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Monday, May 6, 2013

It takes many disasters for govt to show a plan

Mumbai: The Maharashtra government in recent years has had to take flak for its messy response to disasters like the 26/11 terror attacks and the Mantralaya fire. During both disasters, the lack of a unified command was acutely felt, with agencies like the fire brigade, police and municipality working without any standard operating procedure (SOP) for coordinated action. The pitfalls of uncoordinated functioning became evident during the 26/11 attacks, when many policepersons died and it was felt that at least some of the deaths were avoidable. 

    Disaster response has never been the government's priority, said a senior government officer on Monday. "Every bureaucrat has a tendency to put disaster-related files on the backburner. But things will change dramatically with the setting up of a unified coordination centre (UCC) and a state emergency operation centre (SEOC) at the Mantralaya." 
    He said the chief minister will be the chairman and the 
chief secretary the CEO of the UCC and the SEOC. Last week, the chief secretary, J K Banthia, approved a request for proposal (RFP) to revive the Maharashtra State Disaster Management Authority (MSDMA). 
    The UCC and the SEOC will have financial powers to enter into contracts with PSUs, NGOs and consultancy firms for preparing plans and 
feasibility studies. It will be equipped with a satellitebased communication network controlled by a dedicated disaster management force comprising experts from the relevant fields. A nodal officer will be appointed to coordinate with agencies and relay information to the UCC. For example, in the event of an oil spill, the officer will get in touch with the pollution control board and the coast guard, collect information from them, and pass it on to the UCC. 
    The trigger for the UCCSEOC plan was the Mantralaya fire, during which response was appallingly poor. For example, navy helicopters sent for rescue started hovering over the building, fanning the flames with greater intensity. 
    "In times of disaster, one arm of the government machinery does not know what the other is doing," said an officer. "Mostly, officers coordinate among themselves by relaying information on phone and not through an official channel. This is an ineffective and informal system, if at all it can be called a system." 

Times View: Better late than never 
he Maharashtra government's decision to reinvent its disaster response machinery is a welcome move. However, like similar experiments in the past, the government must ensure the plan does not fizzle out during the implementation phase and in the face of opposition from a lethargic administrative machinery. A similar arrangement with the BMC after the 2005 Mumbai floods did not bear fruit for many years and fell short of effectively tackling disasters in the city. The state-wide plan must be better laid out.


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