made it non-functional. The idea behind the project was to emulate China and link the rivers in such a way that excess water of one river basin could be diverted to another basin, thereby minimising the chances of both severe flood and drought. 
    The implementation of such a gigantic project would not have been so easy either, as people from many flood-hit states protested against the possibility of taking away water from their states. Assam is a classic example where there were sporadic protests against such a move. But the question is whether there could be a proper mechanism to divert excess water during monsoon and use it in water-deficient states. Till the end of August this year, about 800,000 people from 11 districts in Assam were impacted by flood, and 14 persons lost their lives so far. And it has been an annual phenomenon. 
    This year, the major flood in Assam's 
Lakhimpur district was caused by the release of excess water by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. There were no warnings till the damage was already done. Whereas it was a clear example of lack of coordination within India, there were instances in which Chinese flood warning from across the border could help the most. Jamshyd N Godrej, chairman of Godrej & Boyce, says what's needed now is proper co-ordination among various agencies. "It is not a very difficult task as well. All it requires is co-ordination among various disaster management organisations and agencies. We must enter into cross-country corporations with neighbouring countries in order to manage situations such as the recent Bihar flood which originated in Nepal," Godrej adds. 
    In fact, corporate India has always played an important role in tackling natural calamities, but it was mostly confined to giving donations. However, India Inc has initiated some serious work to meet such challenges. Construction major HCC, for example, has sent a team of engineers for relief and support work in flood affected areas of North Bihar. HCC chairman Ajit Gulabchand adds, "We have 26 trained engineers who are supposed to work without border. They help people during natural calamities. Ten of them are now working in Bihar. India Inc now gets itself involved in disaster management in a more meaningful way," he adds. 

    Yet, unless disaster management is taken more seriously by the government, India will regularly lose its resources. Prabhu asks, "For a long time, we have talked about creating a disaster management authority equipping it with power and resources so as to fight calamities. Where's the authority?" 

Population Affected 
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Population Affected 
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Total value of damage (in Rs lakh) 
Population Affected 
No. of human lives lost 
Total value of damage (in Rs lakh) 
Population Affected 
No. of human lives lost 
Total value of damage (in Rs lakh) 
Population Affected 
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With inputs from Shobhana Chadha

Marcel Marceau  - "Never get a mime talking. He won't stop."


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