An excerpt from my mail to my children, this minute,
We in Perungalathur were sitting duck when the floodgates of Chembarapakkam Lake were opened without warning. The Residency was sturdy and well maintained and escaped with minimal damage. What is astounding is the way the staff at all levels turned up daily at grave risk. There are bed-ridden patients. They were 100% cared for. During the worst rains, duly protected by all my rain gear bought by Suja and Jagan, I went on a tour of our place with my camera on hand while it was pouring in torrents and shall mount the photos early in the net. All key personnel -maintenance, hospital,security, office etc. were in their duty stations with a cheer. The manager and security were on inspection tours.
Secondly, We from the Indian Audit & Accounts Department are no fools. We are neutral, tenacious and uncompromising. For 150 years, our Mantra is 'NO FEAR. NO FAVOUR'.
Why Chennai went down and under
Chennai rising Without control R Ragu
A CAG audit shows that the Centre and State governments have been criminally remiss over disaster management
The unprecedented and continuing rains that have broken a 100-year record and have wreaked havoc in Chennai for over a week, highlight both elaborate rescue and relief efforts as well as gaps in the existing policy on disaster planning. It is true that swift deployment of the armed forces to evacuate people in affected areas and extensive rehabilitation work by the government, various NGOs, not to mention high-spirited individuals, is laudable. But as the city limps back to normalcy, it is time for introspection.
Terror attacks, massive floods, earthquakes — every such event that occurs in India appears to follow a similar pattern. Public rage, condemnation of the government, massive relief efforts, and then, as a final touch, focus on the ‘spirit of the city and people’. But we need to ask ourselves if extolling the undying spirit is a cover-up for our indifference to the lacunae in the policies of the Centre and the State governments.
True, losses were unavoidable given the record-breaking rains that lashed across the city. But what made matters worse was that people were caught unawares by the flash floods in the absence of an effective early warning system or mitigation measures.
A look into the performance audit report of the disaster management mechanism in the country by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2013 offers some heart-rending insights. While the latest figures may differ slightly, the wide gaps in the system, across the disaster management cycle, are unlikely to have changed drastically.
The government of India notified the Disaster Management Act in December 2005, followed by a National Policy on Disaster Management in 2009. The NDMA at the national level, the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) at the state level and the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) at the local level have been provided as part of the institutional framework under these Acts. A typical disaster management plan essentially comprises prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction and recovery.
The CAG report found that the NDMA was ineffective in its functioning in most of the core areas.
Chennai is no stranger to heavy rains and cyclonic storms. The state of Tamil Nadu has been frequently subjected to cyclonic storms and flooding. The CAG report states that between 1900 and 2009, there were 50 cyclonic storms and, on an average, the State faces one or two severe cyclones during the northeast monsoon period. The low pressure and depression last for days, leading to heavy rainfall and flooding of vulnerable areas. It is inexcusable, then, that there was no disaster preparedness plan. According to the CAG report, the SDMA, constituted in 2008, did not meet even once, nor were State disaster management rules prepared.
Even as Chennai city got some respite, there was excessive discharge of water from Chembarambakkam lake — the reservoir had been in surplus because of the heavy rainfall. The sudden discharge that came without warning displaced even more people from their homes. Much of the devastation and chaos could have been averted had the authorities altered the residents beforehand.
One of the reasons why this may not have happened is because a large number of reservoirs and barrages in the country are not monitored at all for their water levels. The CAG report states that only eight States out of 29 had prepared emergency action plans for 192 large dams as against a total of 4,728 large dams as of September 2011. The ministry of water resources had not formulated an actionable plan for the management of floods in accordance with NDMA guidelines. There were 4,728 reservoirs and barrages in the country as of September 2011. The Central Water Commission, responsible for conservation and utilisation of water resources in the States, provided inflow forecasts with respect to only 28 reservoirs and barrages.
Let us look at the response systems. It is true that the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) formed as a special force to deal with all types of disasters, has been initiating massive rescue operations in the last couple of days in Chennai. But despite such elaborate efforts, you still hear appalling stories of families stranded in their homes for days without food or water, with no rescue in sight. The answer may lie in the inadequate and ineffective resources of the NDRF.
According to news reports, though there was a clear forecast of heavy rainfall, the State government requisitioned only a few teams of the NDRF. Had there been adequate forces, rescue operations would have been more effective. The shortage of manpower and inadequate specialised training are concerns that are highlighted in the CAG report. Also, the national policy on disaster management 2009 provided that the primary responsibility for disaster management rested with the States.
The aim was for each State to equip and train one battalion equivalent force known as the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF). According to the CAG report, till June 2012, only seven States had set up the force — Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, J&K and Nagaland. The need for every State to have its own SDRF team in place is evident from the hurdles the NDRF teams are facing now in Chennai. As many of these teams were called in from the north, the Hindi-speaking personnel have been unable to communicate with distressed residents. Also, precious time was lost in understanding the topography and receiving logistical support from local agencies; this impeded rescue operations.
Chennai and the 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand are clear wake-up calls. It is critical that effective disaster managing mechanisms are put in place to reduce the risks and damage from disasters to the maximum extent possible.
After all, disaster by definition means catastrophe or calamity that is beyond the coping capacity of the public. Let us not tag it as ‘unavoidable’ and attempt to shrug off responsibility for disasters, natural or manmade.
(This article was published on December 6, 2015)
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