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Our disaster management is a disaster

Sushant SinghAt Quora, the website which promises to get great answers to our questions, one recent entry caught my eye: “Should Hurricane Sandy hit Mumbai to clean the garbage in the city? Mumbai is very untidy, people throw trash on roads, highways, the stations are pathetic. So I guess Hurricane Sandy can at least clean the trash here.” Thankfully, the question was tagged as #sarcasm, and has been flagged as needing attention from moderators. “What on earth could possibly make you look at a hurricane as a natural vacuum cleaner?” was the first answer, an instinctive response for most of us.

While this exchange is a telling comment on our civic amenities and municipal services, it also points to our casual approach towards natural disasters.

Not only are the government agencies ill-prepared for disaster management, the public is equally unconcerned about the perils of a natural disaster. Take the example of Mumbai. On July 26, 2005, the city received 994mm of rain, the eighth heaviest ever recorded 24-hour rainfall figure. It resulted in overflows from an already inadequate drainage system.

The 2005 floods in Mumbai
Deluge: The 2005 floods in Mumbai

The overflow failed to drain out to the sea because of the maximum high tide level of 4.48m at that time. The deluge claimed the lives of 900 people and left thousands stranded across the city. A CORFU study blamed damming of upper reaches of the rivers, infilling and levelling of the first and second order streams, constriction of the mouth of Mithi River and Mahim Bay and reclamation of riverine wetlands for the disaster. Siltation and clogging of drainage arteries resulted in reduction of river widths and depths compounding the problem of flooding.

Encroachments inside the riverbed as well as on the banks choked and constricted the water courses, and aggravated flooding risks.

Following the 2005 floods, city authorities drew up an extensive plan to overhaul the storm-water drainage system and develop the Mithi river to create outlets for water. As this newspaper reported on June 29 2012- (7 yrs and crores later, flood control projects still incomplete), although crores of rupees have been spent, none of these projects have been completed. The public doesn’t seem to care either. We rarely engage our local representatives on this critical issue. Flood control projects remain incomplete, and the city is as ill-prepared for a deluge as it was seven years ago.

If this is the state of Mumbai’s preparedness, imagine the situation in the rest of the country. Southern India was devastated by a tsunami in 2004 leading to a loss of almost 15,000 lives. Following Cyclone Thane in December 2011, Tamil Nadu government created a State Disaster Rescue Force (SDRF). Two SDRF teams, of 35 personnel each, were deployed during the recent Cyclone Nilam. Although an improvement on the past, this is still grossly inadequate.

For one-off disasters like cyclones and tsunamis, the lack of pre-emptive plans, and rescue and relief measures can be fathomed in a developing country like India with limited resources and poor governance. But nothing explains the failure to mitigate the floods which strike Assam, Bihar and Odisha every year. This when the flood damages suffered across the country, between 1953 and 2010, are pegged at Rs 8,12,500 crore, and the government has spent about Rs 1,26,000 crore on flood control (both at 2011 prices).

Here is why. To formulate the Twelfth Plan, Planning Commission constituted a Working Group on flood management. Even when the primary responsibility for flood control lies with the states, their representatives in the working group (principal secretaries of Bihar, Assam, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Kerala) were missing from group’s deliberations. The states did not provide information about flood management works or their requirement of funds for flood prevention. There is no credible database with the states on frequency of flooding, duration and depth of inundation.

The Centre is no better. It launched the National Flood Control Programme in 1954 which led to the creation of National Flood Commission in 1976.

Tasked to evolve a coordinated, integrated and scientific approach to flood control and to draw a national plan, the commission submitted the report in 1980. The report was accepted by the government but its recommendations were not implemented. In 2001, the government set up an expert committee to review the implementation of recommendations. The report of the expert committee is still under examination in the Ministry of Water Resources.

Forget plans and policies, we still don’t have an accurate assessment of flood affected area in the country. No wonder, the severity of floods and the agony brought out by them still persists.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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