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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Disaster Management in Ind

NEW DELHI: When the earth shook in China, and the wind came screaming at the Burmese, it left in its wake human debris like so many dreams, families and futures, all broken and twisted, floating in a muddy sea of misery. In a world where climate change has entered the everyday lexicon, extreme weather events are expected to be more frequent, intense and unforgiving. Given this, it becomes critical for a country to have in place institutional framework and mechanisms to tackle contingencies arising from natural disasters. The effectiveness of such a system will be crucial if future audits of human catastrophes are to bear a more balanced look. ET takes a look at India's level of preparedness in the face of a natural calamity.

Disaster management, the science of managing the effects of a human calamity, stands on the twin pillars of mitigation and response. If disaster management is the sum of all efforts taken to reduce the effects of a disaster, mitigation is what goes before the D-day and response is what comes after. Response is the visible face of disaster management, involving such things as search and rescue, distribution of relief and post-disaster reconstruction; things that lend itself easily to a human interest story.

Mitigation however, is the slow business of training, educating, capacity building and the changing of mindsets, which is both slower, boring and thus invisible. And yet, as experiences worldwide have shown, a community that is aware, has basic training and thus better prepared, is also a lot more resilient to a crisis in both economic and human terms.

Prof Santosh Kumar of National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) says, "We need to shift focus from the visibles to the invisibles. Everyone is interested in disaster response because of its high visibility. State governments are not interested in investing in mitigation because the government cannot claim credit for its efforts unless a calamity hits the community while it is in power and hence there is no focus on disaster mitigation. But disaster response measures only have short-term gain and do not result in risk reduction. It can take up to four hours for help to reach an affected community. Therefore the initial response has to be from within the community and is crucial."

Knowledge forms the keystone of empowerment and its easy to see why a community that knows for instance, how to survive under debris for 10 days and is trained in basic life saving skills, would have lesser casualties in an earthquake. Kumar says that the paradigm change in India, from response-based to mitigation-based disaster management happened post the Gujarat earthquake in 2001.

Disaster response education has now been incorporated in the CBSE and ICSE high school syllabi with a special emphasis on school projects as this has been seen to involve even the parents, thus expanding the circle of education. Also included in this drive is the B.Ed. curriculum for teachers and the MBBS hospital administration course since, as Mr Kumar points out, a hospital has to remain functional in a crisis and therefore has to have structural, logistical and organization features built into its setup, unlike the Bhuj hospital which completely collapsed in the Gujarat earthquake.

An interesting aspect of disaster education has been the role of traditional knowledge vis-a-vis disaster mitigation. When the December 26th tsunami hit the Nicobar coast, while the nearby Indian air force base lost many lives, the Nicobaris, a small primitive tribe with no contact with modern civilization, withstood the worst with zero casualties. What helped them apart from their small numbers was also a cache of traditional know-how that many communities around the world living in regions given to certain vulnerabilities, have developed over many generations.

Therefore the ubiquity of the banana tree, found in almost every home in flood prone districts; the bananas and the pith for food, the large water-proof leaves as adhoc containers and the floatable trunks fashioned into a getaway raft . NIDM is documenting these traditional know-hows and incorporating them into its own awareness campaigns.

"It's also a question of mindset," says Kumar. "Things like having a family level disaster plan and a disaster survival kit that would support a family for, say, three days or the use of simple measures like having a bucket of sand in the house in the case of fire, which costs nothing. Our job (at NIDM) is to take this agenda to the local level. Sensitize and change mindsets. Local solutions are critical and hence the strengthening of local governance will be crucial."


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