Tuesday, December 13, 2011

COVER STORY: Disaster Management: Not on Disaster-Mode



Disaster Management: Not on Disaster-Mode

Even after seven years of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami, the pace of the Directorate of Disaster Management is ordinary with obstacles at every turn, and is supposed to switch to disaster-mode in the event of a calamity. Equipped with an excellent Disaster Management Plan, the Directorate is facing severe resource crunch - man, material and machinery.

By Zubair Ahmed

The year 2004 and the month December will remain etched in the memory of the Islanders for centuries to come. A disaster of that magnitude was beyond their apprehension. They are quite often told that the Islands learnt a very different and unusual lesson from that experience, which nobody would like to experience once again to learn from it. They learnt what a tsunami is. They also learnt what disaster mismanagement is and how and why not to be complacent and placid in disaster preparedness.
When that massive earthquake and the gigantic tsunami waves hit the islands on December 26, 2004, every individual responsible to act in the crisis was at his wits end; right from the Assistant Commissioner in Campbell Bay to the Chief Secretary in Port Blair. The Administration was in a state of paralysis till afternoon. Nobody can blame anybody as the event was unprecedented one and nobody had a clue how to react or respond to it.
That was seven years ago. In the meantime, a very large body of work has been done and huge sums of money spent on Disaster Mitigation, Relief and Rehabilitation. After a good four years, in 2008 under Disaster Management Act 2005, the Administration formed a separate Directorate.

Unfortunately, even after three years of its formation, the Directorate is still on life support gasping for resources - it seriously lacks man, machinery and materials. The Administration expects all line departments to shift into disaster mode in case of any eventuality, when the process of equipping the Directorate is still in babudom-mode. Privately everybody agrees that in the event of a disaster of half the intensity of 2004, the Disaster Management Authorities would be caught napping again. The core issue is that red-tapism and the usual bureaucratic snares are pulling back the process of setting up a fool-proof Directorate on fast track mode. Lest we forget that disasters never wait for us to get prepared at our own convenience.
The Directorate is headed by Ashok Kumar Sharma, in a diverted capacity from Industries Department. All of his lieutenants are also on deputation from various departments. The proposal for 128 posts has been clipped by MHA with only 36 core posts approved, which is yet to materialize. All the staffs manning the control room are presently on contract, a very unreliable and disastrous proposition. Training and equipping the contract staff might not be of much assistance to the directorate.
The basic communication network connecting the 35 dispersed Islands is not in place. In worst case scenario the land based communication network like telephone and mobile services fail. Even if the mobile communication works, the landline fails. Mobile service is jammed due to congestion. The procurement of satellite communication equipments is still under process. Procuring and usage of latest communication devices needs prompt approval from various agencies. 'We are unable to use Iridium network and will have to rely on the old Inmarsat," informed an official.
The Directorate doesn't have vehicles of their own. A few scrapped jeeps abandoned by NGOs are being used by the Directorate. "There is a ban on vehicle procurement, but we will pursue the matter seriously," Abraham Varickamakkal, Secretary, RR had said during an interaction at DDM conference hall.
There is lack of sufficient data about the vulnerable coastal areas prone to tsunami, which requires digital alleviation modeling with one-metre contour survey. Central government departments like Geological Survey of India too do not have the latest data with them. The Directorate is trying to get support from Ministry of Earth Sciences.
The mandate of the Directorate is capacity building, training and creating awareness with emphasis on preparedness. Every department should have their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) ready. It is learnt that most of the departments have already prepared the SOPs. The installations of warning system, sirens lie with the Police department. It costs about Rs 23 Lakhs and each siren will cover an area of 2.5 km radius. About 300 sirens have to be installed. The matter is still under process. There is a siren installed in the secretariat that works during drills but fails in case of real earthquake. It is audible only to the staff in secretariat.
The pace of work is not different from any other department. However, it is expected that the whole system switches to disaster-mode in case of any disaster.
In the meantime, the Directorate within its limited resources has been successful in putting together a comprehensive Disaster Management Plan, in the absence of which the response in any eventuality would be ad-hoc and tentative leading to over emphasis on some actions and absence of other critical actions. The promising document has been validated and sent for final approval. Many suggestions from the main supporting agencies - APWD, ANC and Police were brought to the notice to be incorporated in the final document.
The snail pace of our preparedness cannot be blamed on the Administration alone. MHA too plays a major part. In the last seven years the subject was treated like a burden thrust upon the state. To everyone involved it was a subject to be handled in addition to his own duties. Obviously it got a casual and routine treatment.  However, in a meeting held for validation and finalization of the Disaster Management Plan, the representation of the line departments was quite encouraging.
"The support from other departments was not much in the beginning and it was not very easy to shift their focus from their routine job to disaster preparedness mode," said Ashok Kumar Sharma, Director, DDM. "But now after continuous persuasion, the departments are taking things seriously and most of them were actively involved in putting together the Disaster Management Plan," he added.
Three statutory bodies are formed at different levels for proper planning and coordination of Disaster Management. A&N UT Disaster Management Authority (ANUTDMA) is headed by the Lt Governor, which has the MP also as a member. Earlier, there was no representation by the public representative in the core group. The UT Disaster Management Executive Committee (UTDMEC) has the Chief Secretary on top. In every district, District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) with the Deputy Commissioner as the Chairperson and Adhyaksha, Zilla Parishad as Co-Chairperson has been formed. However, like every activity at district level, once again the revenue staff will be at the helm of the affairs at grass-root level.
Another grey area, where the focus is yet to reach is identification of vulnerable installations like LPG Plant and Dams. LPG, as it comes under chemical disaster, it has to be dealt by the Dept of Environment and Forests. How much the department is prepared is anybody's guess.
Disaster preparedness is not a subject, to be dealt in the most lethargic way. It needs speedy, efficient and prompt action. Although, a document is ready, it's more important that the contents percolate to the lowest level and a target date is set. The awareness programmes in all panchayats and other PRIs should be timebound. The Islands should be able to achieve complete disaster awareness within the timeframe set. Or, we will be learning another hard lesson in case of a disaster.

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