Disastrous Management of India ?

This writer was recently invited to an experience sharing one day Workshop jointly organized by UNDP and the National Centre for Good Governance ( NCGG) at New Delhi. One could say that it was an attempt to share the take-aways of an unprecedented natural disaster event that had occurred in Uttarakhand nearly a year ago. There was no doubt in the minds of all those who participated in that sharing experience that it was difficult to visualize a situation which could ever exceed the gravity of the situation that was experienced as an aftermath, and high-lighted many a short-comings that came to the fore. It was a natural calamity, where while the Union Government cornered all the glory, if there was any, of being pro-active, primarily owing to the stellar role played by the two wings of our Armed Forces, the Army and the Air Force, the Government of Uttarakhand suffered, most by way of a negative publicity. Uttarakhand Government, while it received support from all quarters, is yet to fully internalize all major learnings and it is indeed difficult to say how many years it will take to come back to the stage of development it was, on that fateful night of the 16th June, 2013. Even in the Workshop there was no evidence to suggest that the permanent bureaucracy, especially its senior echelons, have been shaken from the stupor in which they were caught at the time of this tragic happening. The UNDP-NCGG event was one where participants expected a far better participation, sense of involvement and a clear evidence that the state would be found far better prepared, the next time over. However, that is something to be closely monitored.

Another Shocking Reminder

Arguably if the Uttarakhand officials have not been shocked by the gravity of the June 2013 tragedy, the current tale of woes being unfolded daily by dozens of electronic channels and all news-papers, should be a most timely reminder to them and perhaps all mountain states of India as to how miserably inadequate their preparations have been found in respect of the entire range of disaster management regime. One experience that stands out, twice within a short span of one year, with perhaps deafening impact, is a total collapse of all communication links – telephones, mobiles and electronic communication. There is absolutely no doubt that the sum total of the entire J&K human tragedy has been blacked out by this single failure, breaking down of all modes of communication ! As far this writer is concerned his main take-away from the UNDP event was this single major learning, that in the remotest areas of any mountain state, what is urgently needed is a fail-safe and effective communication channel, which is stand-alone and managed by the local community. The J&K experience has yet again reminded every body that an effective, stand-alone and community run Community Radio system, seems to be the only way out. Soon after my return to Dehradun this writer took up this matter with the DMMC and the promoters of the two Community Radios that this state is presently experimenting with. From remote Nagaland former Chief Secretary, Alemtemshi Jamir, also wrote to this writer, underscoring the need to look at the entire range of technological solutions. Positioning of sustainable, community managed communication systems, like the community radios, is easily one major action-item for the remote mountain regions, that gets underlined by this second shocking reminder inside a year of our own Kedarnath tragedy.  

Centre versus the States

If Uttarakhand government was caught-flatfooted at the on-set of the June 2013 over-flooding of the Mandakini watershed, the J & K Government, as per the reports, was nowhere to be seen during the first seven days of this unprecedented calamity ! If the rescue and relief operations in the Kedar-ghati were accidently kick-started via the commercial flights which were in operation during the yatra-season ( according to Captain Buxi ) and thereafter it was the Armed Forces and the helicopter wing of the Air Force, supported by the NRDF and ITBP units, in the J&K operations, it has exclusively been an Armed Forces show. It has been pointed out that, with the state government totally incapacitated overwhelmed and literally marooned and under-water, what has been questioned is the way the most important apex institution, namely the National Disaster Management Authority ( NDMA ), has been incapacitated by the Union Government. Under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, the main role of co-ordination and related operations in a calamity of the size that has been witnessed in J&K, remained with this NDMA. The NDMA, as the state machinery literally went-under water, which was expected to supervise and co-ordinate all inter -ministerial and other rescue and relief operation, especially the co-ordination between the Centre and the state agencies, as well as the relief that arrives from outside the state, remains dysfunctional. The Disaster Management architecture, which came into existence in 2005, moves around the apex body constituted at the national level, namely the NDMA. It is leant that NDMA as the state battles with a massive rescue and relief operation remains without any staff at all !

Whatever lessons were learned during the June 2013 operations in Uttarakhand and subsequently in Orissa and some coastal regions, was expected to come handy during the current calamity. However, the current learning has totally by-passed the NDMA, as there is no one either to share the past learning and implement the same, far worse, there is nothing by way of a learning from an event which was visited after more than one hundred years ! In a conflict-torn Jammu & Kashmir, where presence of Armed Forces and para-military outfits, which bore almost the entire burden of rescue and immediate relief, is already come under stress as the normal situation gets restored in the valley. The discontended elements which had remained dormant during the worst part of the calamity are said to be already targeting the Armed force units engaged in rescue and relief-works, resuming their resistance. It is quite on the cards that as soon as flood waters recede, Armed Fore units and para –military units, return back to their barracks and attend to their own original tasks ( including restoring their own establishments like flooded Cantonment area, Base hospital etc ) the post-relief and recovery operations in the affected areas going to bring –up very difficult situations.

In this particular calamity if the state government was found totally unprepared much of the post-event situation is unlikely to be a compliment to the Union Government either, as there seems no preparation on their part fine-tuned to effectively tackling the multiple-needs of post  event relief and rehabilitation operations via NDMA and SDMA route, as designed under the Disaster Management national architecture. All these shortcomings point to our lackadaisical attitude towards managing disasters in our country.


Federal Polity under Strain

Of most of the achievements which have so far been proclaimed by the Modi Government on completion of 100 days in office their over-all impact on the small and mountain states seems not to be very favourable, as of now. Doing away with the Planning Commission means depriving the small and mountain states a forum which they had lately used somewhat effectively to voice their difficulties, at least once a year, through the National Development Council ( NDC ). The claim for the Green Bonus, which was recommended by the outgoing Planning Commission, is likely to remain in abeyance till an opportunity appears again before the mountain states to remind the Prime Minister Narendra Modi about it. Yet another recommendation, namely reducing the number of Centrally Sponsored Schemes ( CSSs) to a manageable number and simplification and decentralisation of devolution of resources, also seems to be receiving a short-shrift, as every day seems a day for announcement of one new scheme or the other, without any consultations whatsoever with the States. All in all, the Federal structure of the polity, seems to be entering a period of severe strain, as all new administrative structures are under a process of re-structuring and the restructuring is more political rather than objectively re-moulded. Keeping the main positions of NDMA without any office –bearers, creating a vacuum at the apex disaster management architecture level, will need some explanation from the concerned Ministry and the Prime Minister himself.


‘Acting First and Thinking Later’ may be a politically-correct approach but it is always going to be synonymous with ‘Good Governance’, it is difficult to assume. The flip-side of dismantling of the NDMA and the Planning Commission, unilaterally in this mode, are two case studies which are going to receive critical appraisal, through a Federal polity-lens. Modi Government would be better advised and reminded about the existence of states, particularly the mountain states, which have always been taken for granted, major decisions being always taken without appreciating their weak and unsustainable financial conditions and their proneness to multiple-natural hazards, the latter pushing back their progress backwards within a matter of days. Uttarakhand 2013 and now J & K 2014 are but two such sharp but very telling reminders of this early-warning.

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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