India’s disaster management is itself a disaster

The September floods in the state of Jammu and Kashmir ran up losses of one trillion rupees. In last year’s floods in Uttarakhand,
about 30,000 lives were lost, according to unofficial estimates. PHOTO: REUTERS

Asit K. Biswas and Udisha Saklani

THE BUSINESS TIMES | December 9, 2014 

Throughout history, India’s disaster management has never been stellar. In recent years, it has become worse.

Take flood-related disasters. The September floods in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) ran up losses of one trillion rupees (S$21.3 billion), said chief secretary Mohammad Iqbal Khandey; of the sum, losses in the housing sector accounted for 300 billion rupees and losses from businesses, a further 700 billion rupees.

He said, as is often normally said after Indian disasters, that the main reason for the heavy damage was that such a flood had not occurred before; the reason the people suffered so much was that “this was no ordinary event.” Given this, how could the bureaucracy anticipate such a calamity – let alone plan for it?

Last year, another “unprecedented” flood struck the state of Uttarakhand. Unofficial estimates put the number of lives lost at around 30,000. The old refrain re-emerged – that such floods and mudslides could not have been foreseen, so the damage sustained was inevitable.

But these are only excuses; much could have been done to mitigate the impacts of the two events.

Note that Mr Iqbal never mentioned bad planning, poor land use practices in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar because of ingrained institutional incompetence, pervasive corruption, the absence of any serious disaster preparation, consistent lack of accountability of the elected politicians and the bureaucrats and near-total absence of any long-term thinking and planning.

The flood has since been described as a “one-in-a-hundred-year flood”. Why has Srinagar never considered structures which can withstand a one in a two-hundred-year flood, like Hong Kong has done?

More than 65 years after India’s independence, the government’s main approach to disaster management continues to be rooted in crisis management only after the crises have occurred. The country has consistently failed to make good long-term advance plans on how the potential impact of such disasters can be mitigated, and to set up institutions to implement them.

India established the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) in 2006. It was supposed to “build a safer and disaster-resilient India by a holistic, proactive, technology-driven and sustainable development strategy that involved all stakeholders and fostered a culture of prevention, preparedness and mitigation”.

It runs on an annual budget of 35.6 billion rupees.

By any metrics, the NDMA has failed miserably and been ineffective. India’s comptroller and auditor-general said last year that it was not functional, and its project management capacity was “deficient.” No major project it has taken up has ever been completed. It was in such a state of disarray when the Kashmir flood occurred that it was operating without a head; eight of its nine members had resigned.

The main objective of having nine members in the agency appeared to be to provide highly-paid jobs to retired or about-to-retire senior civil servants, instead of to competent disaster-management professionals.

The NDMA is indeed dysfunctional. Proper communication between the various flood disaster-management agencies simply does not exist. For example, in the case of the Srinagar floods, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had noticed unprecedented rainfall in the Jhelum catchment area near Kashmir, and the Central Water Commission (CWC) data showed that water levels in the Jhelum River had been rising steadily. It would not have taken much to predict that Srinagar was likely to be inundated, and that a “severe flood” warning should have gone out and an evacuation effort initiated.

Information simply did not flow from one institution to another. There was not a single intelligent official from any institution who could predict a disaster was in the making.

Climate change has now become a convenient bogeyman for all the ills of the world – from Ebola to the war in Syria to the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods, but this is, of course, utter nonsense.

Unfortunately, Indian institutions that should have coordinated their activities did not talk or listen to each other. All are fiercely independent, protecting their turf, and strong believers in the “not invented here” syndrome. Thus, the IMD and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) knew there was heavy rainfall and the CWC knew the river levels were increasing dangerously. Yet, the NDMA and other agencies were blissfully unaware of the impending disaster. Hundreds of Kashmiris lost their lives because of such institutional incompetence.

The Uttarakhand and Kashmir disasters were exacerbated by corrupt city officials who had allowed illegal construction activities. In Srinagar, old canals meant for draining floodwaters were filled up for the building of other infrastructure such as roads. Wetlands in flood-prone areas all over India are routinely drained for the construction of new houses.

When a severe flood occurs, water with nowhere to go ends up flooding the urban areas.

Sadly, the bureaucrats and politicians who let all these malpractices occur are seldom held accountable.

Indian institutions need to move from their 19th century passive-mindsets of simple monitoring. They must become proactive and ensure their findings are promptly passed on to the institutions whose work will start with that information.

For example, if the IMD and the CWC are held to account in ensuring that the information gleaned from their monitoring work is always proactively and immediately passed to the NDMA and other related state and central institutions, flood disaster management in India will improve.

Hurricane Katrina forced the USA to review and restructure its Federal Emergency Management Agency; after the serious disasters in Uttarakhand and Kashmir, one can only hope that disaster management in India would undergo a similar, radical transformation.

Sadly, we are not optimistic. Like in the past, another report by a commission or task force is likely to gather dust on the shelves until the next disaster strikes.

The writers are, respectively, the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico; and a research assistant in the same school.

Article published in The Business Times, December 9, 2014