Events : Energy & Environment

Discussions on "Disaster Management"

Held on 27th April, 2006 at 6 PM

The Session started with the presentation by Vadm. PJ Jacob, Member, National Security Advisory Board, Govt. of India followed by discussions by Mr. R Srikumar, DGP & Director Fire and Emergency Services, Maj. Gen. Paul (Retd) and others.

Internationally, there is growing concern about the rising trend in economic losses from natural disasters. The year 2005 was marked by a series of destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic – closer home the devastation of the December 2004 tsunami was followed by unprecedented rainfall in Mumbai and an intense earthquake in Kashmir. Severe disruption of life due to flooding in Bangalore last October made disaster preparedness and management the hot topic in the city.

The seminar organised by the Bangalore International Centre featured two leading experts and practitioners of disaster management in the city – Vice Admiral PJ Jacob, former Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, and Mr Sri Kumar, Director-General of Police and Chairman and Managing Director of Karnataka State Police Housing Corporation (KSPHC). In presentations replete with photographs, maps, and video clips, they shared their insights and offered practical solutions to tackle the challenge of disaster management.

Facts and figures

We live in a highly vulnerable part of the world. Between 1993 and 2001, Asia accounted for 23% of the population affected by natural disasters. Due to hydro-geological factors, India is especially vulnerable to natural disasters: two-thirds of the total sown area of the country is drought-prone, 40 million hectares of land is liable to floods, and the coastline (particularly the east coast) is frequently visited by tropical cyclones. In the decade of 1990-2001, the country experienced four major cyclones, five major earthquakes, severe floods every year, and severe droughts every two-three years. Hence there is an urgent need to take a holistic approach to disaster management so that periodic shocks to the economy are minimized.

Paradigm shift

Adm Jacob emphasised that disaster management was traditionally thought of in terms of response and recovery, but now there is a paradigm shift in favour of preparedness and risk mitigation. In particular, the tsunami highlighted the need to take a multidimensional approach including scientific, engineering, financial, and social processes to mitigate disaster risk. Mr Sri Kumar also envisaged disaster management as a continuous process of learning and integration into development plans.

Key developments include the setting up of the National Disaster Management Authority under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, the drawing up of a National Disaster Management Plan with comprehensive road maps down to the local level, and the establishment of a dedicated National Disaster Response Force.

Adm Jacob highlighted the pivotal role of the armed forces in responding to disasters, given their advantages of mobility, communication, speed of response, discipline, and the resources at their disposal. During the Tsunami, for instance, the Navy launched simultaneous operations on the eastern and western coasts of India, Andaman, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The Army’s role in the Kashmir earthquake generated a lot of goodwill for the country. Mr Sri Kumar similarly talked about the key role of Civil Defence volunteers in such situations as their understanding of the local situation can aid in raising awareness, responding quickly, and keeping up morale.

Way forward

The biggest challenge in disaster management is time – both in terms of the time taken to collect accurate information in an ever changing situation, and in terms of the time required to mobilise manpower and relief materials. When a multitude of agencies is involved and there is an ambiguous chain of command, it is not easy to work in coordination and avoid duplication of efforts. Education and preparedness activities are also difficult in a country plagued by poverty, illiteracy, and corruption. Finally the information age in which we live creates its own complexities.

Adm Jacob emphasised that the need of the hour is effective implementation through the use of IT and GIS tools, supervision by an autonomous body, unbiased audits and corrective procedures, and realistic training and simulation. Mr Sri Kumar gave stress to education, public awareness, mock drills and simulation. A participant from KSRTC pointed out that the huge manpower of organisations like his own could be enlisted to effectively mobilise relief material in the aftermath of a disaster. Maj Gen Paul also called for the periodic documentation of developments, transparency in the transfer and use of funds, upgradation of disaster control rooms, and regular exercises with the defence services and Home Guards.

Mr Srikumar proposed that all information could be posted on a web server that can be accessed by anyone on the lines of the web-based project management system of the KSPHC (www.ksphc.org). Such a system could be invaluable in disseminating correct information to all stakeholders, those responsible for monitoring progress, and the public at large. Mr Srikumar felt that it could be applied to the time bound actions that form part of disaster management, and was confident that it could promote better delivery of goods and services. He suggested a public-private participation model with a network of information collection kiosks, and called for volunteers to develop, implement, and sustain the programme. His proposal struck a chord with one of the participants from the IT sector, who offered to help create a web-based community of volunteers.

Adm Jacob compared the handling of Hurricane Katrina with the decisive action taken in the Mumbai floods, which helped the city get back on its feet in 48 hours, and expressed optimism that we are headed in the right direction.