Brig Anil Gupta
The three pillars of any successful management of disaster are the three ‘R’s, ie, Rescue, Relief and Rehabilitation. Recently the Jammu and Kashmir State has been struck by a massive disaster resulting into huge losses of property and infrastructure. The losses are estimated to be approximately
Rs 60,000 crores and the figure is likely to rise by the time the final assessment is made. The disaster has struck all segments of the society; rich/poor, businessmen/ farmers, employees/ daily wagers, government servants/public servants and rural/ urban. Many have lost their lives, shelters, means of livelihood and fertile lands. But one thing they have not lost is the hope and this is most important. It is about to be a month since the incessant rains wreaked havoc in the state and thus time to take stock of the things. Genuine mistakes are pardonable but repeated mistakes of the same kind amount to criminal negligence and the defaulters need to be held accountable. Unfortunately, we did not learn lessons from the earlier disasters that struck the state or from similar disasters that hit the other states in the country. Infact, a number of studies on flood control carried out by the concerned departments as well as other government/private agencies had been blatantly ignored in the past and one hopes that the culprits would be brought to the book by the concerned authorities. This exercise is aimed at conducting a critical appraisal of the recent disaster and hopefully assists the authorities in carrying out mid-course corrections wherever needed.
The disaster management process is not linear and hence does not have distinct phaselines and the three stages of rescue, relief and rehabilitation overlap. But for ease of clarity and easy assimilation these are being discussed separately and in a sequence. The most critical phase of any disaster is rescue because the loss of human lives needs to be minimised. A lot has been written in the media about the role played by the different agencies and the failure of the government to rise to the occasion during the initial stages of the disaster. While, a coordinated effort was needed to rescue the people, the aspect of coordination was missing. This resulted in large scale anger and resentment among the affected people and their kith and kin in unaffected areas and other parts of the country including baseless charges of favouritism and alleged policy of pick and choose. The national electronic media also faulted by concentrating their coverage to parts of Srinagar city and ignoring other equally or worse affected areas. By asking similar repeated questions while travelling in rescue boats they conveyed an impression of orchestrated ‘psy war’ resulting into negative dividends. Apart from lack of coordination in rescue operations the crucial aspect of media management was also lacking. The reasons for lackadaisical performance of the State machinery are inadequate preparation, lack of leadership at all levels, lack of dedication and willingness to accept the challenge. All this was compounded by the breakdown of communication. Any robust and reliable communication system should have built in redundancy. Our arch enemy and immediate neighbour Pakistan is in possession of nuclear weapons and there is lurking fear that these may land in the hands of terrorists and other non-state actors. To cater for such an eventuality our communication system needs to be ‘nuclear hardened’ as well. Also being a frontier state and to ensure uninterrupted command and control under any eventuality the State Government needs to establish one or two (main and alternative) command posts. The Jammu wing of the State Information Department should have swung into action for media management. Where was the State Media Advisor appointed with great fanfare a couple of years ago? The ethos of ‘Nation First’ needs to be inculcated in the public servants. To serve the public is their foremost responsibility and it cannot be shirked at the time of crisis. Despite all this, it is to the credit of the Indian Armed Forces, National Disaster Rescue Force and elements of Central Armed Police Force that nearly two lakh people were rescued to safer places.
The Central Government was prompt enough to open its doors for provision of relief assistance. Assistance to the tune of Rs. 21,000 crore was announced in the first two days itself with the assurance that it is just the beginning. The whole nation was moved and the relief material started pouring in from every nook and corner of the country. But here again the administration was found wanting and were unprepared and ill-equipped to receive, handle and distribute the relief material. The aim in the relief phase is to provide succour to the victims. Instead, the victims were rescued to disorganised relief camps where they were left to fend for themselves. A few social organisations and the army once again came to the rescue of the people by providing them food, lodging and medical care. A total policy paralysis existed as far as the government was concerned. It was not only disappointing but discouraging as well to note that tons of rice was left to be rotten at Udhampur Railway Station when the victims were crying for rations. Lack of coordination, empathy and initiative were the main causes for a tardy response to the urgent needs of the victims. Proper plans did not exist. If at all they existed, the major functionaries did not know about them nor were they ever rehearsed. Rather than ensuring smooth flow of the relief material hindrances like toll tax on the highway and entry tax at Lakhanpur put spokes and delayed the move of relief material. Once again the Ministry of Surface Transport, Government of India was quick enough in issuing orders for exemption of toll tax while the state government kept dithering and took almost three weeks to issue necessary instructions regarding exemption of entry tax. In nutshell the element of Hamdardi was missing. Rather than providing a red carpet to the volunteer organisations that were sending truck- loads of relief materialthey were subjected to the usual bureaucratic red tape. As the things started improving those who were not to be seen anywhere when the chips were down started emerging from their safe hideouts and projected themselves as well wishers, watch dogs and messiahs. Politicisation of the relief process fuelled further anger amongst the victims and a demand of delinking the ruling government from relief and rehabilitation became louder.
Constitution of relief committees at various levels comprising prominent citizens and members of different political parties to oversee distribution of relief is advocated. The relief must reach to the victims rather than other way round. Only the genuine victims must get the benefit and no extraneous considerations should be allowed to influence the distribution of relief.
Rehabilitation again consists of three ‘R’s; repair, restoration and replacement. The losses suffered by the victims must be accurately assessed using empathy and not the rule book. Immediate repair work to bring normalcy should commence earliest followed by restoration and replacement. In the current situation, the government machinery was not geared up to face such a catastrophe hitting most parts of the state simultaneously. The SDRF requires a complete revamp. Complete assets available in the disaster zone and belonging to different agencies need to be summoned and committed by the district administration. This would be only feasible if proper liaison and coordination is done regularly and a proper data base maintained. This data bank needs periodic updating. This phase needs huge funds in addition to the machinery. Misuse of funds needs to be curbed so that the genuine victims get adequate compensation for the losses suffered. The compensation money should be directly credited into the bank accounts of the victims to minimise fraud. The district administration be made responsible to ensure that the compensation money is used for the purpose meant and not misused. Every affected village/colony must make watch-dog teams to ensure that there is no compromise in quality of work being undertaken by the government through contractors. Scope of work, funds allotted and the PDC (probable date of completion) should be prominently displayed at each site for the watch-dog team to monitor.In the current scenario this phase has yet to commence. Hopefully by then, the entire government machinery would be functional and work on war footing to ensure that maximum people are rehabilitated before the onset of winter. This would be the acid test of the government’s sincerity and efficiency.